In a world thick with chef memoirs, Gabrielle Hamilton's stands out. It's the one that other chefs rave about. Mario Batali pledged to "read this book to my children and then burn all the books I have written." Anthony Bourdain, whose own memoir helped kick-start the publishing trend, said Hamilton achieved more with one page than he did in his entire writing career. "I am choked with envy," he added.
Blood, Bones & Butter starts with Ms. Hamilton's unconventional childhood and entry into kitchen work. This was no romanticized calling - she was a teen growing up in rural Pennsylvania who needed money after essentially being abandoned upon her parents' divorce. That first taste of restaurant work was followed by a move to New York, varied unlawful activities, and a series of jobs in the catering trenches.
One day an acquaintance mentionedthat there was a commercial property available. The space was revolting, a bankrupt restaurant in the East Village that had been abandoned to rot and vermin. Ms. Hamilton hadn't considered opening a restaurant but saw its immediate potential. She wanted to serve "the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry."
Prune opened 11 years ago. Her memoir, published this month, is subtitled "the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef." She spoke to The Globe and Mail from Vancouver, while enjoying a non-cooking book tour.
You started as a teenager scoring dime bags and stealing from your employer and ended up as a business owner and mother with, as you put it in the book, no desire to be a badass. Should the industry do the same - leave the whole outlaw-chef cliché behind?
I wish we would. It just doesn't ring true from my experience. Sometimes a kitchen's a very organized and sweet little place. When I wrote the book, I felt dedicated to writing it down very truthfully. Sometimes it is sort of rock and roll and badass, but many times it is not. And as I get older, badass is unappealing to me. I think at some point you want to hang that up. There's nothing more attractive than just acting your age.
Can you explain why you think restaurant work is good preparation for motherhood?
It is incredible training. Pregnancy, when you're in a lot of physical discomfort, can mirror restaurant work, where you're standing, you're very tired, you're hot, you're not sleeping much. And it goes on from there. You have a fussy baby that won't take its diaper. Sometimes you have to really wrangle those little suckers. That can feel a lot like some of the unwieldy projects in restaurant life: skinning an eel, trussing chickens, trying to get a large animal into a small roasting pan. And taking care of your children, making sure they have what they need and know the rules, that can be a lot like restaurant work. You're making [the staff]meal; you put the schedule up; you make sure the electricity is on; that they have all the things they need to do their job; that they know what the rules of the restaurant are, the expectations. The similarities seem striking.
You beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. What's the "kitchen stadium" really like?
Highly distracting and intense. I felt like I got 11 seconds to look at my station before we stepped into battle. And I also felt like I spent half my time running around. In your own home or your own kitchen, you know exactly where the knife is or the spoon and you go there automatically without even thinking about it. Boy did I run.
And you've got the TV camera pointing over your shoulder the whole time.
More like eight cameras. Some from behind and the guy comes up on your food to get a close-up and then there's one overhead. Very distracting. I'm not that versed, I haven't done very much television. I should've had more alcohol, but I stupidly did that very sober.
At some point in the book you say that cooking professionally is fun, but not in the way that outsiders would expect. What advice do you offer keen amateurs?
Someone should work in a restaurant before they think they're going to open one. It's good if you have certain compulsions and quasi neuroses: fastidiousness, attention to detail, super-thoroughness, clean habits, establishing a routine, liking making order out of chaos. For me at least, I like the GI Jane feeling, where some heavy artillery is coming in. There's nothing more satisfying than killing the line. You're all sort of huffing and puffing and sweating it, but then you come out on the other side and you've won. That feels very good.
Did you miss being in the kitchen while promoting this book?
Not at all. I've been sitting down and eating meals with a knife and a fork. I've washed my face and brushed my teeth every single day on tour. It's a very nice reprieve. Every time I think I've graduated to executive chef and I'm just going to count the money and pet my cat - I mean, I'm joking - but every time I think I've made it to that status, I always find myself working some brunch-egg shift. So I have never quite totally graduated.
This interview has been condensed and edited.