by Lou Mancinelli
It was one of those nights in life when he was perfect. He said all the right things. He was at a dinner party also attended by then head of the Drexel University Hospitality and Restaurant Management Program who had asked Dr. Lynn Hoffman how he would convince a skeptical faculty that a culinary arts program belonged in the hospitality and culinary department.
“I wanted to see the food as being bigger than just the kitchen,” said Hoffman, author, journalist, anthropologist and former professor, chef and merchant seaman. Hoffman, a six-year Mt. Airy resident, created Drexel’s culinary arts program in 1989 after the aforementioned conversation led to the opportunity. At the time, he was a food writer.
For more than 25 years, Hoffman wrote about wine and beer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Magazine. “The Bachelor’s Cat,” his first novel, was published in 1997.
“The bachelor he created is authentic, from his hangovers, messy rowhouse and messed-up relationships to his soft inner core where the cat curls inside,” wrote the Newark Star Ledger about the book. “Although there are crises, the ending is sweet without being insipid.”
Since then Hoffman has published two additional novels, including last year’s “Philadelphia Personal,” which he describes as a grown-up’s “50 Shades of Grey,” and two non-fiction books about wine and beer.
Hoffman was raised in an international neighborhood in Brooklyn. The son of a Hungarian Jew/converted Catholic father and an Irish Catholic mother, he attended Hobart College in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1965. He worked in a restaurant while he went to grad school at Maxwell School of Anthropology at Syracuse University and realized he preferred the kitchen to the repute of academia.
“It was all sorts of bullshit,” said Hoffman, 68, about grad school. “Not that it was meaningless bullshit. But it was bullshit nonetheless. The kitchen didn’t have that.”
In the kitchen he started at the lowest position, cutting bags of onions, tying short ribs together to be braised and various housekeeping duties. For him, the kitchen was a place where any person from any neighborhood could work hard and succeed. All people were accepted there. When he finished his Ph.D. in 1973, he also worked as a chef.
After school, he moved to St. Croix in the Caribbean, meaning to stay for a few weeks but wound up staying for four years. He figured he could produce field research and be next to the sea at the same time. Hoffman wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with anthropology. He worked as a teacher, worked in an Italian restaurant and eventually opened his own 50-seat Italian ‘red gravy’ restaurant in St. Croix, La Piazza, which he owned and operated for 17 months.
“I found that I liked restaurants better than graduate school because there was a better class of people in the restaurants,” said Lynn, “but I was way overtrained for St. Croix. It was like a small town, and I got bored after a while. I loved sailing, but there is a limit to how much energy you can pull from that, and there was a definite need for good conversation. St. Croix was even smaller than it appeared.”
He moved to Philadelphia in 1976 to become a graphic artist. “It had the kind of street rhythm I was used to. I almost starved to death for about seven years,” he said, half-joking, about his early years here. He liked that Philadelphia was relatively cheap. He bought a home in Fairmount with the money in his bank account.
In the early ’80s, he started to write restaurant criticism for The Welcomat, which evolved into the Philadelphia Weekly a decade later. He also wrote essays and movie reviews. From 1988-2003 he worked as a food writer and taught culinary arts at various institutions, including Drexel, where he served as a Scholar in Residence in Food and Culture in the Hotel and Restaurant Management Program.
For Hoffman, the culinary arts are about creating an intense experience for the senses of those who come to one’s restaurant and eat one’s food. He faced the challenge of answering why a student would come to a four-year program at Drexel instead of a two-year program at an established culinary school. He strove to teach students why food is a cultural experience, using anthropology, studying the roots of things, as his intellectual homeland.
Before he wrote his first novel, Hoffman never penned fiction of any sort. It was through talks with friends that an idea came to him. We all have these bachelor’s cats. It’s the job you have before you find your career.
“I seriously maintain the only reason I ever got married was to get a cat,” said Hoffman. In the late 1980s he met and married Judith Sills, a psychologist. The now-divorced couple had one child, Spencer, a daughter, in 1988. Hoffman’s advance from “The Bachelor’s Cat” funded Spencer’s college education. Out of 10 book publishers who were approached, seven made a bid on it, and Hoffman selected the highest bid, $180,000, from HarperCollins. He has sold movie rights for the book two times and recorded an audio book.
In fact, after he published his first attempt at fiction and got paid, he thought it was his arrival into the den of writers’ luxury. He thought he had arrived at a place where he could write and be paid for it consistently. But no one published his second novel.
He didn’t publish fiction again until 2007’s “bang Bang” (Kunati, Inc.), a story inspired by a Philadelphia gun crime. A year before, he published “The New Short Course on Wine” (Prentice Hall), a guide to understanding wine for the enthusiast or restaurant employee. Last year he published “The New Short Course on Beer” (Skyhorse Publishing).
“Beer represents the democratization of what used to be a very rarefied and expensive pleasure,” said Hoffman. In other words, there are rare and precisely-brewed beers available for $8 compared to rare wines that may cost hundreds of times that amount.
In addition to fiction and non-fiction, Hoffman has published poems in over 70 literary journals and is set to publish three books of poetry. He also maintains his blog radiationdays.com, a literary account of his bout with cancer, among other things.
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