In an era of foams, squeeze-bottle plating, and miniature courses, some chefs have staunchly stood by their comfortable, hearty menus. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef/owner behind Prune restaurant in New York City, is just such a real-food advocate. A glance at her restaurant's menu reveals pancakes, lamb chops, collard greens, and a variety of other delicious, accessible plates. Her new memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, details how she went from coddled child to college dropout to writer and finally to excellent chef—all by the age of 35. Hers is a story of disappointment, growth, success, and the power of food to transform even the most troubling life.
Hamilton was raised under the tutelage of her mother, a French ballerina who knew seemingly everything about finding and preparing food. In the first section of her memoir, "Blood," Hamilton describes growing up with four siblings, a powerful mother, and a slightly off-kilter father, in the years before her parents' divorce sent the family into a tailspin. Some of her memories, of awkward moments of adolescence, caused me to giggle uncontrollably. Others, nostalgic for family parties or the smells of her now-estranged mother's perfume, conveyed a gaping sadness that carries throughout the memoir, despite Hamilton's insistently light-hearted tone.
The second section, "Bones," takes us along the winding trail that eventually led Hamilton to her career as a chef. She had always been an aspiring writer, and made halting progress through her undergraduate years and an isolating Masters program in writing. Yet these years are now recounted through the lens of a series of cooking gigs—in catering kitchens, greasy spoons, and summer camp cafeterias—along the way.
When she emerged from her formal education and began working in New York, it wasn't long before she jumped on an opportunity to open her own restaurant. Her strong will, dirty mouth, and passion for her mother's recipes made her a prime candidate to run a competitive neighborhood restaurant.
The book's third segment, "Butter," may be the most revealing of Hamilton's current emotional state. After spending years in a committed lesbian relationship, Hamilton met a handsome Italian man whom she married in a humble City Hall ceremony. Together they have two young children, but a frosty relationship that entails sleeping in separate beds and barely speaking between month-long vacations to his family home in Italy. It is never made quite clear to the perhaps-somewhat-confused reader why Hamilton has chosen to live in such odd circumstances. But Hamilton's approach in this memoir is very frank. This book is her life, and we, like her, must come to terms with its complications.
Hamilton's tone and experiences will be familiar to those well-versed in chef memoirs—but hers is a book fraught with enough twists and turmoil to set it apart. Her numerous families (the broken home in which she was raised, her sous chefs and employees in the restaurant, her husband's loud Italian relatives) are presented without much comment or question. Rather, Hamilton focuses her self-analysis on how and why she has come to love the kitchen, and to make it her life's passion. She shares so much that seemingly has nothing to do with cooking—and yet in the book's concluding pages, you realize that the non-culinary details have in fact told you everything about Gabrielle Hamilton's deep passion for eating, cooking, and providing for those she loves.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.