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Gabrielle Hamilton: The Powells.com Interview

Gabrielle HamiltonGabrielle Hamilton's restaurant Prune, a little 30-seat spot in New York's East Village, quickly made waves when its doors opened in 1999. Hamilton had originally set out to cook for her neighbors but soon found herself hosting visitors from everywhere — all made the trek to experience, firsthand, her rustic, bold, and unpretentious food.

As it happens, Hamiltion is as adept at expressing herself on the page as she is on the plate. She skillfully chronicles her unorthodox childhood and unexpected path to celebrated chefdom in her captivating new memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter.

We couldn't agree more with Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times:

Though Ms. Hamilton's brilliantly written new memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, is rhapsodic about food...the book is hardly just for foodies....[Hamilton] is as evocative writing about people and places as she is at writing about cooking, and her memoir does as dazzling a job of summoning her lost childhood as Mary Karr's Liars' Club and Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt did with theirs.

Whether reading Hamilton's story leads you on your own pilgrimage to Prune, or simply instills or awakens a passion and reverence for food, we promise it's a journey you'll be glad you took.

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Megan: How do you begin to chart your own life for a memoir?

Hamilton: I think a memoir is supposed to be about a discrete period of time, you know, "My Summer in Tuscany" or something like that. And I guess what I ended up using for myself was basically my entire life so far. [Laughter] Well, not really — it's so edited. But starting from my childhood to raising my own children, that was sort of the arc for me.

And it was edited ruthlessly in that I only wrote about my life inasmuch as it pertains to food — also the people and places, and their narratives, were included only inasmuch as they pertain to food. That's why some of the narratives peter out, because once those people were no longer part of a food story, it wasn't pertinent to the book any longer.

Megan: At the beginning of the book, you describe a lamb roast that your family hosted every year when you were a kid. It's really a beautiful passage. How did you conjure up all of the amazing details?

Hamilton: Oh, that party is indelible in my mind. We had it every year, so it was familiar to say the least. I can easily conjure it now — almost with more than five senses. [Laughter] I can still smell it. I remember the humidity, the color of trees. It was so magical. It made quite an impression on the kids. And it's become a lifetime yearning to get back to it. So, I think I've also been imagining it well past its actual existence.

Megan: I love the section where you talk about how much you like the smell of manure, and how you seek it out in the food flavors. Can you explain that a little bit further?

Hamilton: Explaining certain wines can be difficult in a similar way. You can really taste the wet saddle of horse or the wood. It can be dicey to talk about wine in that way, where you think you're just talking about fruit, and then people start talking about leather and tobacco. But I think that's what I like, which sometimes turns others off. I like cheeses that really stink and can be hard to connect with. I love the smell of skunk. I love that. As long as it's in a distant field and not on your dog.I like cheeses that really stink and can be hard to connect with. I love the smell of skunk. I love that. As long as it's in a distant field and not on your dog.

Megan: You write about an instance where you're hiring people to work in a kitchen, and you instantly weed out anyone who says they're interested in cooking because "it sounds fun." What should the temperament and expectations be of someone who wants a serious career in cooking?

Hamilton: Oddly enough, you shouldn't even really like cooking that much. It isn't for people who think of cooking as something you do leisurely in your own home with great, savory results. Cooking in a restaurant is just a completely different project. It's about speed and repetition and working under very difficult conditions. So, if work itself and hard manual labor turn you on, if that's something that excites you... I mean, what I often ask people is, "Do you love to cook? That's great. But, do you love to cook for 10 hours straight and do you like to cook at 10 minutes before midnight when a table walks in?" If you can say yes to that, then you should definitely go into it. You should have a compulsion for working and sorting, and organizing chaos into order. If those things appeal to you, then I would go into this field.

Megan: You make it clear that even though you've made it as a successful chef and business owner, that there are still aspects of the job that are decidedly not glamorous — which you outline pretty well in the maggot/rat passage. I threw my book on the ground when I read that, I was so disturbed.

Hamilton: I'm sorry.

Megan: Oh, don't apologize! It was effective! But tell me about the most rewarding experience that you've had.

Hamilton: Well, they do live side by side, those gruesome moments and those beautiful moments. Really the horror and the beauty are in such close proximity to each other. The lows, you know, there are dead rats, or sick patrons, or hateful staff members. There's all that interpersonal difficulty. And equally, the pleasures are the beautiful human interactions that you have with staff, with customers, with purveyors.The lows, you know, there are dead rats, or sick patrons, or hateful staff members. There's all that interpersonal difficulty. And equally, the pleasures are the beautiful human interactions that you have with staff, with customers, with purveyors. I love my plumber and electricians and refrigeration guys. I can really hang out with all those guys in the trades; they're my favorites.

Also, I think handling the product itself is very satisfying. I love to, oh, put my hands in the flour bin as I'm scooping out flour. That's such a sensual pleasure. The sensual pleasures are many.

Megan: You write about how your experiences backpacking around the world as a young adult would ultimately influence the philosophy behind Prune. For instance, how prolonged periods of hunger translated into you wanting to have something ready to serve customers the moment they sat down at the table. What in your life helped determine what you didn't want your restaurant to be?

Hamilton: Well, I would say that my entire career in catering was a serious influence on what I did not want Prune to be. I have a 30-seat restaurant, which isn't really a moneymaker, because you kind of need to have at least 60 seats to make any money. What I've traded off in lucrative-ness, I make up for in not cooking in volume. It's so nice to not be cooking for 12,000 or 600, or 12,000 and 600 and 350 all in the same day — what corporate catering can require.

I definitely did not want to pack anything up in saran wrap and make a torchon and poach it in boiling water any longer. I'm definitely tired of that experience. And I didn't want to try and make tiny diamonds with the red bell pepper and sprinkle it around the outside of the plate in a big splashy way. It's just very nice to get away from the tricks and shortcuts of volume catering and the debris of garnish.

Megan: I don't think anyone could read this book and not fall in love with your Italian mother-in-law.

Hamilton: Oh, yeah.

Megan: She's amazing. I'm sure you could talk at length about this, but how has she influenced you both in the kitchen and as a mother?

Hamilton: She's a magnificent woman, and I'm studying her status as the matriarch of that huge family. I think I have a natural tendency towards matriarch status. I mean, I am kind of a bossy woman, and I like that kind of work where you take care of a family and run a household. I think I have a natural tendency towards matriarch status. I mean, I am kind of a bossy woman, and I like that kind of work where you take care of a family and run a household. She's strong and firm and kind, and she's still going. I mean, she cooks and is incredibly gracious. She comes from money and there's not an ounce of elitism in her, or condescension. I could just really sit by her side and hold her hand as long as she's still here. I really adore her. And what I love about her cooking is that it's home cooking. As a chef, you travel the world and you eat at other restaurants, find out what other chefs are doing. And for me it's so fantastic to be in a home where this woman is cooking with her limited skill set in a very traditional way and with her personal quirks. And I study that. I'd like to retain that. I'd like to cook the same way. I don't want to cook in my restaurant something that I learned from some chef in another restaurant. That's not, to me, the greatest path to education. I like to get something at the source.

Megan: You write about being part of a panel that was meant to empower women training to be chefs. In the end you didn't feel the other panelists painted a realistic picture of the obstacles that these women were going to face. Is this an issue that you think needs to be addressed?

Hamilton: You're right. I think it was designed to encourage young women, but it was sort of more like a pep talk than an actual pragmatic and useful-information-sharing session. And, frankly, I felt like I didn't do my part because I froze and didn't share what I thought they should know about entering their field, which is in some part why I ended up including the chapter. I thought, Well, damn! What a missed opportunity. I was so caught up in my adrenaline and my disappointment in what some of my peers were saying that I didn't get to tell the women what I think it's like to be a woman in the industry. So, I ended up writing a chapter of that story instead. And, yeah, I'm sure it's still pertinent. In my own restaurant I've created a little oasis, so it's hard for me to know, I'm not that tuned in. I can only speak for my own place, which is a good place for women. We have men and women everywhere, and the women are in positions of authority and decision making. So, I don't really know what's going on in the world at large. If I lived in my own little bubble all the time, I would think, What? What problem? There's no problem.

Megan: You wrote about how you skip the farmers market and you go straight to the farm, citing how trendy some markets have become. Do you think that the boom in popularity of local, small-scale agriculture could potentially cause more harm than good?

Hamilton: Oh, no, not at all. It's just a tedious experience for me to go to the market sometimes. I grew up going to markets. This is an ingrained, innate lifestyle for me. We had a garden. We foraged in the woods, and we would have never called it "foraging." We just went to get the fiddleheads or the mushrooms, and we went to the farms to get raw milk. To me, it's not something to talk about very much; it's so internalized. So, I get a little exhausted from all the talking and boasting that we seem to be doing about it now. It seems to be self-congratulatory, going to the market and shopping locally. I think it's a very good practice, and I am just personally a little turned off by the commoditization of it and the way it's become a marketing tool. And it's become precious. That's what it is. It's just become tweedy and precious, and I like things a little more rugged, more utile, more egalitarian, I guessIt's just become tweedy and precious, and I like things a little more rugged, more utile, more egalitarian, I guess. I'm used to markets around the world. I always go to a market wherever I travel. And when you go to the market in Greece or in India, frequently the stuff is just piled up on a cart and the vendor is smoking.

I lived in Turkey for a period and was cooking at a restaurant and we would go the market every week. And, I'll tell you, in the middle of a transaction of buying peppers or tomatoes the guy would suddenly take off his shoes, get a rug, and pray. And those are the kind of markets I loved best. In Philadelphia, where you go and the big guys in their hooded sweatshirts are ladling out huge spoonfuls of olives and the cheeses, those big boxing bags of provolone that they hang from the rafters, those punching bag provolones. That's just such a nice experience. It's not like the little dainty, photogenic farmers market that has evolved lately.

Megan: You've been getting recognition for your cooking for years. What's it like to get Kakutani-scale praise for your writing?

Hamilton: Well, as you can imagine, it's overwhelming and utterly delicious. I've wanted to be writer my whole life and have never quite gotten around to it. So, yeah, it's ultra gratifying. And even if it weren't good praise, which I'm very happy that it has been, I'm just grateful for feedback in general. I feel like I was in a dark, very alone place for a long time, writing this thing. So, it's nice to have it come out into the daylight and see what readers are bringing to the project, as well.
Megan: Are there any restaurants or emerging chefs that you think we should keep an eye on?

Hamilton: Let's see. I had a couple of very delicious meals at a place called Roman's in Brooklyn recently, super tasty and well seasoned and well prepared. So, that was good. I also had a very good meal at Roberta's, also in Brooklyn. And this is not a discovery by any stretch, but the meal at Michael White's Marea was just delicious, really expert, so good. Those are my recent, excellent dining experiences.

Megan: I imagine you're on book tour now or will be soon. How has this book changed your schedule? How much time are you spending in the restaurant?

Hamilton: Well, I'm not sure yet. You're right. Right now, I'm in the breakneck-pace early stages of a book tour. I'm in a different city every day and sometimes more than one. I did have an incredible day recently where I was at the airport five different times. So, I don't quite know what it'll be like when I get back, but I'm definitely not in the kitchen for the month of March. I imagine the dust will settle, and I'll just go back to work. It is my job, and I do own the place. I suspect I'll show up each day as is my habit and pleasure. I like writing, and I like books, and I like this part of things, meeting a lot of people and talking about writing. It's a new exercise for me, but I'm really a cook at heart. And, even more so, a dishwasher. I still really identify with dishwashers. I kind of can't wait to get back to the restaurant and clean something. I think I'm going to find that very soothing.

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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Blood, Bones and Butter: The...
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. Out of Egypt: A Memoir Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. The Liars' Club: a Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. Blood, Bones, and Butter: The...
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98

One Response to "Gabrielle Hamilton: The Powells.com Interview"

    Nan March 9th, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Nice piece -- a pleasure to savor the culiinary goings-on in Brooklyn.

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