Across a Table from Chef Gabrielle Hamilton

Photographs Brent Herrig Photography

“The root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.”

– from Blood, Bones and Butter

The day before my interview with Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, I snapped up a copy of her memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, and started reading it on my subway commute home. Within minutes I was transported by the weight of her words. They were incredibly decisive, and full of flavor and texture. I memorized her last sentence of the first chapter, my own emotion catching in the back of my throat and, shutting the book with the kind of smile that makes other subway-goers just a tad uncomfortable, realized how much I was looking forward to meeting this writer. This chef. This person who cooks food that is personal, and full, and relatable, and whose words sing or sink as she captures moments from her past.

I’ve always been incredibly self-analytical, and as I age I find this is bringing me to a place of solid introspection and calm; in an industry often fraught with networking and celebrity, I feel comfort in keeping one foot out of the door at all times. As we spoke, I found this desire manifested in Gabrielle, who remarked that knowing herself and staying focused were exactly how she’s weathered trends, labels and the dipping economy at her restaurant, Prune.

In my subsequent interview with her for Plates and Portraits we talked about this little world of calm and focus I’m creating for myself in the writing world and she said something along the lines of, “I know it’s not exactly my place, but I’m proud of you for what you’re doing.” In the same way I recognize that it’s not exactly my place (and I’m not one to go around claiming role models), but I do look to Gabrielle as a model of the kind of thinker, writer and communicator I hope to be. Her words – written or spoken – carry thought and confidence. Her emotions are steady but strong.

I’m still exploring what my own voice is, both with the words I write and the food I cook, but conversations like these help me continue to hone what that might be. And while I search, I’ll keep Prune on my short list of favorite restaurants in New York. Because completely aside from what I think of Gabrielle as a writer, I viscerally connect with the flavors of her dishes, that call to me from a home I’m still creating.

Gabrielle Hamilton: On Negative Cooking, and Swaying with the Tide

This interview was taken in June, 2012

In 1995 you left New York City and cooking to get your degree in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. What broke you from food that you walked away and needed a shift?

It’s funny because I was never passionately involved in food – it was just the way that I made my living for so long. I was turning 30, and by the time I was turning 30 I had already been an earner for 15 years so I was starting to feel like I was not going to ever be able to live a life of my own choosing. So I guess I started to have a little mid-life crisis and thought, “I’ve gotta get out of here, I’ve gotta see if I’m made of anything else”. Just because I started working kitchens doesn’t mean it was what I wanted, ever. So it was kinda easy to feel panicked and then split.

Why writing? I had always written and always wanted to be a writer, so that was the passion that had been abandoned and triaged to making a living my whole life. That was the itch that had to be scratched. It was good. It was a sabbatical. I didn’t learn much but I enjoyed the rest so much. It was incredibly relaxing to read and write and living in a rural environment.

Did you expect not to work in food again?

That was the fantasy entertained. “I’m leaving this shit, I’m out, I’m out!

So what were your intentions with the degree? 

I don’t think I was thinking so far ahead. I was just pulling the car off the road and then I would figure out the next path. But to just stop driving down this highway relentlessly toward a life… I didn’t think ahead. I just had the first step taken care of. I thought, “I’m going to get out of this industry forever. I’m gonna be a writer, whatever that means”.

What got you back in?

Well, it turns out that being without a deadline or a contract is incredibly idle and self-destructive state of mind for me. I learned that I don’t want to be a writer. I love to write as an addition to my life. But I crave and rely on the structure and the confines of a very busy schedule that is automatically generated by working in a restaurant. It turns out that I like both and I do better at both things when I have both jobs to do.

When you came back to New York what had shifted for you? What was different?

When I got back to New York I sat around on my couch, and got up each day to consider my novel that I wasn’t really writing. I was a stripper for a period, which is an incredible way to make a lot of money in a short period of time. And I would just sit around and spend the money and not write the book. So I got back into a kitchen at some point just to make a living for a minute.

How did the restaurant come then?

I was walking on the block one day (I live in this neighborhood) and the guy that owns this building pointed out this restaurant that was all boarded up, and he said, “Do you want to take a look?” This place was fetid – they had done business right up until midnight on the day that they abandoned the space so they hadn’t cleaned up or closed out. And it sat here idle for two years. So there were cockroaches and rat shit and the coolers were left with meat and fish. Somehow the electricity had been left on but the Freon had run out so you walked into the walk in and this blast of warm, feted, putrid air hit, and somehow I was like, “It’s pretty charming, I think this is a fixer-upper”. It just kinda got me right away. This space in particular. If someone had said, “Hey, do you want to open a restaurant?” I would have said, “No, no, no, no, no”! But the fact of being in this space I thought, “Oh, I could do that. It’s so tiny, I could just, I don’t know… I could have supper here, it would be me and a dishwasher.…” And look what happened.

So what was your focus when you opened? Who were you cooking for?

I was doing negative cooking, if that makes sense. I was cooking against everything I had been doing for 20-some-odd years, which was high-end catering. And in that context the food is touched just so many times by so many different sets of hands, and it’s repulsive. A real motivator for the food here was, “You, Cook, are gonna prepare, cook and put it on a plate. You and your one pair of hands, and it’s gonna go right to the customer”. I wanted to have a place where the food was as professionally cooked as high-end restaurants but could we take away all the debris and the pomp and the crap and just get down to the food part? Food from people who know what they’re doing for people who know what they’re doing, if that makes sense. It was very nice in the beginning and it continues – cooks eat here. I love that cooks eat here all the time. It’s very gratifying.

Was that stripping away any way reflective of you coming back to New York? How you wanted your own life to fit compared to the craziness before?

Not consciously. But I love that you made a little parallel.

You’ve made remarks that you don’t like to talk about food to an endless point, and the whole idea of “foodies” annoys you because it’s so much hubbub around food. Has Prune given you any freedom to love food more?

I love food. I love to eat it, I love to cook it, and I’m happy to talk about it for a minute. But my life is not organized around food as a central theme or activity or fetish. If I plan a trip to a foreign country or city of course I’m going to eat and check out the market. But I’m also going to find the museums and talk to the people. I don’t design those trips around eating at eighteen restaurants in one day.

You write about food so eloquently. The way you describe food and your experiences around it is so vivid. So was writing…

I do love food. That was a big fear about the book in the first place, that it wasn’t going to be food-y enough, and I’m a chef and everyone would expect it to be packed with food. Food for me in that book is just the setting; it’s just the background. If I’d been a cop for a living I’d probably have written about guns and I don’t know, handcuffs.

You don’t read memoirs from other chefs. Why not?

I know this world so well it’s not so moving to me to read about it. I’m more interested in what I don’t know – other people’s experiences and other realms.

Why did you write a book that is a chef memoir? Even the title, Blood, Bones and Butter does call out to a certain audience. What is the book, for you, if it’s not a “food book”?

It turned into a memoir. Just a straight-up memoir. I was super reticent to write a memoir because of course in writing school the memoir is the stupid bastard genre of literature that girls do or that gushy confessionalists take on. But as soon as I understood the assignment I was like, “Well here were go, I’m just gonna admit that I’m writing this stupid thing but I’m going to do the best job possible”. Yes it is cheffy and of course they didn’t buy a book from a chef to have chefdom left out so I knew I had to deliver. And I think the title has connotative value besides of what goes on in a kitchen, like family and bloodline…

What did it do for you emotionally, writing it? How did coming out with a book change things?

I have wanted to write my whole life so to have written a book, so that’s one potential regret dogged. Emotionally I like very much the way writing it down and organizing it helped to make a certain narrative sense out of my own life. It’s not that I was unknown to myself ; I’m a pretty introspective human. But still it put some organization and coordinating to a long meandering path that I hadn’t understood prior to putting it down in a book form. Career-wise I’m invited to many more and very interesting opportunities than ever before. I probably make a little more money now then I ever have, which is nice considering I have kids to pay for. And I meet a lot of people now and we engage in very good conversations immediately.

With all this attention, how do you stay true to your priorities as far as what you want to do with your restaurant? How do you sort of filter out all of what’s coming at you, opinions and labels?

I’m kind of glad that I feel like I sorted that kinda thing out many years ago. So I don’t tend to be the person who flits around and gets my feet lifted off the ground and sways with the tide. I tend to be a pretty grounded and straight-ahead person. So these changes have been fun and exciting. So I think the only thing that’s happening now that I’m trying to figure out is, “How long does this golden period last before the floor falls out on it?” Right now the crew is excellent. The chef de cuisine, Ned Baldwin, has changed my life, radically. He’s allowed me to be on a book tour, to be out of the restaurant, and he makes more delicious food than I ever could. And my gratitude to him is enormous. As soon as he goes to open his new restaurant I’m fucked. But for the moment I’m digging it.

You’ve had to deal with a lot of labels as a lot of women who are in the top of their field often are. Have you come up with a strategy for when you’re in those moments?

Here’s the thing: I just do my job. I define for myself what my work is, what’s important to me, who I am, and I tend to really ignore everything – positive or negative – assigned to me. It’s an incredible distraction and drain to get caught up in other people’s subjective take on you. Having said that I think it’s very important to have frank conversations with yourself. You need to check in with people around you, your society, your world, to see if you’re on the mark and you have to accept some hard truths about yourself. You have to listen to the harsh voices. It’s nice if you can tell it to yourself before someone can tell it to you. Then it doesn’t hurt as much.

You said that life is rolling along well right now. What’s your favorite thing about life in general – writing, cooking, speaking, people…?

I guess the best part is being pretty much in control of how I spend my day, and not having a routine. Today could be a cooking day, tomorrow’s going to be a writing day, the day after that I’m going to be speaking at a cooking event, and the day after that I could be home actually knowing my children and seeing what they’re about and up to. I’m 46 and I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s very nice to be in control of how I spend my time…for the moment…until Ned leaves.

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