Gabrielle Hamilton: From Wild Child to Successful Restaurateur

03/02/2011 07:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gabrielle Hamilton owns Prune, a tiny (30-seat), much beloved restaurant on New York's Lower East Side. She is also a wife and mother of two small children. And yet somehow she has found the time to write "Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef." Annoyingly to "real" writers, these 290 pages aren't padded with the recipes that are easy cheats for chefs who write memoirs. In fact, the book is as compelling --- and surprising --- as a meal at Prune. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

"Blood, Bones and Butter" is a surprise because it's not the clichéd story of a girl who wants to be a cook when she grows up. On the contrary, it's the story of a wild child --- when her parents divorced, her mother moved to northern Vermont, briefly taking her 13-year-old daughter with her, then letting her return to the family home in New Jersey to live with her father. Translation: Gabrielle pretty much had to fend for herself.

Her days began with banks calling her father. (He worked in the theater. He had five kids. He insisted on sending them to private school --- on an artist's wages. Do the math.) They ended with her smoking cigarettes and "borrowing" cars.

Gabrielle graduated at 16 and headed to New York, where she lived in a dive and used stolen ketchup from McDonald's as spaghetti sauce. At 17, she was working the bar at the Lone Star Café and making $90,000 a year, most of which she spent on drugs. Busted by her employer for fraud, she wangled a slot at Hampshire College. She lasted five semesters. When she left, she was, she says, "a staunch Marxist feminist, budding lesbian, black nationalist sympathizer."

Happy? So not. She writes: "If there was any single inch of my own flesh or remote coil of my own brain that I have warm regard for at this time, I cannot recall it."

She had one skill: kitchen work. She could clean kitchens and stand over blistering stoves and not hate the long hours. She is revelatory about large catering companies. And she is hilarious about cooking at a summer camp where the counselors, who were once campers, can't stop hugging one another: "I had not seen such a thing since I myself was nineteen and working two simultaneous hits of Ecstasy."

Eventually, restlessness struck. Starting with $1,000, she headed to Europe, where she learned to starve, had adventures, and began to store the memories that would become the inspiration for Prune.

And then she went to Michigan and enrolled in its graduate writing program. Why?

I wanted to do more than spend my days with my hands thrust into a bowl of micro-greens dressed with aged balsamic and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and roasted apricots. I had always wanted to contribute in some way. Leave a little more than I took.

It's easy to make fun of writing programs --- and she does. But there's more here. To keep herself sane, she takes a restaurant job. And there acquires her first mentor. Her education has, finally, begun.

When she decided to launch Prune --- it's her childhood nickname --- in 1999, her ideas were far from the ones you learn at the Culinary Institute. These were the elements she wants to see in her restaurant:

....the old goat herder smoking filterless cigarettes coming down the mountain, crushing oregano and wild mint underfoot; Iannis cooking me two fried eggs without even asking me if I cared for something to eat; that sweet, creamy milk that the milk wallah in Delhi frothed by pouring in a long sweeping arc between two pots held as far apart as the full span of his arms from his cart decorated with a thousand fresh marigolds....

And more...

... a Velvet Underground CD...butter and sugar sandwiches from my childhood...the canned sardines I ate in that little apartment on 23rd Street...brown butcher paper for tablecloths....jelly jars for wine glasses....

This is wonderful stuff, much better than the blather about vertical entrees and locally farmed vegetables in foodie books. It's exalted --- Gabrielle's ferociously ambitious for her restaurant as a quality destination. And it's cheerfully absurd. One minute she's cleaning the basement stairs after maggots burst out of a dead rat, the next she's off in a Town Car to tape a segment with Martha Stewart.

Her personal life has an equally unexpected rhythm. Although she claims to be content with her "gold golden girlfriend of goldness," she meets Michele, an Italian doctor/researcher who cooks for her. His bread "tasted of nothing but the effort," but his ravioli.... They marry, he gets his green card, children follow.

It's a strange marriage --- they don't live together, they don't talk much, their only deep bonding occurs during their annual summer trip to his mother's house in Italy --- and if the book ended before those July trips began, I would declare this a flawless memoir.

For one thing, I believe almost all books --- even books as well written as this --- would benefit from the loss of 50-75 pages. For another, brevity is even more essential in a book with food at or near its center. There's only so much delicious prose you can stand, only so much you can read about meals and food combinations. Butter and oil and fatty prosciutto on bread --- yes, I swooned. The first time. But there comes a point when even a glutton is sated.

This is a minor criticism, equivalent to carping about the cookies after a fantastic meal. What matters so much more is the human story --- the adventures of a fearless girl, a young woman's refusal to be anyone other than herself, an adult's hard-won triumph. And, above all, her all-seeing eye, her smart mouth, her light touch on the keyboard.

Good luck getting a reservation at Prune. Gabrielle Hamilton's book is a click away. It will do nicely while you wait.

[Cross-posted from]