Chef & Owner, Prune, New York, NY
It doesn’t get any more honest or pure than award-winning chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton. She is the owner of the highly regarded 30-seat bistro Prune in New York City. Since opening the restaurant in 1999, she’s seen a lifetime of industry experience and continues to be transparent about it every step of the way.
As the author of Blood, Bones and Butter, her memoir showed the raw side of the industry, which inspired thousands of fans in and out of the industry. The James Beard Foundation Awards recently named Gabrielle Hamilton the country’s Outstanding Chef. She is now writing her second book.
Total Food Service caught up with the renowned chef to talk about her award, industry insights, writings and more!
It’s pretty unusual for an award winner to come from obscurity, burst onto the scene and then kind of disappear. You’re on your way to 20 years. What were your thoughts when the Beard Foundation finally called your name?
Well, it didn’t feel like finally they called my name. It was my fourth James Beard Award. So I personally felt, and have felt rather, perfectly recognized my whole career. It was my second time nominated in that very same category [Outstanding Chef]. To be frank, it felt perfectly on time in a certain way. As you know, the James Beard Awards this year were massively dedicated to correcting their history of neglect. I had this tiny feeling of hoping that I was winning on merit and not as part of a corrective. I’d like to be recognized in such a way just on that and not as a kind of “let’s scramble and get the ladies right as part of a corrective.” And so it felt both sad and happy simultaneously.
I’ve steadily been recognized commensurately along the way at every juncture and this is one of the last ones it seems. I’m glad it happened now. When people say well deserved that makes me feel very good, and I don’t appreciate it when people say long overdue. Because right now, it’s that I don’t feel like it was long overdue at all.
So is winning part of your DNA and life?
Hardly. I do apply myself with total rigor and thoroughness and excellence. The other thing that might be construed as winning is my idea of a good time and my ideas. Success has been met along the way.
The Bourdain tragedy must have struck a personal chord in that it’s something that you’ve talked about in your books and writings. Talk a little bit about the high pressure of the restaurant industry. What do you see?
I have to say that Bourdain’s suicide is so personal that I can still barely talk about it. Tony was very important in my career and my life. I don’t have any sense at all it has anything to do with our industry. The high pressure in a restaurant and kitchen setting can actually be quite amazing and helpful in building a positive dynamic for the team and group to which we need to feel connected. It’s an honest day’s living for sure. So I think the pressure is actually healthy in that regard.
I heard you’re in the middle of a second book. Can you tell us what you’re writing about?
It’s a starting point about the suicide death of my oldest brother; exactly the same as Tony. And I think it’s kind of, if you will, a sort of poetic writer’s autopsy of the passing of a brother that’s obviously not medical. It’s just a real mental examination of my experience.
What is it that you love about writing?
What I find with writing is that it is a very helpful way to organize the chaos. Writing really helps to organize my thoughts. There’s this private part of writing, and then the stage of writing when you share it with the public. The challenge is to decide whether or how you are organizing the material for the reader or for your own catharsis. I have found that good literature can eliminate the fog that surrounds us all.
You recently partnered with Ken Friedman at The Spotted Pig. What’s the opportunity that you see at the restaurant? Any thoughts going into the venture on the expansion of that type of concept?
You know, what I’m interested in is the business end of it. I really appreciate your curiosity. Frankly, if I may say, it doesn’t feel very much like an opportunity to me as much as a kind of compulsory obligatory mandatory internal need to get in and get to work. I think I personally was having a hard time thinking or reading or talking or writing or debating. I was like, “Hey I’m ready to just actually do something.” And that’s the thing that I know how to do is to sort of cook and clean and lead in a very humane and ethical way. I obviously don’t want to open 17 restaurants. I’ve never wanted to. I don’t want to have a cookware line. I don’t want to go to Vegas. I do these one or two things – I cook and clean and I write.
So the focus at Spotted Pig is to be in charge of what the future of this little corner of the universe has for me, which includes Ken, the building and the employees, I’ll take it. I really love Prune so much, and I love what we do there. And I’m not talking about the food. I’m talking about the way that we treat everyone and always have.
So will this be full-time for you, too?
I will split my time. We are so proud of Prune turning 19 in October. Everyday it has been tended to and cared for as it was in year one. It has a vitality and relevance some how that I attribute to never having checked out.
Who has a restaurant for 19 years? I mean it’s unheard of.
Well we make the joke that it’s like dog years in that [Prune]’s actually 104.
Where does TV fit into all this?
I have a very different take on the role of TV for a chef. Most television either unrealistically reduces, enlarges or magnifies the tiniest parts of you. I thought that TV tended to distort or constricted until I saw it done correctly when I did “Mind of a Chef” on PBS. That was the most beautiful television I’ve seen in our industry and by beautiful I mean warts and all.
Crystal ball. What will Prune look like at 30?
I had this experience just about two weeks ago. Frankly it happens all the time it’s so gratifying. A person who used to come to Prune or worked at Prune about eight years ago came in and sat at the bar and had a drink and a snack and was greeted by the host and the manager on duty and chatted with the bartender and waiter. She said, “It’s unbelievable that everything is still the same.”
That’s what keeps me going. And even though I could retire, I’m not ready to.
To learn more about Gabrielle Hamilton and Prune, visit their website.