Culinary provocateur Gabrielle Hamilton is the unconventional chef-owner of iconic New York City restaurant Prune, which she describes as having an “unapologetic East Village demeanor.” Hamilton is also the acclaimed author of the outstanding memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which garnered a James Beard Award for Writing and Literature in 2012. She more recently authored the exceptional Prune cookbook, and is the central personality of season four of the PBS series, Mind of a Chef.
Having published numerous articles in Saveur, Bon Appetit, GQ, The New Yorker, and Food & Wine, Hamilton’s writing has been anthologized in Best Food Writing on numerous occasions.
Named 2011 Best Chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation, she does not pursue culinary trends but prepares food at Prune that she feels matters. In the New York Times article, A Chef’s Life, With Scars and All, she wrote, “This is a health food restaurant, in a way. People feel well here. In the sense that there’s no guilt, there’s no denial, there’s no self-deprivation.”
She was awarded her third James Beard award for journalism in 2015, in the category Wine, Spirits, and Other Beverages, for her article Into the Vines: The Wines and Winemakers of Sicily.
In Blood, Bones & Butter she tell us that she is suspicious of anyone that fetishes the tomato, that she grew up drinking raw milk, and that she was taught as a child how to correctly pronounce culinary terms by her French mother, a former ballet dancer at the Met in New York City. “She forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease,” says Hamilton of her mother.
Hamilton’s Bohemian father, “had an eye for things,” and built sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, and staged outstanding backyard soirées that left a lasting impression on her.
Originally, she was opposed to writing a memoir. Ruminating on her life as a writer, she endeavors to treat the reading public with the respect and consideration for their time and money as she would if they were dining at Prune.
When discussing television and the PBS series Mind of a Chef series, Hamilton recently told Eater, “Well, they don’t force you into its shape, they let your own shape take shape, if you will. So the other thing that I found incredible about this series is, most television that I’ve ever done, you have to, you know, sort of cram it into your 15-second sound bite, and the money shot has to be hit. And with this series, you have so much time to expand, so I often speak in paragraphs, but I’m often quoted in single sentences and in these episodes, I get to articulate the whole paragraph, metaphorically and literally. So it’s — you have the time to expand and really be all that you are.” This year Gabrielle Hamilton will be in residence from January 11 to 23 at the Stratford Chefs School. The Gastronomic Writer in Residence position changes annually, with the recipient working at the school for a short time to instruct the students in the ways of writing. The program is unique to chef training in Canada and allows students to broaden their knowledge of social media and food writing.
I asked Meg Westley, Program Director, Stratford Chefs School, about the Gastronomic Writer in Residence program and Gabrielle Hamilton.
Could you give a brief overview of the program for the Gastronomic Writer in Residence?
The program was established in 2007-08 through the generous support of Joseph Hoare’s family. Its purpose is to provide our culinary students insights into the world of food writing, and hands-on experience working with acclaimed food writers. The Gastronomic Writer in Residence (GWIR) is in residence at the school for 2 weeks, and teaches classes to both our first and second year students, setting them an assignment of his/her choice, based on his/her area of expertise, coaching them in completing the assignment, and marking/providing feedback to them. This program has been highly successful and every year a few students decide that they want to pursue food writing as a career.
What are the criteria and the vetting process to be shortlisted for the Gastronomic Writer in Residence?
A volunteer committee of individuals with experience and knowledge of the culinary writing world (mostly from Toronto), chaired by the school’s co-founder Eleanor Kane, meets several times a year to brainstorm possible candidates. Writers from different countries with different areas of expertise are considered. A short list is created, based on a range of factors: writing skill and publishing history, potential availability, perceived ability to engage students, teaching skills, philosophy, etc. Feedback from students/alumni about previous GWIRs is also taken into account. Hot culinary topics of the day are identified, and writers who address those topics are considered. Overall the committee seeks a balance from year to year, of male and female, Canadian and international writers. The committee reaches consensus on the short list, and the position is offered to the top candidate. If s/he is not available the next in line is invited. Any of the writers on the short list would, in the committee’s opinion, be a very exciting choice.
What expectations are placed on the Gastronomic Writer in Residence?
To be in residence in Stratford for two weeks, teach two formal and several small group sessions to each of the first and second year classes, set one assignment for each level, coach the students to complete it, and mark/provide them feedback on their work. The GWIR generally also participates in two to three public events (lectures, workshops) in Stratford and/or Toronto. This year, since Gabrielle Hamilton is also a renowned chef and restaurateur, she will take on additional duties, acting as guest chef for three dinners at the school, where she will lead each of the three second-year student groups in the kitchen, preparing and serving menus of her design for our patrons. She will also participate in two Toronto events — a conversation with Ian Brown at the Toronto Public Library on January 11 and, as chef, a fundraising dinner for the school at Richmond Station, a restaurant co-owned by alumni Carl Heinrich and Ryan Donovan, on January 17.
The GWIR is encouraged to engage in the life of the school as much as possible while in Stratford, sitting in on other classes and attending lunches and dinners at the school, where they often dine with faculty members.
Interview with Gabrielle Hamilton
Gabrielle Hamilton ranks among the upper echelons of food memoirists along with M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David. Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery interviewed Hamilton about writing, and her appointment as Stratford Chefs School Gastronomic Writer in Residence 2015/16.
What is your writing routine like? How do you fit it into your busy life?
I don’t have a routine for writing any more than I do for sleeping or eating. I just get done whatever I can on any given day. It is not ideal, and I often wish for a series of uninterrupted hours to just focus and polish up the work, but on the other hand, there is something motivating about seeing a brief window/opportunity and seizing it with urgency. I think of it just as a fact to live with and work around this fact of limited and unpredictable writing time — unless I decide to burn down my restaurant and put my children up for adoption.
What experiences developed your voice as a writer?
By chance, the voice was the only thing I was born with. The rest of the craft has been learned and practiced.
What insights about writing do you feel you can offer the Stratford Chefs School students as Gastronomic Writer in Residence?
That it feels better on the page and makes the work stronger when you try to tell the truth rather than sell the truth.
That it is easier to write the more you write, like cooking itself perhaps?
That the very best food writing is simply good writing that happens to be around food, and that all writing — even food writing — requires rigour and discipline and technique.
I have heard you in an interview say that you would like to write a novel. Do you think this is something you will do?
Sure. When it’s right.
What foods do you think are overrated?
The meals that are designed to “blow your mind” and to compel you to spend your meal talking about the genius of the chef.
What is one of the most memorable meals you’ve had?
Please read Blood, Bones and Butter for the answer to this question! [See Darin Cook’s review of Hamilton’s book, in this issue.]
You write that your experiences with hunger were some of the most important credentials for opening the Prune? Can you briefly explain this?
I did not have formal training and had never run a restaurant before I opened my own. So I had to do a full and honest reckoning with myself when it came to opening Prune about what credentials I might have that would actually help me succeed. It was clutching at straws, but having an extended and repeated, episodic relationship to very real hunger and the attendant cravings and the longings and the gratifications and the hospitality and the generosity of strangers — all added up to at least one thing on my weak resume that gave me the footing to think I could cook for people and feed them nicely.
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.