A chef's compelling memoir

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2012 - 9:12 AM

Twenty-plus years in the kitchen and a writing degree set the stage for a mesmerizing autobiography from Gabrielle Hamilton.

Gabrielle Hamilton, author of "Blood, Bones & Butter," in Italy.

Photo: , Melissa Hamilton

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She didn't intend to become a chef, much less a famous one. Yet that's what Gabrielle Hamilton did many years after falling into the kitchen trade as a 13-year-old. The chef/owner of the restaurant Prune and winner of Best Chef New York City from the James Beard awards in 2011, tells the story of what she calls "The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef," the subtitle of her memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter," now in paperback.

Her eloquent tale of family, loss and restaurants brings us to the heart of food and its sensuous pleasure, as well as to the soulful connection of nourishing others. The mother of two, ages 5 and 7, who are "super alive with boy energy," will speak Tuesday at the Minneapolis Central Library as part of its Talk of the Stacks series.

Q What do you say to young cooks who say, "I want a restaurant now"?

A It is a realm in which experience -- repeated experience and exposure -- matters. You can't muscle or brainiac your way through it. Nothing takes the place of the repetition of cooking, the prolonged exposure to a professional kitchen, no matter how hardworking or smart you are. It just takes time.

Q You have a really small restaurant. How do you run a business with such a tiny spot?

A You commit to being a nonprofit before signing the lease. I'm not kidding. It's a commonly known [restaurant] business model that you can't make money on less than 60 seats and we have 30. We pay our bills and everyone's salary, and I'm not driving a Mercedez Benz just yet.

Q You're located in the East Village in New York City. Do you find that restaurants change a neighborhood?

A Of course they do. I like to think -- and hope -- that my restaurant didn't change our neighborhood for the worse, but that may be wishful thinking. This is a small, ostensibly neighborhood restaurant and can be affordable to students. Well, not entirely, but everyone can eat here is the idea. We didn't open a 200-seat place with a live DJ and bouncer outside. But it's also not Susie's Vegetarian Cafe or Mahmoud's Falafel. It's a restaurant with intentions, with ambition. Not a serious restaurant, but we cook seriously

Q Do you think that women run restaurants differently than men?

A I do not. I have not understood in a kitchen what the differences are. There are women screamers and humiliators. There are male nurturers and those coaching with a carrot instead of a stick. I've seen super-high-tech-modern female chefs using all the equipment, as well as male chefs who just roast a simple chicken and grill the bread. It seems pretty blind to gender.

However, it's incredibly naive to say you just never feel the difference. "Just do the hard work, honey, and everything works out." That would be glib and false. But I have not seen the difference in how women run a kitchen over men.

Q What makes you happiest at the restaurant?

A At 4 o'clock there's a day shift crew on their way out and there's a p.m. shift crew arriving. I am often in the back prep area and I can hear, but not see, the boisterous excitement. If I were going to use a family model, it's a little bit like being a parent and hearing all your kids come home from school -- and they are chatting with each other around the coffee station and they are happy to see each other. Oh, it makes me feel very well. I feel like the house is alive with good life and people who really enjoy each other. And frequently I am in fact cooking family meal which is going up at 5 o'clock and I think, "This is the big family house I always wanted." It's a really lovely time.

Q After working for almost 20 years in restaurants, you went to an MFA program for fiction writing. How do the two connect?

A Actually it probably was not a progression, but a digression. I wanted to write my entire life, even as a young person, even as a 7 year old with a little journal. And inadvertently I spent my entire life in the kitchen, which is a long day. I was about to turn 30, had a little bit of a life crisis, but a rigorous evaluation moment. I started to panic I was in danger of living the wrong life and not having much more opportunity to change that.

I had a little catering business and sold my equipment and checked pants and had hoped to stop this kitchen thing and went away to be a writer. I spent a couple years away. I can write a little bit. But I like working in a kitchen.

Q How do you find time to write with the long hours that owning a restaurant entail?

A I don't find time. I make time. I carve it out of every crevice. It's a lot like sleep. Take it where you can. That's what I do with sleep, exercise and writing. It's like being a scavenger. You scavenge the time you can. I wrote while on the [kitchen] line, sitting in traffic in the car, on the subway, which I would not have done without a signed contract. It was the demand of the deadlines that made me work those hours.

Q Your parents were artistic -- your mother a dancer and your father a set designer for theater. Do you think there's a level of artistry that's part of restaurants?

A I find it hard to put art and food in the same sentence, having actually engaged in one of the arts, as a writer. I'm in the minority when cooks talk about artists. I can't go there. It's not the same. You may have a strong aesthetic or a powerful vision. But a meal is not a painting. It's not "To Kill a Mockingbird." Cooking is a craft and always will be.

Q With so many restaurant memoirs touching on substance abuse, is there a path to restaurants without being involved in that behavior?

A Very much so now. The demographics of who works there now has changed radically. White-collar upper-middle-class parents send their children to cooking school as a viable education. This used to be a profession, as Tony Bourdain pointed out, for those on your way in or out of jail, and still it attracts some more bohemian and drug-taking types. But it's cleaned up. Mighty squeaky clean these days. But I think that's true in all professions these days because we're not so much in the rock-and-roll age anymore.

Q Do you have a favorite food memoir -- or any memoir -- that inspires you?

A To tell you the truth, I read more classic books and have stuck mostly to the canon. I'm not inspired by other memoirs and I was not inspired by food writers, certainly. Mostly I've tried to stick to that kind of Hemingway imperative, "Just start with one true sentence." For 300 pages. It's hard.

Q Where do you want to be in five years? At the restaurant, writing?

A I think I still have quite a lot of energy for this restaurant. I'm still very moved being here on a daily basis. I do like to write, I was invited to write. I'm kind of almost illegally in love with my children. As long as I can hang out with them and cook and clean and do some interesting writing, I don't need to change it up now

I worked very, very hard building the restaurant and bearing children and working on the book. It was a nice period, but I wouldn't mind sailing along for awhile: Enjoy the restaurant, enjoy the writing and enjoy the children.

Q These days everyone wants to be a food writer. Do you see a difference between more literary writing and food blogs?.

A I'm pretty exhausted by blogging, and have never felt enhanced or nourished when I've dug around in the blogosphere. It's like eating at McDonald's. I have consumed some quantity of calories and feel they are empty calories and have self-loathing when I'm done. That's never how I feel when I read excellent books which have been rigorously edited and critiqued.

So on a more practical level, it seems to be the unlimited space for blogging that's a problem. There's no greater editor or muse than a hard and fast word count. It tells you everything about what a story can or can't be, how far to reach. If you're given 800 words, you don't start a big story, but keep it tight and simple. The endless word possibilities where no one has to shorten it up does not seem to serve a writer.

Q Do you have any philosophy of food or philosophy of writing?

A It's a big word to apply to food: philosophy. Food should taste good. I hate to say something so basic but I'm a hound to do it right. It needs to be delicious. I could say that applies to cooking and writing.

Get off the page and get off the plate. You as writer and chef should make yourself invisible and recede as much as possible. Let the work be the work, and the food be the food. Cooking is not about me. It's not to admire me. I feel the same way about writing. You can tell when the writer is behind the page and asking you to admire their cleverness or sassy little line or exciting sentence. I think, "Get out of book. I don't want to spend the entire time admiring you."

  • IF YOU GO

    Gabrielle Hamilton, author of "Blood, Bones & Butter," will speak at the library's Talk of the Stacks.

    What: Reading, Q&A and book signing.

    When: 7 p.m. Tue. (doors open at 6:15 p.m.).

    Where: Pohlad Hall, Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.

    Cost: Free.

    Info: 612-543-8107.

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