Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune restaurant in New York's East Village, has written an engrossing memoir about her "inadvertent education" as a "reluctant chef." From her early years growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the youngest of five children of a ballet dancer and a set designer, her childhood was unconventional to say the least.
As children, Hamilton and her siblings played in her father's Lambertville, New Jersey studio, just across the river from home, where he designed sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Gabrielle's French mother cooked in a good skirt and high heels, ruling the kitchen with a wooden spoon. It is clear that the author's foundation in cooking and "staging" a meal began in her mother's kitchen and her father's studio.
Her parents' rocky marriage ended when Gabrielle was about thirteen and she spent her teen years wild and unsupervised. For years, she traveled between low-skilled more restaurant jobs, and then to France, Greece and Turkey, learning about hospitality and food, and ended up cooking for New York City catering companies.
"I was not looking to open a restaurant," she writes. But one morning, a neighbor shows her an abandoned restaurant and asks, "Any interest?"
Although she had no idea how to open a restaurant, Hamilton says "I felt very nearly combustible with something I could not tamp down with any blanket of reason or logic I threw in front of it. I doodled menus. Pulled some plates down from my own stack and set a mock table....and merrily pulled out all of my wooden salad bowls and...wondered if it would be a health code violation to use them in my restaurant."
Here begins the book's long, steady arc of passion as the author finally comes into her own. Despite long hours and grueling work, she is clearly in love with preparing and serving food. Details about what goes on behind the scenes in a New York kitchen will make you feel you are there, trying to stay out of the way of a harried waitperson.
She writes about the customers, the music, and everything that can go wrong. She holds nothing back, giving us her opinions about food critics, catering companies, and even some peoples' sense of style, yet still her love of it all shines through.
Underlying the food and cooking story is the emotional narrative of Hamilton's longing for family after her parents' divorce. She is drawn toward many eclectic friendships and lesbian relationships, a girlfriend who becomes her lover, and finally, the male Italian doctor she marries. With her husband, Michele, Gabrielle has two sons. Each year, she relishes a month-long visit to his huge family back in Italy. Her mother-in-law, Alda, speaks almost no English and Gabrielle very little Italian, but they communicate and bond with each other in the kitchen.
This memoir is about more than food and cooking. It is the story of a woman's search for a place where she belongs. With blunt honesty about her shortcomings, the author brings us to a point in her story where, just as in life, we suspect there are changes still to come. Before she opened Prune, Hamilton obtained an MFA from the University of Michigan and planned to become a writer. That education nicely dovetails with her cooking skills in this juicy, provocative memoir.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef/owner of Prune restaurant in New York's East Village. She received an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. Hamilton has appeared on The Martha Stewart Show and the Food Network. She lives in Manhattan with her two sons. Visit her website.
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