A chef's well-seasoned life
Prune, an unpretentious, 30-seat restaurant in New York City’s East Village, drew attention upon its 1999 opening. And so did its chef-owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, who was quickly approached by people suggesting she write a book.
“I remember at the time thinking, oh man, this is so cheap. Everybody gets a book? You open a restaurant and you get a book?” recalls Hamilton, whose essays about the intersection of food and life have appeared in the New York Times, Food + Wine and other publications. The flattery would have convinced others, but Hamilton wasn’t so easily persuaded. “I love books. I revere books. To me, they are precious, magic creatures that shouldn’t be like turds in the toilet.” And so she said no to every offer of a book contract or agent representation, choosing instead to focus on her restaurant business.
But as Hamilton’s skills developed, both with a pen and with a stove, she thought she could make a greater contribution. The result is Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a riveting memoir that explores her sometimes tumultuous family life and years spent in catering kitchens before opening Prune. The book has drawn ecstatic praise from fellow chefs, including Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali.
Hamilton’s story begins with idyllic childhood family dinners with her French mother, artist father and four siblings at their rural Pennsylvania home. But when Hamilton’s parents divorce, the children’s lives are flipped on end. During one summer, weeks pass when then-13-year-old Hamilton and her brother Simon are literally left alone. That’s when Hamilton steps into a professional kitchen for the first time, trying to make money to support her prematurely adult life. She wanders into a kitchen in her tourist town and is put to work peeling potatoes. “And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start,” Hamilton writes.
The ensuing journey takes her down a path seasoned with trials, errors and colorful relationships. Hamilton moves to New York, is in and out of college (it takes her three tries to graduate) and kitchens, often scraping by financially while learning about hard living from her fellow kitchen staff. After years of work in restaurants, catering kitchens and even a summer camp, Hamilton decides to pursue her long-held desire to be a writer. And so, with 30 on the horizon, she leaves her final freelance cooking gig and her girlfriend to head for the Midwest and the University of Michigan’s MFA writing program. It’s not long before she finds herself back in a catering kitchen, and upon her return to New York, Hamilton is seduced by the idea of her own restaurant—and later by an Italian man who pulls her into a green-card marriage, all while charming her with family summers in Puglia, Italy, familial joviality and Italian cooking. The result is a beautifully told tale of a colorful and sometimes spicy life.
The book’s conversation unfolds at an easy pace, like getting to know a new friend, tale by life-defining tale, and Hamilton’s writing becomes almost electric when she sees a restaurant space that could become her own. Her style mimics both the winding life path she’s traveled and her casual, conversational attitude. “Basically, it’s an invitation. So here, I’m going to start the conversation,” she explains, “and hopefully people will reciprocate.”
The time Hamilton spent crafting the memoir mimicked her story’s more exhilarating moments. As she wrote, she juggled two children under the age of three and a bustling restaurant. Sleep wasn’t a priority, and in the process Hamilton gave up on striving for balance.
“If I keep pursuing it, I feel like I’ve failed constantly. So now I’m resigned to the idea that it is not balance. It’s a binge and purge,” Hamilton explains from Prune’s dining room. “I just have to change my mind about whether that sucks or not.”
Sometimes that meant seeing her children only when they were asleep. On other occasions, she left her restaurant staff to run the kitchen while she spent time with her sons. And when it came time to transform the first draft of Blood, Bones & Butter into the finished product, the restaurant’s office became Hamilton’s refuge.
But she wonders, what’s the alternative? “I have this restaurant that was very popular, I have this book deal, I have these incredible children. What was I going to do, say no to all of that? It sucks that it all happened at the same time, but that’s a high-class set of problems right there,” she says, laughing. “I could die now and feel content.”