Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gabrielle Hamilton: Embracing the hospitable amid life's uncertainties

This blog first appeared on Culinary Historians of the Piedmont.

Gabrielle Hamilton's years of hard living, coupled with her role as chef/owner of Prune, one of the most celebrated restaurants in New York City, have cemented an image of the quintessential bad-ass chef. She's famously infamous, a woman whose conversation is casually peppered with F-bombs and whose classic food evokes the rapturous praise of the most discerning critics.

So it was a surprise when she sheepishly accepted a glowing introduction last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, an event presented in collaboration with Culinary Historians of the Piedmont (CHOPNC). Hamilton read from the newly-issued paperback edition of her best-selling memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter (Random House), which was celebrated this week by Food52 as its No. 1 "favorite food-related find" from 2011. Yes, she assured fans, it is updated to answer some of the questions everyone asks about her children, her Italian mother-in-law, and the ashes of her failed marriage. 

The chapter she read recalled her liberating but at times frightening first extended trip abroad. Saved by a fortunate connection that took her from a freaky hostel in Amsterdam to a cozy attic room in small French village, she spent several weeks earning her keep in a working class cafe. It was there that she acquired an ease that allowed her the experience of learning "how we live and eat."

"Don't laugh," she begged of the capacity crowd as she allowed them a glimpse of the girl who two decades later would be named the Best Restaurant Chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation. They hung on her every word -- even the French ones whose proper pronunciation, required by her demanding mother, made her feel "awkwardly pretentious."

"Can I stop? Ugh, I'll never read that one again," she said, clearly uneasy with the effusive accolades that accompany most everything she says or does. Or wears, like her chunky tortoiseshell glasses or fashionably greying hair caught in a clip, both of which drew admiring whispers.

Hamilton shares intensely personal details in her book, which is subtitled "The Inadvertent Education of a Relucant Chef." Arriving at a place where she could look back at the seeming chaos of her youth, and armed with an MFA in writing earned during a career detour, the book is evidence of a catharthsis -- a crystalization of  the good and the "gruesome" that shaped a journey from her mother's kitchen to the culinary world's center stage.

She welcomed a wide array of questions, ranging from how this working mother managed to find the time to write -- "I wrote while nursing, in the middle of the night, and sometimes on the line on torn sheets of brown paper we use to cover the tables" -- to how she traded substance abuse for the addictive passion for writing.
"I'd worked in kitchens since I was 12," she said, noting her rise from dishwasher to "salad girl" to the first of many Star Is Born-like promotions the night a co-worker failed to show up. "It was good, but I always thought to myself, 'I'm living the wrong life.'"

Hamilton hocked her stainless and "took a sabbatical" from cooking to complete the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Nine months after graduation, however, she opened Prune. "I said to myself at the time, 'Put away the fantasy; you're never going to write a book,'" she recalled. Six weeks later, she was published for the first time in the New York Times. The beginnings of Blood, Butter & Bones soon followed.

"The hospitality industry taught me more about writing than grad school," Hamilton said. "It's all about taking care of people."

Hamliton is enjoying a guest gig writing about food for House Beautiful -- her April column, which she intended to finish in her Chapel Hill hotel room, will be about salmon -- but her next book will be a cookbook "with a practical approach to real food."

"I want to focus on the realities of buying food in a grocery store and turning out great meals for your family. At least," she said with a good-humored shrug, "that's the plan."

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