The Essentials

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton, a wizard of literature and culinary delights, brings us her first book, a vivid memoir of growing up, dropping out, and succeeding in the vicious male dominated world of haute cuisine. She begins with her idyllic childhood, where her French mother and artist father craft a world of endless sunny afternoons, rustic dinner parties and expansive art projects. Gabrielle grows up near New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place close to my own heart, and as a teenager she works in places like the Stockton Inn and traipses about Lambertville, a charming country town on the Delaware. In the midst of an unfettered growing-up, Gabrielle learns her mother’s economical yet refined methods of extracting every usable calorie from a slaughtered animal, which later serves her well in the cutthroat world of New York cookery.
After her parents’ unexpected divorce, Gabrielle casually drops in and out of college, drops a few hits of acid, and eventually goes to work for catering kitchens in New York. I was impressed by the vast scale of these operations which crank out thousands of purportedly gourmet meals per day, for several different events, seven days a week. From the bowels of these kitchens Gabrielle brings alive the culinary underworld in the literary tradition of fellow chef/writer Anthony Bourdain. Gabrielle’s reprieve from this manic culinary wasteland is her annual summer job as a chef at a summer camp for kids. In the simple farmhouse kitchen, with a blue sky and pine trees out the window, Gabrielle gets to make cuisine that is her own, whether or not it is appreciated by the cardboard palates of her campers.

Settled back in New York, Ms. Hamilton dives in head first to a derelict property with a tenuous dream of turning it into a restaurant. After much nausea inducing cleaning out of rat carcasses and grease traps, she brings the tiny, luminous Prune restaurant to life, which is a wildly successful New York staple today.

Even Mr. Bourdain agrees: “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.”