When Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed 30-seat bistro Prune in New York’s East Village in 1999, she had worked in the catering biz for more than 20 years, but she had never been a restaurant chef, nor could she imagine that her winding culinary path would lead to successful restaurateur. Fast forward a decade, she’s now a James Beard award-winning chef and author, with an uncensored, brilliant memoir and a restaurant that’s as popular as ever. Gabrielle talks about how she developed her voice as a writer, the sweetest part of success and the importance of staff meals.
AndrewZimmern.com: What’s the significance of the title of your memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter?
Gabrielle Hamilton: There is a literal aspect in that as a chef I do, in fact, spend my days with my hands in all of those things. But those things, I hope, have connotative value as well. I was thinking of blood in terms of family and bloodline and clan, and bones in terms 0f “making one’s bones” and the rites of passage one accomplishes to finally become a chef, and then I was thinking of butter as the sweet and creamy good stuff that makes it all worth the incredible effort.
AZ.com: Do you find any similarities in writing and cooking?
GH: In fact, they are for me, direct and utter opposites, but in a perfect and balancing way. I love how social and group-based cooking is and how pragmatic and achievable the tasks of cooking are–we work as a team and we are set up and ready by 5:30, every single day. This can be so relieving and fun after a long day of lonely, isolated staring at the blank page trying to wrestle such impossible intangibles as “truth” and “narrative arc.” But that opportunity to let your mind dig deep on an open page can be so welcome and refreshing as counterpart and antidote to the very physical labor of working in a hot and stressful kitchen, where your mind is ever only occupied by very mundane concerns such as the cost of parsley or a waiter’s ill-timed vacation request. I love how the two things balance each other and am lucky to have both.
AZ.com: What experiences developed your voice as a writer? As a chef?
GH: I started lying a great deal as a child, both for obvious practical reasons – I lied about my age constantly to get work I was not eligible for, which necessitated other lies to keep the picture of my accelerated age sounding accurate, and I also lied a lot for more complicated psychological reasons – but whatever the rationale, by the time I was about 19 years old, I was profoundly cynical and exhausted from having to maintain such an immense and intricate house of cards. I took a radical turn toward uncommon honesty and set that huge burden down and walked away from it forever. There is nothing more freeing and easier to live with than total truth and transparency. I think this is the one most significant influence on both my writing and my cooking–which come from the same voice–and both of which are most often characterized/described as “honest” or “authentic.” Sorry that is not a very light and fluffy answer!
AZ.com: You talk about your parents a lot in the book. How did they influence what you serve or how you run your restaurant?
GH: My mother taught us how to cook, clean, butcher, garden, forage, cure cast iron, sharpen knives, and how to feed a family of seven on an unreliable artist’s paycheck–there is no one stricter or more frugal, more sturdy or resourceful. She also, in the available moments, brought her huge french elegance and refined tastes to the picture. My father, the artist with the unreliable paycheck, brought giant generosity, dedication to beauty over pragmatism, and a serious love of dinner parties to the equation. I think I inherited them both equally in my DNA, and they both manifest in every plate of food, every candle, every wooden platter or dish of salt at Prune.
AZ.com: How much are you in the kitchen at Prune these days?
GH: I thought I had finally graduated to ultra-executive chef last year (when I had to be away for book tour and related stuff) – the kind that wears clean clothes and stops by for meetings – but that was a big misapprehension on my part. You can have babysitters for your kids, but nothing takes the place of the parent. Ever. I’m just glad to report that I can still rock a line cook shift on a Saturday night with no shame and no self-injury!
AZ.com: Sweetest part of success?
GH: The way it quiets your hunger, and you don’t have to keep barking so loud…
AZ.com: What role do staff meals have in a restaurant?
GH: After decent pay and a healthy staff drink policy, the staff meal is the most important part of staff morale. It also lets you see quite clearly who on your cooking staff is ready for promotion, based on what they put up as their contribution to family meal. And conversely, which cooks are never going to grow up to be chefs!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
GH: It exactly mirrors the walk-in at my restaurant – I cook the same way at home as I do at the restaurant. Except there are also juiceboxes and kiddie crap in my home fridge on top of it all, for my little men.
Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef/owner of PRUNE which she opened in New York City’s East Village in October 1999. PRUNE has been recognized in all major press, both nationally and internationally, and is regularly cited in the top 100 lists of all major food magazines. Gabrielle has made numerous television appearances including segments with Martha Stewart, Mark Bittman, and Mike Colameco and most notably was the victor in her Iron Chef America battle against Bobby Flay on The Food Network in 2008. Gabrielle has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Food & Wine and House Beautiful and had the 8 week Chef’s Column in The New York Times. Her work has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2011. Gabrielle was also nominated for Best Chef NYC in 2009 and 2010 by the James Beard Foundation and in 2011 won the category. She is most recently the author of the New York Times bestseller Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which has been published in six languages and won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Writing and Literature in 2012.