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15 Years of NYC Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s Benevolent Dictatorship at Prune

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Gabrielle Hamilton on her first cookbook and 15 years of Prune.

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Hillary Dixler

It's been a busy few weeks for James Beard Award-winning New York City chef and best-selling author Gabrielle Hamilton. Last month, her East Village restaurant Prune celebrated its 15th anniversary. And today, her highly anticipated first cookbook — also called Prune — hits the shelves, chronicling the recipes that have shaped the restaurant for the past decade and a half.

But the cookbook, Hamilton explains in the interview below, has had a tangible impact on the restaurant. "It was just sort of digging down through all the fingerprints of other people," says Hamilton of going through the restaurant recipes for the cookbook. "I was like, 'Oh no, this is the real story. The real recipe, the real essence.'" She tells a similar story about keeping her voice loud and clear over 15 years at the helm of Prune. Decisions are hers to make, says Hamilton. "People were making very good decisions, but it was losing my voice frankly," she explains. "Until somebody can really ventriloquist me, I like mine best for this project."

How are you feeling about the book being in people's hands?
Well, at this point all the anxiety and worrying, and [wondering] is it good enough, who's going to hate it, and who's going to like it, or will anyone like it, does anyone care, all of that has already been done in my mind while it's being made. What I have always learned to do with that kind of inner criticism, it can move into self-savaging. What I have learned to do in that self-savaging is to listen to the criticism that I level at myself and answer it, so that by the time I get it in real life, I have done my best.

So, by the time it's coming out, I'm like: Okay, is this a boring book? Okay, let's see what I can do to make it not boring. Is this a redundant, poorly researched book? Okay, what can I do to make it not redundant, or what can I do to make the measurements accurate? So, I've already answered my own harshest criticisms. How does it feel to be in people's hands? I am what I am and it is what it is, and I offer it to you, and I hope you like it, and I sure worked really hard on it, so, I hope you like it.

Were there any surprises in the cookbook writing process?
"I was surprised at how much opportunity there is still for language in a coobook."Yes. I was surprised at how much opportunity there is still for language in a cookbook, and I was very grateful for that. And I was surprised at how much I cared about it. I have often said that I don't really care about food, or food's not that interesting to me, and maybe that's still true, but I do care about excellence, and I was surprised that I took this so seriously because I thought I was using it as a clever way to get around the second book problem.

I thought, "Oh, I'll just do a cookbook and no one will have any expectations of it because it's not a memoir, and it's not anything literary." That's not what happened. I was surprised that well, it turns out that it's a book, and I respect books and I'm going to give this as much attention in it's own category as it deserves in the same way that a memoir requires all the attention that a memoir deserves ... I was surprised by that.

How did your experience writing your memoir inform your cookbook writing process?
In a way it let me [be] free of having to write long head notes, and a long introduction, and a companion glossary, because I did it all in Blood, Bones and Butter. So in a way, this became purely food driven, [a] recipe companion book to the memoir, and I was freed up from having to do all that, "I learned this dish when I was a backpacker in Europe." It's already been written.

Your cookbook has no introduction or forward. I was surprised by that, and by how surprised by that I was.
It's common. But it's also gotten even bigger than that. Not just a foreword, but the cookbooks now have a lot of stuff going on there, like they're history books, and they're part memoir, and they're memoir with a few recipes. It was very fun for me to not have to carry all of that and confuse the issue in a way. This is a cooking book, it's just a cooking book. There's nothing else going on here. Of course, if you read it, you start to see that there's a huge story in there, and lots of minor moments of the human condition, but they are there nonetheless.

Right, in the handwritten corrections and edits.
Yeah. All that annotation is the kind of color commentary. The recipe is the play by play, but the annotation in the margin is the story. You can see what's happening by what's being said, which is a playwright's skillset, right? Dialogue is not what people say to each other, it's what people do to each other. I think that's the maxim. You can see from the annotation what's going on in the life of the person who wrote it, and in this case, it's like what's going on at Prune, in the restaurant.

Did you have a grandmother who gave your mom the family collected recipes? You can see so much about her in the annotation, I've seen a bunch of them, and the personality of that person comes out in the margin.

IT'S HERE IT'S HERE

A photo posted by Paula Forbes (@forbespa) on

The cookbook is sort of a pure chronicle of the food at Prune, but you recently overhauled the menu. Can you tell me about what inspired you to do that and how it happened?
Yeah. It wasn't, god it wasn't even an inspiration, it felt almost mandatory. The fact of the first 15 years of Prune, which is a total coincidence, I had no plan that the book and the anniversary of Prune would coincide, but when I started to realize that they did, it was just "Oh, this is so perfect, how incredible." There was something about having the first 15 years of Prune neatly, thoroughly, thoughtfully, and steadfastly housed, contained, archived, put in this book, that made it all go to sleep and be put to bed.

I don't know if it works for you this way, but I have a lot of anxiety at night, or all the time, not anxiety, but I have a lot of shit to do, I have a lot of shit on my mind, and if I write it all down on a piece of paper and know what it is, I can sleep... I think it's the same something about I don't need to make the sweetbreads anymore unless I really want to because they're in the book, and they will be there forever, and I can always go find them if I need them. Now I'm freed up to move on to wherever I feel like.

The other thing was having made the document, I realized, "Wow, I am not the same cook that I was 15 years ago at all," and this book is a complete reflection of what I knew how to do and what I had seen in the world up until this point. But by the time it's coming out in 2014, and I'm looking back at recipes from 1999, I was like, "Jesus, I've been cooking for 15 more years than I had been since I started this thing." I've traveled so much more, I've read so much more in depth, so that also made cooking that food any longer feel almost remedial, or back tracking, or dull. It's like going back to basic language class when you are now fluent in the language. It's not that we cook so differently.

"I think it's incredibly recognizable what's going on here, because I am still me. I'm just me older, and I have more experiences."

It's not like, "Hey, now I'm doing a Thai concept." It's not like I've suddenly had a radical change of personality, and I cook completely different food. I think it's incredibly recognizable what's going on here, because I am still me. I'm just me older, and I have more experiences.

Does it feel like 15 years of Prune?
I was just realizing that I have been here longer than any other institution. My own originating family exploded and dissolved before I was 15. The family I'm making now, my kids are only 8 and 10, so we haven't been in this universe that we've created together yet 15 years. So yeah, this is what 15 years looks like, and I guess it feels like 15 years because I'm living it in real time.

Looking back, what do you remember most about opening night?
I remember not opening on opening night. I was here, the staff was here, we were dressed, the lights were on, the wine was chilled, etcetera. We were ready to go, and I couldn't stop nearly puking, and I couldn't open the door. I didn't. I just said, "I can't do it," and we didn't do it. We stayed here instead and kind of talked it out, and took one more day, and did it the next day. I'm really glad I didn't ... So, that's what happened.

The next day, the thing that I remember about actually opening, is I had so much anxiety and the door opened the first person who walked in was someone I knew. It wasn't even a friend of mine, it was a friend of a friend, and I relaxed immediately. I was like: Oh, well that's who's coming. Nobody knows we're open, who else would walk in the door except friends or friends of friends? So, I completely, I was naïve, I didn't know how it was going to go, so that made me relax. I mean, I wouldn't say relax, but I knew that whoever came, came because they were on my side.

Prune, NYC. [Photo: Hillary Dixler]

I'm not sure that chefs and owners feel the same way about opening anymore.
I don't think it's possible anymore. We didn't have the social media at the time, so there was no way of knowing when something was opening. We had put a sign, I put the menu in the window, and that's all we had. Just people walking by, coming in, checking it out. So, right, I think you don't get the time to work out your kinks any longer. In fact I think you have to have it going two weeks before you even open. You have to have your shit in order.

"I loved opening at that time. We were a team, it was like us and our customers together."

I loved opening at that time. We were a team, it was like us and our customers together, they could see that we were onto something, and not quite there, and making honest mistakes, so it was kind of like, "Hey, we can do this!"

When did it start to feel normal to be at Prune and to serve customers every night?
That's a good question. I don't think I can locate the time, but it must have been some years in ... I can remember no longer being surprised at the line at brunch or something, which I would come in and be like, "Oh my God you guys, there's a line out there! Can you believe there's a line?" There must have been some part where you're like, "Well, yeah there's a line at brunch and tell them to start at 10," when it was no longer novel, so I'm not quite sure when that was, but it took awhile to sink in.

What was it like to realize that beyond just buzz that the restaurant had serious staying power?
So, something that happens to me is I have a list of restaurants that I need to get to that I haven't eaten at yet. I'm very behind and by the time I get to them, they had actually already closed. So that's a little moment where I think, "Oh my God, and we're still here, and people still eat here." So, it seems like we're relevant, and maybe actually its some of the harder times have still reinforced, that feeling that you're talking about.

The past three years with Sandy, with the terrible winter, with the economy, we did not suffer that easily. This is already a non-profit restaurant as it is, and everyone knows you can't make money in a 30-seat restaurant, really — in spite of the line out front, which everyone is mislead by, when brunch in fact, pays for [a weekday] night when we do not a lot of covers. So, I think having withstood some of the very skinniest, running-on-fumes times here has also made me think, "Oh, we will endure." I hope.

Prune really helped usher in a different way of dining in New York: It is delicious food, served properly, but unfussy, casual. What inspired you to go in that direction?
"Prune was the restaurant that I wished existed and I made it instead."I worked in catering, and in catering at the time, catering followed what restaurants were doing, on a huge scale. All the food was touched way too much, by too many people, too many sets of hands, and too much crap on the plate. So, it was pretty much a reaction of what I could never eat again in my life, or I would throw up, and how I really needed to eat. It was the restaurant that I wished existed and I made it instead.

Looking at the cookbook, which is sort of like an archive of those 15 years, how has life at the restaurant changed over this time?
[The cookbook is] an archive not only of the recipes and the food, but the people who have worked here, the systems that we employ and no longer employ. What's changed? I'm constantly trying to find ways to make everybody's life a little better here. I love hard work, that has not changed, and I love delicious things, and I love excellence, but I don't love to work stupid hard. I'm interested in how the systems have gotten better and smarter, only better and smarter over time.

In the back of the book is a family meal section... Because of the construct of this book — no acknowledgments, no introduction — I couldn't suddenly throw in this out of context thank you and acknowledgment to all of the people who have made Prune over the years. So I put the employee manifest in since 1999 until 2014. I was looking over this incredible document of 250 names of people who worked here, and many of them [have] gone on to open their own restaurants, so incredible to go through there and see. Also to come across a lot of names that I had terrible experiences with, employees who I fired or who left hating me, so there's a lot of loss in that document as well.

There's a lot of warmth and there's a lot of loss, so part of what's changed also is my relationship to both of those feelings actually. It gets thrown around, that word "family" a lot. "A restaurant's like a family," and it is, but I think there's a lot of business here now. The business of running a warm family, much more infrastructure, much more architecture, much more discipline, clear definition of expectation, consequence, etcetera, which I frankly think is a gift to everyone. People feel so much more relaxed when they know what's expected of them, and what's going to happen.

How do decisions get made at Prune?
I make them in a benevolent, thoughtful, dictator [way]. It's a benevolent dictatorship. It's a learned thing, because many decisions have been made here over the 15 years that are all well intentioned and needed to be made. And all of them made with Prune's best interest in mind, but what happens when you have a lot of people making the decisions — and by necessity frankly, I was away having a kid, or I was on book tour, or I was writing a book, so you're out of the building and you can't bottleneck every fucking decision because you're away and they need to act on it — but it's like putting additions on a house. After 15 years you kind of look at the house and you're like there's no plan here, there's no central voice.

"People were making very good decisions, but it was losing my voice frankly. "

Somebody had taken the Brother P-Touch and labeled everything within an inch of it's life, because I love that kind of organization, but they happen to have taken all the handmade romance out of the project. It's like, "Nope, I want handwriting in my restaurant." We did away with shift drink because we were going through too much Scotch and I didn't like the way the dudes were acting at the end of the night. It's like, you know what, I really believe in shift drink, it's a place to get to know everybody. People were making very good decisions, but it was losing my voice frankly. Until somebody can really ventriloquist me, I like mine best for this project.

I don't mean that in a narcissistic way. It gets too diluted. As I was going through the recipes for the book even, you can see — because I took it right out of our workbooks — so you can see, "You know what, who put this change in here? Oh, that was the chef de cuisine in 2010." Or, "Oh, this is a note from the line cook." And I was like, "Hey everybody, it's time to get all your hands off the page, and I just need to get mine on here" ... It was just sort of digging down through all the fingerprints of other people and clearing it away like an archaeological dig, I was like, "Oh no, this is the real story. The real recipe, the real essence."

What does the future of Prune look like?
I'm sort of most enamored with and admiring of the stuff that endures and not just hangs on, but actually really endures ... It's funny, it's like your own self aging. You just have to work a little harder, you have to exercise a little more, stay strong, I guess that's what the future of Prune looks like. We're on a little path right now about attending to our service as much as we attend to our cooking.  It's an interesting approach that I don't know if it'll work, but just trying to translate some of the gestalt of the restaurant into the front of the house in that kind of we speak very frankly, but not meanly, we speak directly and all cow, no bull, and I'm kind of wondering if we can translate this into a service.

Do you sense there's a gap in the philosophy of the kitchen and the front of house philosophy now or is this just shifting focus a little bit?
The gap is that I spend all my time in the kitchen and the people in the front of the house don't typically get enough of me. Because it's a chef driven restaurant, everyone who works in the kitchen knows exactly how they're doing, what they're doing, and how it should be done or not done all the time, to the point where it's almost weird to do nine month reviews, or three month reviews, because it's like, "Jesus Christ, I just talked to you all week. You know exactly where you stand or what's expected."

Where as the front of the house doesn't get enough of me, and the parallels are there, we're really enjoying talking about wine the same way we talk about food, we enjoy talking about service the same way we talk about treating each other in the kitchen. It's kind of fun to see how that will pan out.

Prune

54 East 1st Street, Manhattan, NY 10003 (212) 677-6221 Visit Website

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