Gabrielle Hamilton worries about whether she looks as busy as she is — but it’s not clear who would think she’s slacking. The chef runs beloved New York City restaurant Prune, contributes to the New York Times magazine column Eat, and is writing her second memoir. “The thing that I love about restaurant work is that it resembles work,” Hamilton says. “For someone with my hyper Protestant work ethic, it looks exactly like what it is. When you’re writing, it looks like you’re sipping coffee.”
Even though the work may not always be apparent, both of Hamilton’s vocations have earned her accolades. Prune is a stalwart of New York City dining and one of America’s essential restaurants, according to Eater national critic Bill Addison, who credits Hamilton with influencing “a generation by cultivating a clear sense of self.” Last week, for the second year in a row, Hamilton was nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s bestselling 2011 memoir Blood, Bones & Butter accumulated a stack of positive reviews, and in 2014, she published the eagerly awaited, and well-received, Prune cookbook.
Her new memoir has a projected publishing date in 2019 — the same year Prune turns 20. Eater caught up with Hamilton at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival to discuss how the book is coming along and how she gets it done while continuing to run a New York City institution.
So, tell me about the new book.
It’s a memoir. It’s called Kind Regards right now, and I think it’ll stay with that title. “Kind regards” is a closing salutation.
Much of Blood, Bones & Butter dealt with your relationship to food and cooking. Will food play a role in this memoir?
Food’s really not going to be in it. We’ll see if I lose everyone with this book. I’m not sure, but I think if it’s well-written enough, people will come to it. But you will not find any recipes or food or chef life in it, except as it has to be, or [as it] shows up by necessity — but it’s not portrayed.
The organizing premise was rather dark, and the departure point regards the suicide death of my oldest brother — that’s a real goodbye; that’s a real parting salutation. I don’t quite have my elevator speech ready for this book, but that’s where it starts, and it’s a lot of kind regards — parting salutations to a lot of people and things and places and times with real kind regards, real affection and love.
I would say that Blood, Bones & Butter was also a kind of love letter to everything about my family, my upbringing, and my industry that I could feel love for. If I wasn’t feeling kind regard for it, I just didn’t write about it. This book is much harder in that I am finding kind regard for all the more difficult things, all the things that are not as easy to love or feel kindly toward.
It was reported previously that the book would answer questions raised in Blood, Bones & Butter. What are those questions?
I do get asked all the time, “Whatever happened to your mother-in-law?” That’s a big one I’m going to have to answer. Probably [questions] about my own parents: Where are they? If you read Blood, Bones & Butter, the last thing you might know about us is that we were all sleeping around the fire the night before the lamb roast, and we’re just a big squirming pack of kids. To start this next book with the oldest boy hanging from a tree, you’ll probably want to know what happened in the the intervening years. So of course I’m going to have to gracefully, fluently, expertly (I’m hoping I have the skills to do that) bring everyone up to speed.
Where are you in the writing of it?
I have a draft in, and I would say it’s a — not to be too graphic — it’s a very premature delivery, like nearly an abortion. So it’s just covered in blood and poop and has one lung working. It’s a miserable little baby. But, fortunately, it is a draft, so there’s a lot to be said for meeting a deadline, no matter how undressed you are, and vulnerable, and ugly while you’re doing it, it’s important to meet your deadlines. And then, I can at least look at this thing, and it’s true, there’s only one lung working, but at least she’s in the incubator, and we have the technology, and I think she’s going to be a 9-pound, robust little thing. She needs a lot of work. It’s pretty ugly at this point.
How do you balance writing the book with running Prune?
Things have changed in the past year or two. I’ve married a chef, Ashley Merriman [co-chef at Prune], and she has made the work in the restaurant and the work on the book balance immensely easier. As I’ve gotten older and I look back at what I did the first time, I’m almost clutching my pearls in horror, and I would never recommend it to anyone else. I would chef the restaurant and bear the babies and write the book, and do all those extracurriculars that we’re asked to do — the charity events and festivals. I don’t know why I stacked all that stuff on top of each other at the same time, but 20/20 hindsight. I would never do it that way again.
I have a perfect chef partner and a true one, so that’s really helped out. She gets to do all the hard work and I get to take all the credit and I get to write my book. Not totally. It’s a truth that if you own a restaurant, you have to work in it, and you do work in it. You can put your kids with a babysitter for a weekend, but your restaurant requires you all the time.
When you think about your career, which comes first in your mind: being a chef or a writer?
I guess increasingly the writer comes first. It captures my attention more, it’s more compelling — except for cooking and cleaning. That part of restaurant work is still something that I love to do, and I need it so badly, and it makes my brain go, so I have to have both. I don’t want to give any of it up.
The only part that I want to give up is — I’ll say it this way: I work very well with people who want to work, and after that I don’t care what you know or don’t know, or what experience you’ve had. But it’s very hard for me to inspire people [who don’t want to work] to really do the hard work where I have to convince them, “Okay, so we’re gonna have a long day here.” It’s not my favorite part of what I do.
Do the two overlap at all?
Well, the restaurant is the greatest of all time. Because, of course, you spend all that time alone, just you and the page on a project that’ll never be done by 5:30 p.m., so it’s a joy to be able to have that other work to do. It’s worth it to keep your hands occupied but your mind more or less free. It’s not so brain-consuming, it’s more manual labor, so I love that about it. The ticket machine’s pounding, or you’re running up and down the stairs, and there’s a flame leaping out of the pan — it’s clear, it’s obvious that work is happening, and this is work.
[Writing] looks like you’re cutting your own hair with nail scissors or drinking Baileys. It just looks like you’re sitting around having a goddamned manicure. Meanwhile, you are working your brains out. As you know, when you’re a writer you’re working your effing brains out, but it looks like you’re sleeping in the hammock reading a book.
So when will Kind Regards publish?
I’m just going to smile at you lovingly when you ask me that question. I’m meeting my deadlines; I’m moving this goddamned ball toward the goal.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.