Don’t forget: the book mentioned below is available at 20% off for tablehopper readers for two weeks following this mention at Green Apple Books—simply use the code “tablehopper” at checkout (either at the store or online) for your discount.
Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef/owner of Prune in New York City. She’s also a writer, with an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and publication in lots of fine magazines. That unusual combination—a successful restaurant and writing skills—have made her food memoir a must-read for anyone who loves to cook or eat. It’s called Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.
During her whirlwind Bay Area tour a few weeks ago, Ms. Hamilton graciously answered questioned posed by Green Apple Books, while signing books in the office and in a follow-up call while headed to the airport. Here is the slightly condensed interview.
Green Apple: You were obviously an astute and thorough journal keeper. Could you tell me about your journaling practice? Did you use your journals to jog your memory, or transfer whole parts into these chapters? Do you still journal?
Gabrielle Hamilton: “I journal un-religiously, without a system or routine and often that journaling happens on pieces of brown paper, whatever I can shove into an envelope. I did not use my journals with the exception of trying to recollect my backpacking journey through Europe, and relied on it heavily. I couldn’t remember in what order I traveled. At first I wanted to get every part of that journey in, then thought, this is not a travelogue, just get a few details.”
GAB: When did you find time to write?
GH: “It was really excruciating. I had to write often in the middle of the night with one baby on one side of me and the other on the other side, or in brief bits on the line during service with a Sharpie, or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was a real sort of guerrilla writing. It was not like Yaddo.”
GAB: What’s it like reading reviews of your memoir?
GH: “I love it. It’s so delicious to get feedback. I’ve been working alone in a room and had only my head to bounce ideas around. To find what readers bring to this is gratifying. Even if they don’t like it I’m happy.”
GAB: What about criticisms of what you left out—more about the ex-girlfriend, your parents’ divorce.
GH: “I only wrote about people as they pertain to food in my life. It’s supposed to be about food. Of course I snuck in some life in there, a bait and switch. As soon as a relationship didn’t drive the narrative they had to exit. Maybe my skill set didn’t let them exit gracefully. An astute reader is going to catch it. I didn’t want to over-expose myself. I didn’t want to write one of those ‘me me me’ memoirs. I wanted something more graceful.”
GAB: Your relish for a spotless mise en place and organizing a walk-in makes diners feel safe and eat confidently, but biographies by restaurant workers also demystify what happens beyond the pass, for diners, and show that it’s not as pretty a scene as the dining room, sometimes grossing them out.
GH: “The beauty and horror live in such close proximity to each other, minute by minute, so you get such sensual delicious experience butting right up against unsavory experience. You have to be flexible.”
GAB: You’ve done food writing for the New York Times food section, and now your life story, but why haven’t you aimed to become a name across other media platforms with cookbook, cooking show, and more restaurants?
GH: “That does not appeal to me, that kind of life. I don’t want to be on a cooking game show. It seems television about my industry, it’s no longer about cooking. It’s entertainment.”
GAB: Doesn’t a show like Kitchen Nightmares show viewers what not to do?
GH: “I haven’t seen Kitchen Nightmares. I don’t have a television.”
GAB: What do you think of our city?
GH: “I’m happily familiar with the city, and I have very dear friends here. I regret I’m allotted an hour and thirty minutes (between events). I did manage to get a quick breakfast at (Charles) Phan’s take-out place. I got together at Zuni with girls I know—Elizabeth Falkner, Traci Des Jardins. I stopped in at Orson.”
GAB: Falkner is the city’s most famous lesbian chef.
GH: “Maybe I have honorary lesbian status. I’ve definitely gotten arrested with ACT UP enough, even if I did marry a man. I blew it. Lesbians are a tough crowd.” (With irony in her voice and a smile.) “I just recently applied for Italian citizenship. They’re very thorough in researching (one’s legal record). I had eleven arrests, mostly misdemeanors for resisting arrest, trumped up. I’ve sat in the back of a paddy wagon more times than I’d like to remember.”
GAB: At Camino, where you’ll be tonight, even the bar uses locavore spirits and juices; does Prune strive for that?
GH: “I grew up locavore, which was not a phrase at the time. I live this way. My mother had a garden. We ate nose to tail. I can’t get into the commodification of the lifestyle. It’s used as marketing talk. What they’re doing at Camino is excellent, superior.”
GAB: What does San Francisco do better than New York, food-wise?
GH: “As everyone knows you have much better produce and a longer growing period. This is my kind of cooking and eating.”
GAB: How about Mission burritos?
GH: “I’ve had plenty of tongue taco. I love to hang out in Dolores Park. I always stop off at Bi-Rite, Swan Oyster Depot, and Zuni.”
GAB: Has the book garnered movie interest?
GH: “Apparently that’s starting. I haven’t had a chance to let that settle into my brain. My father is very interested in who should play him.”
Click here to listen to a clip of Gabrielle talking about her experience speaking to CIA students about the state of women in the restaurant industry.