I’m surpised it’s taking me a while to write a review of this memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef/owner of Prune restaurant in NYC. It’s got the entertaining wit and grit of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential with delicious food scenes and some good old hard core kitchen details, but it’s also a brave and very vulnerable telling of being dazed and somewhat directionless, to finding her adult self in the food world. Something with which I can relate, a lot and maybe a little too tenderly right now, as I contemplate my next steps.
She begins with beloved memories of annual spring lamb roasts her father would organize for over a hundred folks, using his background in theater and romantic vision to transform the empty overgrown meadow behind our house, riddled with groundhog holes into an event where all had a glass in their hand, their laughter rising above our heads and then evaporating into the maple leaves; the weeping willows shedding their leaf tears down the banks of the stream; fireflies and bagpipers arriving through the low clinging humidity of summer; a giant pit with four spring lambs roasting over applewood coals. I think he was for a while, the Great Gatsby of rural Pennsylvania.
Just when she’s got you feeling all wistful and woozy, about say, the sailing trips your own father used to organize, it comes to an abrupt end when her parents suddenly divorce, siblings scatter, and she is left to her own devices at thirteen years old. Devices like working in kitchens in her tiny town and ‘borrowing cars.’ At age sixteen, she was allowed to graduate her alternative high-school in an ankle-length white gauze dress that I’d shoplifted from a store in town and moved to New York City with $235.
Why yes, this is where she gets into drugs. But less predictably also manages to hustle some major bucks while waitressing for the Lone Star Cafe, which eventually led to a charge of Grand Larceny and Possession of Stolen Property which in turn helped lead to her dropping out of Hampshire College after 5 semesters.
The next stop was Europe and some other globe trotting where Hamilton inspiration for what would eventually become Prune. Like at Margarita’s restaurant in Greece:
when pushed the little gate fashioned out of branches and bedsprings, there was a rough and casual Eden inside, with olive trees, grapes, fig trees… and wild greens called horta that she boiled in salted water to tame drabness and then drowned – delicious death! – in her own olive oil… And at the end of your meal, she would come to the table with a short pencil and start to tally your bill by scribbling directly on the paper tablecloth.
There are some treats she enjoys in Turkey and India that you might have to google, but in my opinion it’s the right amount of food nerd detail and relevant, accompanying enthusiasm for it, without turning into travel-logue. It is after all what would eventually inform her menu and styling at Prune. But first there was a masters in creative writing to be earned, and a true mentor to meet.
As Gabrielle is pursuing her degree in Michigan she works with and befriends a caterer, Misty. While Gabrielle adored the reading and writing and having my brain crushed, her resolve to start a new kitchen-free life was further weakening in the direct warmth of Misty’s home style of cooking, her bumpy, misshapen tomatoes ripening on the back steps…unwittingly showing me that what I had been doing these past twenty years – and what I had come to think of as cooking… (was) nothing more than tricks of the trade. She was wakening me… out of a decades-long amnesia.
The awakening eventually leads to the opening of Prune, her childhood nickname. She has a lesbian relationship but eventually marries a Phd/MD man who frequents Prune. He is Italian and they visit his family every summer and she has an idyllic seeming family finally after those years alone. But as I have felt in many kitchens, she feels about her adoptive Italian family. Is she truly family? Truly in? Or is she a very warmly welcomed guest who is close to, but nevertheless looking in from the outside? That has been and continues to be how I feel about being in the food industry. In a way it’s a clan and inclusive. In others it’s low-paying, brutal, unbalanced and tolerant (encouraging) of very barbaric and aggressive behavior. Maybe it is just like a family.
Gabrielle has two children – one whose delivery she schedules after a second cook suddenly quits. Her marriage was never quite right and hits the rocks, and she confesses to crying on the train ride home from a conference about women chefs where she was on the panel for culinary students.
… not to say… if you’ve been a chef, then adding parenthood to your day is just as easy as running a lamb shank special on your menu. Days go very badly and there is never balance. Everybody gets shorted, everybody gets hurt, and you, the mom, not the least. But it does give you a leg up, I often think, because the restaurant is the perfect starter family… such a perfect in-flight simulator that I’ve grown to feel sorry for anybody who enters parenthood… without first having run a restaurant.
The pull of a restaurant kitchen is difficult to manage for sure. Once it’s in your blood, it never leaves and part of you always wants to go back. But you know when you walk in, it will be at the exclusion of so much else. At least in Gabrielle Hamilton’s case, being a chef did not exclude writing this book.