We Chat With: Chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune

"I think the only thing that's happening now that I'm trying to figure out is, 'how long does this golden period last?'"

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

"The root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in my throat."

So ends the first chapter of Chef Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter. It is full of vivid, vibrant descriptions: of the grotesque and the beautiful, of bloodlines and beginnings and ends. The chef/owner of acclaimed Prune got her degree in fiction writing after years of bouncing between hard kitchen jobs that had started at a radically early age. At her tiny, pink-hued restaurant she now serves up complex, satisfying dishes with little fuss, a counterpoint to both the mass meals she used to create for catering companies and the pomp of the New York restaurant scene she had grown weary of watching.

What brought Chef Hamilton into the kitchen—then far from it—then back again? We had a chat to find out.

In 1995 you left New York City to go back to school. What so broke you from food that you walked away? It's funny because I was never passionately involved in food—it was just the way that I made my living for so long. I was turning 30, and by that time I had already been an earner for 15 years and was starting to feel like I was not going to ever be able to live a life of my own choosing. So I guess I started to have a little mid-life crisis and thought, "I've gotta see if I'm made of anything else."

Why writing? I had always written and always wanted to be a writer, so that was the passion that had been abandoned and triaged to making a living my whole life. That was the itch that had to be scratched.

Did you expect not to work in food again? That was the fantasy entertained; "I'm leaving this shit, I'm out!"

What called you back? Well, it turns out that being without a deadline or a contract is an incredibly idle and self-destructive state of mind for me. I crave and rely on the structure and the confines of a very busy schedule that is automatically generated by working in a restaurant. It turns out that I like both and do better at both things when I have both jobs to do. So I got back into a kitchen just to make a living for a minute.

Did you aspire to your own restaurant at that point? I was walking on the block one day and the guy that owns the building pointed out this restaurant. It had sat here for two years, so there were cockroaches and rat shit and the coolers were left with meat and fish. Somehow the electricity had been left on but the Freon had run out so you walked into the walk-in to this blast of warm, putrid air. And somehow I was like, "it's pretty charming, I think this is a fixer-upper". This space in particular just kinda got me right away.

What kind of restaurant did you see yourself creating? I was doing negative cooking, if that makes sense, cooking against high-end catering. That food is touched so many times by so many different sets of hands, it's repulsive. A real motivator for the food here was, "you, Cook, are gonna prepare, cook and put it on a plate. You and your one pair of hands, and it's gonna go right to the customer." It was to be food from people who know what they're doing for people who know what they're doing. Cooks eat here. I love that cooks eat here all the time. It's very gratifying.

You've made remarks that you don't like to talk about food to an endless point... I love food. I love to eat it, I love to cook it, and I'm happy to talk about it for a minute. But my life is not organized around food as a central theme or activity or fetish.

But the way you describe food and your experiences around it is so vivid. I do love food. But food for me in that book is just the setting; it's the background. If I'd been a cop for a living I'd probably have written about guns and, I don't know, handcuffs.

What did writing the book do for you? I have wanted to write a book my whole life, so that's one potential regret dogged. Emotionally, I like very much the way organizing it helped to make a certain narrative sense out of my own life. It's not that I was unknown to myself—I'm a pretty introspective human. But still it put some organization to a long meandering path that I hadn't understood prior.

With all this attention, how do you stay true to your priorities and filter out all of the opinions and labels coming at you? I feel like I sorted that kinda thing out many years ago. So these changes have been fun and exciting. I think the only thing that's happening now that I'm trying to figure out is, "how long does this golden period last?" Right now the crew is excellent. The chef de cuisine, Ned Baldwin, has changed my life, radically. He's allowed me to be out of the restaurant, and he makes more delicious food than I ever could. My gratitude to him is enormous. As soon as he goes to open his new restaurant I'm fucked.

You've had to deal with plenty of labels as a lot of women who are in the top of their field often are. Do you have a game plan to handle that? I just do my job. I define for myself what my work is, what's important to me, and who I am; I tend to really ignore everything—positive or negative—assigned to me. It's an incredible distraction and drain to get caught up in other people's subjective take on you. Having said that I think it's very important to have frank conversations with yourself. You need to check in with people around you, your society, your world, to see if you're on the mark and you have to accept some hard truths about yourself. You have to listen to the harsh voices.

You said that life is rolling along well right now. What's the best part? I'm pretty much in control of how I spend my day, and I like not having a routine. Today could be a cooking day, tomorrow's a writing day, the day after that speaking at a cooking event, and the day after that staying home and actually knowing my children and seeing what they're about. I'm 46 and I've been doing this a long time. It's very nice to be in control of how I spend my time...for the moment...until Ned leaves.