Gabrielle Hamilton has been the chef and owner of Prune, a popular American nouveau restaurant in New York City's East Village, since 1999. During this time, the well-known chef also earned an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, something she put to use in writing her first book (which has already reached No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list), the aptly titled Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.
Blood, Bones & Butter is the sort of hard-edged restaurant memoir we've come to expect from fellow New York chefs like Anthony Bourdain, who, coincidentally, described Hamilton's book as "simply the best memoir by a chef. Ever." But it's also the story of a young girl confused by her parents' sudden divorce, who turned to a life of crime and, perhaps even more perilous, restaurant work.
Hamilton named her restaurant after the nickname her mother gave her as a girl. She writes a lot about her French mother in Blood, Bones & Butter and, as she tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz, her mother's discipline and sense of thrift heavily influenced her and her cooking.
"She took us into the woods, we picked fiddlehead ferns, we knew how to hunt for chanterelle mushrooms, we had a garden, we went to the local farm and we got raw milk," Hamilton explains. "She had French wartime parents, so she had grown up highly attuned to, you know, the economy of feeding a family. So we were often just cutting away the moldy bit and getting to the rest of whatever was edible on the product itself. So we really learned to eat from her."
Hamilton's mother and father, who was a theater set designer, divorced when she was 11 years old. After the pair split, Hamilton found herself on her own and in need of a way to earn money, and she soon turned to the familiar world of kitchen work.
"I mean, between the two of them I [felt] like I knew how to wash dishes and clear plates and cook food, so it made sense to land in a restaurant kitchen," Hamilton says.
As Blood, Bones & Butter details, Hamilton spent the years that followed working in various restaurants and getting into trouble — stealing cars, doing hard drugs and almost getting arrested — before finally turning things around. She got married, had two kids and now devotes herself full-time to her work as a chef and restaurant owner, as well as her work as a writer. She has written for countless newspapers and magazines and sees this first book as only the beginning of her writing career.
"I really like the way writing and restaurant work go together — they sort of counterbalance and are an antidote to each other," she says. "So if I could, I'd like to stay right where I am: some writing, a lot of restaurant and my kids, and that's a pretty full life right there."