"Blood, Bones and Butter", a new memoir from Gabrielle Hamilton, an acclaimed New York chef, is a delectable feast. It begins with a lamb roast party on her family farm on the East Coast, and ends with a drink on a porch in Italy with an inherited family. From here to there is a colourful ride, a somewhat indirect route from hapless dish-washer to successful restaurateur. This is a dishy book, vividly written, with plenty of blue language and one maggot-filled rat.
Ms Hamilton is executive chef and owner of Prune, a restaurant in the East Village. It is a cosy, homely place, where Ms Hamilton cooks what she knows and what she would want to be served. (As she puts it: the "salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry".) When she opened Prune in 1999, she admits she didn't know a thing about running a restaurant. Now the wait for brunch is two hours on a normal Sunday.
Like the restaurant, the book is a labour of love, uncompromisingly individual in its own right. She writes well about her life, offering up the salty, sweet and starchy bits. Like Prune, it is a breakout hit, now in its third week on the New York Times best-seller list. Here she talks to More Intelligent Life about her approach to memoir, and the role of female chefs.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
For the longest time it didn't seem like I had anything to offer. At some point the right agent helped put together a proposal, though I ended up not writing the book I pitched. I ended up writing a memoir.
How do cooking and writing relate to each other for you?
They have really been a pleasant counterbalance and antidote to each other. Each facet of my life, the cooking and the writing, I've happily turned to when the other failed. If I've been too long alone with the page or I'm not able to finish, it's nice to go to the restaurant and be done. It's nice to be around people living actual life. Conversely it is nice to come back to the quiet page after [hours of] manual labour and mundane questions like, 'Did I order enough parsley?' and 'Why is that waitress smoking?'
Are there inherent similarities to the way you approach the two tasks?
I notice that I put my training in hospitality towards the book. I want to be hospitable as a writer, and give the reader the things they might need to enjoy their evening. I assume if I'm going to ask someone to give me their time I need to take care of them. Sometimes you read books where the writer seems to be asking the reader to admire them. I don't like that in a restaurant and I don't like that in a book. I aim to recede.
Though you describe food in great detail, you spend less time with some personal details of your life. Can you talk a little about your approach to writing about food v yourself?
I didn't want to write a story about me and my little dumb life. I wanted to write a story as big as I was able. I did bring everything I had and I tried to write a bigger story, which, if it succeeds, is really about you. [It's about] anyone who has had a childhood, who has been a parent, who has worked in a difficult environment.
Are you surprised by the reaction to the book? Did you anticipate this success at all?
I'm dying, I'm totally dying. While I was writing it, no. But as soon as Tony Bourdain read it, I was a nervous about what he and others would think, and that it fails on three counts. 'Well this isn't foodie enough for foodies, not memoir-y enough for memoirists, and not literate enough to be literature.' I started to panic, like 'shit this thing doesn't hit its mark.' And then he wrote this incredible review and I started thinking 'Oh wow, this book is going to have a life.'
There's a very vivid chapter in which you describe the experience of wresting yourself out of bed and away from your young sons to participate in a panel for culinary students about being a woman chef. At the panel it seems you don't get to say what you wanted to say.
I actually feel like that whole chapter was my opportunity to say what I wished to say. It felt understandable that it was imperative and also impossible for me to avoid the topic. I'm asked about it all the time. The mandate for the book was not to have any essays or opinion pieces, just narrative. What it took that day to get me there and back with the restaurant and the two kids, and the baby food in the purse and the four hours sleep—that day is the story.
Do you not like being asked questioned on the topic of women chefs?
I feel I am inept at answering. I don't feel that we are 'we'—there's no homogeneity in our group. And I feel like people are seeking a little bullet answer. 'Where are the women? Are male chefs hard on them?' They hope there is a simple answer to an incredibly nuanced phenomenon in which all these things are true. It's difficult. Some women are not able, some make it. Some men aren't fair, some are.
What do you say to being categorised with other female chefs. I'm thinking of April Bloomfield here, another well-known chef in New York. Is this a legitimate comparison?
In all my years in the realm of the kitchen and the restaurant industry, I have never understood any difference. In sports, I totally get it. You know, that basketball player, he's just taller, stronger, his muscles are bigger. I have not honestly seen anything that differentiates us [from men] and I would say if I had. We cook the food and clean up and do it quickly. Some of us yell, some of us don't. Some of us do molecular stuff, some of us do homey shit. Though I'd be very proud to be compared to April because I really admire her.
What's on your bookshelf, food-related or otherwise?
I'm at a super deficit there [on food books]. I don't get to read as much as I would like, so that is not where I put my time. I did read voraciously my entire childhood and as a young adult. I have read through the whole cannon of dead white guys and gotten much enrichment from that. I've moved into contemporary literature and am very glad for Junot Diaz, Michael Cunningham and Lorrie Moore.
What's next for you, now that this book is out?
For the moment I'm excited to have three jobs and not four; to just be the chef and the owner and the mother. It feels delicious to not be carrying around this incredibly heavy obligation anymore. In a few months I'll think about writing again—my kids are older now and I don't need to wipe their butts and put the food in their mouths. So maybe I'll write something else. But I think this material's tapped out.
"Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef" by Gabrielle Hamilton is published by Random House in America
Picture Credit: Melissa Hamilton