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The Art of the Cassoulet at Back Forty

Every winter, chef Peter Hoffman hosts a Cassoulet tasting at his Soho restaurant Back Forty, a worthy tradition carried over from dearly departed Savoy, which occupied the same location from 1990–2011.

The only constants in cassoulet are an earthenware pot and white beans. Almost any meats can be included, but duck leg and pork sausage are the most common. Savoy itself used to serve a terrific cassoulet, which it prepared in the upstairs fireplace. We had it in 2009.

There’s a cult of cassoulet, and even a Universal Cassoulet Academy devoted to the dish. Philippe Bertineau, the Academy’s only member based in America, serves an acclaimed cassoulet at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit. I suppose it would be too much to expect him to serve it at Back Forty.

Nevertheless, Hoffman assembled a worthy sextet of chefs (click on the menu for a larger image), including two from his pair of Back Forty restaurants.

The format isn’t ideal. You grab a napkin and fork, walk to serving stations (two downstairs, four upstairs), and take appetizer-sized portions of cassoulet, one at a time. Most of the tables have been removed, so you sit on benches along the outer edge of the dining room, balancing plates and bowls in your lap. It inevitably feels and tastes more like catering than dining.

There were staggered reservations between 6:30 and 7:30, and it was an advantage to arrive early. By the time we left, the later crowd was arriving and, for the most part, eating their cassoulet without a place to sit.

Within these constraints, the staff are efficient: checking coats, clearing plates promptly (you’re expected to re-use your fork), and patrolling the room with wine refills. You can’t beat the price: $65 including wines, before tax and tip, and the proceeds benefit the New Amsterdam Market.


There was hardly a bad dish among the bunch, but neither of the first two were among our favorites. Jonah Miller of Huertas (above left) served a bland mix of yellow eyes, pork shoulder, chorizo, morcilla, and pickled carrots. Hillary Sterling of Back Forty West (above right) chose heirloom beans, cotechino, confit rabbit, and braised bacon. The rabbit didn’t stand out, but the bacon rescued the dish.


Scott Bridi of Brooklyn Cured (above) coaxed very little flavor out of duck fennel sausage, and pork rinds simply didn’t belong. He must have drawn the short straw, as he was the only chef who served on flat plates, which are ill-suited to cassoulet.


David Tanis of One Good Dish made exactly that (above), a cassoulet with duck leg and lardons. This was our second-favorite of the evening.


Seamus Mullen of Turtulia made a worthy effort (above left), with pork belly, butifarra (a Catalan sausage), and red pepper. It would have won the bronze medal if this were the cassoulet olympics.

Michael Laarhoven of Back Forty had home-court advantage (and use of the fireplace), and he made the most of it, preparing the best cassoulet of the evening (above right), with smoked lamb belly, duck confit, and andouille sausage.

Later on, the staff came around with a lame radicchio salad and an even lamer sorbet, neither of which we really needed after all that cassoulet.

Despite the limitations of the format, Peter Hoffman does a great service with his annual cassoulet dinner. It’s indispensable for anyone who loves this classic dish.

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