When Gabrielle Hamilton opened her tiny restaurant in New York twelve years ago, she
had no idea what she was embarking upon. Not only had she never owned a restaurant before but neither had she ever been the chef, or even the sous-chef, of one. A decade later, she was named New York’s Best Chef. Her restaurant Prune was described by food critic Frank Bruni as a ‘formidable influence, a small restaurant with a large footprint… widely and fervently loved’.
Prune was Gabrielle’s family nickname when she was young, growing up in New Jersey in a castle ‘built into the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth- century silk mill’ to parents who threw legendary parties. This is how her memoir begins. Blood Bones & Butter is not only a fascinating insight into an extraordinary character but one of the most potent accounts of a food sensibility I have ever read. Much more than a kitchen confidential, it is the story of a woman whose early lessons in self-reliance and survival stamped upon her an uncompromising work ethic, whose endless jottings in notebooks inspired her to enrol in a writing course at Michigan University, and who unapologetically offers herself up warts and all with just the right doses of humility so that she is impossible to dislike.
On the contrary, how can you not love someone who writes like this? ‘Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper-bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.’ Or this: ‘Everyone thinks cooking is “fun”, but not for the same reasons they think it will be. They think it’s the same as trying out a new recipe for brownies like you do at home, with the radio on.’
Gabrielle did her writing course and in the process realised that she loved cooking more:
it was something ‘so manageable and tactile and useful’ unlike ‘certain literary pursuits
(such as) illuminating the fog surrounding the human condition.’ The 30-seat restaurant she opened, after two decades of working in some capacity or another with food, was conceived as a platform from which she could reproduce, conjure up peak food moments throughout her life, like the gouda and warm salted potato she ate in Amsterdam, like the wild greens called horta she ate in Greece ‘that (Margarita) boiled in salted water to tame drabness and then drowned – delicious death! – in her own olive oil’. Reading a Prune menu on line I see dishes like roasted marrow bones with parsley salad, braised dandelions with mastic and feta, calvados omelette – and long, as usual, for New York New York.
Gabrielle Hamilton will, however, be in Australia in early October for the Sydney International Food Festival (SIFF), as part of the World Chef Showcase (October 1 and 2). She is appearing both those days and will, I imagine, be utterly watchable, as is her memoir, published by Chatto & Windus, utterly readable.