Blood, Bones & Butter

I started reading Blood, Bones & Butter, not quite knowing what to expect. Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef of Prune restaurant in New York City and for those who haven’t been, it’s a rather modest little place that aspires (and succeeds) in doing nothing more than serving very good food, simply prepared, in a friendly space.

Hamilton is a very good writer, but I wasn’t sure if her story would be anything that I could relate to. Was it going to be a nasty retelling of events in her past? Were we going to learn her philosophy of cooking? Was she writing to settle some old scores? Thankfully it was not really any of those, although they’re woven into her story as she reveals some things in her life (and hides a few) that made her who she is today.

It’s hard to write a memoir and be honest, while at the same time, not alienating readers. For example, people think that living in Paris means sitting around in cafés all day eating croissants and macarons, and someone has to show them otherwise ; ) Life isn’t always rosy and showing your flaws, and pointing out a few in others, is just part of reality. One doesn’t need to dwell on them – and Hamilton certainly doesn’t – but she does include a number of incidents that manage to convey to us “the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef”, which is the apt subtitle of this book.

To say that Hamilton had a off-beat life is putting it mildly. Her mother was French, and she grew up in a rural community in America. Her father was absent much of her life, and she drifted away from her mother as her life progressed and she worked in various restaurants to scrape by, often participating in illegal activities (and not just the usual “let’s smoke a joint behind the walk-in refrigerator” kind of thing). She traveled, never setting down roots anywhere until she reached New York City.

Eventually she settled down with an Italian husband and two kids, after several relationships with other women that didn’t quite pan out, and is now the owner of her own restaurant on a minor side street in Manhattan that took me a little while to find on my first visit. She never went to culinary school, instead learning from other cooks willing to spend time with her, including several seasons cooking at summer camps, and traveling on the cheap through Europe and cooking for extra cash in places like France and in the Mediterranean. But not the fabled “sun-drenched” cuisine you see in books, where everything is plated up on pretty Provençal plates. She lived above smoky bars and in fields where ingredients (like wild herbs) were gathered alongside the footpath on the way to work. Which, to me, sounds like a pretty good eduction.

I was surprised to find myself reading the book cover-to-cover; I was fixated on her story, which twists and turns in directions that run the gamut from petty thievery to shopping from a toothless vegetable dealer in Italy during her annual summer jaunts to visit the in-laws, which were both challenging and part of her growth in terms of confidence, and finding her place as a cook and unexpected one as a matriarch.

I was particularly interested in chapter 16, when she is asked to speak at a culinary school on the subject of women in professional kitchens. The first question she gets from a woman in the audience is “Is it okay to cry?” Whenever I see this subject come up, I always think – “Are we still discussing this?” as well.

As someone who has spent nearly three decades in restaurant kitchens, working alongside women, working at women-owned businesses, and working under women chefs, I have to agree when Hamilton says earlier in the chapter “..I can’t understand for one second what the difference is between a male chef and a female chef-the food has to be cooked and we all cook it.”

In spite of the glamorization of restaurant work, it’s terribly grueling and I’ve worked with loud, crazy, strung-out, sexist, quiet, stressed, hilarious, vindictive, no-limits kinds of folks and everyone in the kitchen and dining room just collectively grunts and groans together to get the food out, sometimes fueled by testosterone, alcohol, anxiety, estrogen, rage, medication, adrenalin, all while wielding sharp objects. I’ve seen the same kinds of things that Hamilton recounts in her book and appreciated her brutal honesty in talking about them without the sheen of being edited for television in palatable bites. But the camaraderie and exhilaration at the end of your shift, when you’ve all cleaned up your stations and the last customer has left and you laugh about it together over a bottle of wine, makes it all worthwhile.

She also laments when another panelists goes on to give a speech about how the aspiring (women) chefs in the audience should feel the connections between the farms and the earth, when Hamilton knows that in all likelihood, a majority of the them will get out of school and be working in kitchens doing lowly tasks like peeling onions and cleaning the sink for minimum wage.

This book is full of stark honesty. Getting arrested 11 times. (Take that you bad-boy male chefs…) Surviving an unfulfilling marriage while trying to run a restaurant with $2 million dollars in sales a year. Jumping in to the egg station for Sunday brunch at the restaurant when 39 weeks pregnant. Cleaning up piles of – well, I’ll let you guess – left by bums outside the restaurant. And dealing with condo neighbors coming in during the height of the Sunday brunch rush when people start lining up an hour in advance and they’re racing through to feed two hundred people in a place that seats around thirty-five people, and wanting to discuss the electric bill with her. All I can say is that she’s a stronger person, man or woman, than I am if those things didn’t make her cry.

Readers might miss having recipes in this book, and at times I did, too. Which is something I’m sure would make Gabrielle Hamilton roll her eyes. But it’s not because I want to race to the kitchen to make anything, but recipes are often part of the story of cooks and chefs and that’s how we express ourselves. So I hope that there’s a cookbook in her future, which will tell more of her story.

Blood, Bones & Butter is a no-holds-barred book, using profanity in everyday conversations (like people in restaurants use) and chronicling what really makes a person become a chef and restaurant owner. There’s a few unanswered questions, but like meal at Prune – when you’re done, you’re not overstuffed, just satisfied.

62 comments

  • I hope you realize “no holes barred” is the porno perversion of the common saying “no holds barred”

  • I’m currently half way through this book and enjoying it enormously. She is an excellent, honest writer who doesn’t indulge in sentimentality – I’d love to meet her.
    And I don’t miss the recipes at all.

  • have you given up on posting recipes? readers can’t live on stories and reviews alone…

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve heard lots of great things about this book, and though I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, I’m thinking I need to check it out!

  • Great review. I saw a TV program recently where one of the contestants named their instant/pop up restaurant Cardamom. The judge commented that there was no sign of any cardamom in any of the dishes. And no prunes at the Prune either.

  • I’m currently reading this book, and was hooked just from the first few chapters. I’m looking forward to reading the rest!

  • Loved the book, but find the last couple of chapters I found really disappointing. It’s like she just ran out of momentum..

  • I had to stop reading this halfway through because I just recently started reading hte book and already found out moer than I wanted to know about what will happen to Gabrielle over the years. I am however am enjoying it so far and will come back and finish this post as soon as I finish the book.

  • I’m about 1/3 of the way through this book, and I love it. I grew up not far from Gabrielle, and she is the first writer from the region who truly captures what it is like out there, the good and the weird. Great review. As you said, I only miss the recipes because it is a great way to get insight into the mind of the chef.

  • I am currently reading Beaten, Seared, and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon, but BB&B is next! Im glad you reviewed it, but I would have read it regardless! Recipes are always a bonus, but it wouldnt deter me from reading it either. Your Sweet Life is still my favorite!

  • I read this book when it first came out and had a mixed reaction — Gabrielle is an amazingly talented writer and some of the passages were a joy to read, but I definitely had a problem with the pacing and chronology of the story (you can click my entry name to read my thoughts, since I didn’t want to spam the comments section with links….)

    Hi AIli: Folks are welcome to leave links if they relate to the post, as yours does. I liked reading your thoughts (your comment form seems to be wonky since I couldn’t leave a comment as such) but others have noted there were holes in the story that they wanted filled. For some reason, I didn’t miss anything but perhaps because she’s a real chef and she tends to think in shorter thoughts, that might be why. And the riff with her mother wasn’t explained, but sometimes those things either aren’t explainable or she was protecting her mother’s feelings since she is still alive? -dl

  • Interesting. I’ve been to Prune on my only trip to New York last summer and I really enjoyed it. The place has a French feel I think, but the food is diverse. It is not cheap but it is worth it. The book sounds fascinating, I must get it.

  • I’ve got it in my growing reading stack. After reading the comments here and others places, it looks like I’m going to have to move it up to the top of the pile. Can’t wait ton check it out.

  • Very nice review David. I’ve been contemplating buying it since I read another review a while back and you’ve convinced me.

  • Honest … without doing sound bytes or wrting to settle scores. This does intertest me. Having waitressed in NYC for ten years (I was uhhh …. an actress?), I remember those days with both relief that they are over and sweet sentiment. I had a daily lesson in humanity. And serving good food, simply prepared in a winning atmosphere is quite an accomplishment.

  • Finished Gabrielle’s book earlier this week & have been thinking about it incessantly. The last time that I was as fully immersed in a book was the final chapter of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows. She’s a very talented writer & I hope she’ll write more in the future.

  • I loved Gabrielle’s book and I am thinking about your comment regarding the inclusion (or not!) of recipes. I know that when I read your book that I found the recipes helped to extend or round out the ‘chapters’ in a very nice way. I had the same experience reading some of Frances Mayes’ books. Still, I am wondering how often, after the book is read, that these recipes are accessed? If I am looking for, let’s say, the world’s best brownie recipe, I’m not sure if I would remember to look back through a memoir. I agree, however, that while reading the memoir itself the recipe takes the place of an illustration, providing a better insight into the topic at hand.

  • First off all…to Three Cookies-the restaurant is named Prune because it was her childhood nickname, not because she cooks or serves them.

    I LOVED the book. I bought it based on a stellar review by Mr. Bourdain (I love his books as well) and couldn’t put it down. I read it in two days and was so disappointed when I came to the end. I have been on a memoir kick (of COURSE I read The Sweet Life in Paris. Also bought a second copy and sent it to my daughter to read…hard back to boot!)

    I hope Ms. Hamilton puts pen to paper again. I did not miss the recipes in this book & think it would have taken it in a different direction from a readers standpoint. A must read!

  • Honestly, your review of this book is the best that I have read yet. I love Prune and I am very intrigued, and intimidated, by Chef Gabrielle. It sounds like her book is addictive, and maybe a bit haunting. Must buy for this summer! Thanks!

  • David, we live in France, in the South-West, south of Bergerac, just finished Blood Bones & Butter and had a similar response . Had to read it all in one go. Our book ‘So French: a lifetime in the Provincial kitchen’ recently published by Murdoch (available Amazon UK) might interest you, make you laugh, or at least smile. It is Dany’s story: growing up in the South West, in a food loving family, escape to naughty gay Paris, then a chance departure for far away Sydney where she became ‘the midwife of modern Australian cooking’. And stayed for 30 years. Started the first real bistro,then on to the next good idea. Our 5 year plan running a small hotel & restaurant ran for almost 17 amazing and highly acclaimed years before returning here to bucolic Perigord. Would love to hear what you think of the story, the pictures and the recipes, can we send you a copy?
    Trish & Dany
    ps book won 3rd prize for ‘best book by a woman chef, 2011′ at Paris Gourmand World Cookbook awards,in March

  • Good review!

    I have to admit, as a writer, I found her book to be poorly written and in need of a good editor, but I’m picky like that. There were moments where it shined, and those moments, unsurprisingly, centered around food and that infamous pregnant brunch episode.

    If nothing else, her book stirred up a lot of emotion–as a woman who worked in kitchens, started a restaurant, etc., but also as a woman who didn’t fit into her MFA program and felt unsatisfied in that arena. A little less antagonistic snark on her end might have done it for me, but hey, everyone’s life is a different from others!

  • This book is stunning. It is beautifully written and will stay with me forever. Literally and figuratively – I’m not lending it to anyone! There is an update of sorts written by Chef Hamilton in this month’s issue of Bon Appetit, which is worth the price of the magazine. If you loved the book, this will make you cry.

  • David, thanks for the review. I have ordered this book and can’t wait to have it in my hands.
    Thanks again.

  • I just finished reading this book and absolutely loved it. It’s not glamorous but it is exciting and perfectly melds her life and her kitchen into a fantastic story. I couldn’t put it down!

  • I loved that book and cannot understand how anyone can say it was poorly written. Gabrielle Hamilton is not only a very good chef but she is a gifted writer with quite a story to tell. Her life (so far) and many accomplishments are astonishing.

  • Jean Marie + Jes: I had read a few places where folks said that and I thought the book has some extremely insightful things to say. I know the book took a few years for her to write, and went through a few publishing “escapades” – but in the end, I liked the book quite a bit.

    Nuts about food: I tried not to give a chronology of the book and just about everything I wrote I think is already pretty much public knowledge, with the interviews and press the book has gotten. The book is a lot deeper than just her story of opening a restaurant and certain incidents that happen, but do let me know your thoughts when you’re done!

    YHVH: I’m clearly not up on my porn! ; )

    Darlene: That’s absolutely true. I’ve bookmarked recipes in memoirs only to never go back and make them. I only made that observation about the book because as a cook, I read recipes like literature sometimes; looking for clues to the author’s personality or whatever. I just felt like at a few places, I would have liked to have read how she makes some of the food she talks about so well.

  • I enjoyed the book but as a front-of-the-house person, have to say I’m glad I never worked with or for her!

  • David, I loved the book, she is so outrageous, with honest feelings that her book stayed with me for weeks on end! Glad you finally got to read it. What about the take on her Italian Husband? So Italian!

    Donna

  • @Trish Hobbs, Your book is available on Amazon.com as well, but not for Kindle. Maybe… could you ask your publisher to make it available on Kindle? Or is that some sort of international licensing issue. Anyway, it sounds interesting, and I will try to get it through my library instead. (I buy very few hardbacks due to price).

    @David, Where else can you read about food and porn at the same time! (Don’t answer that…) I appreciate your mixture of reviews, (both of books, stores, and restos), your travelogues, your recipes, the accounts of life in Paris, and especially the photography. With the occasional bonus video It’s a good, diverse combination. Don’t change a thing.

  • I loved this book, it really struck a chord with my own childhood. I grew up in similar circumstances however my life took a very different turn. But I turned to food and cooking eventually although making it a hobby and not a career.
    I love your reviews and travelouges, but I must admit, I miss the recipes…

  • Ha! I literally finished this book an hour ago! I was swooning at the first half of the book. I loved hearing about her family, the food, the romance of it all. She lost me in the last third of the book. I felt little sympathy for her (not that she was asking for any) and her marriage and the life she had carved out herself. Regardless, it was well written, entertaining, insightful, and well worth the read. As a young female chef, I’m glad she’s around and I can’t wait to eat at her restaurant on my next trip to NYC!

  • I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve enjoyed several meals at Prune, but didn’t know much about Hamilton before the book came out. It’s nice to know that someone so “real” is in charge of the line there.

  • I am happy to find recipes in memoires, but it is not a requirement for me. Honest emotions and interesting experiences and are what keep me turning the pages. Thanks for the review David – I am putting this book on the top of my summer reading list!!!

  • “To say that Hamilton had a off-beat life is putting it mildly. Her mother was French, and she grew up in a rural community in America.”

    Rural community in America — that covers a few thousand miles, when the actual rural community is just outside expensive-to-buy-a-place New Hope, Pennsylvania! Why not be specific, David?

    The book is one of the best “insider” chef books I have read and I’m glad you share the enjoyment of this unvarnished bio…as apparently do many of your commentors.

  • Loved the book…want to buy it now and read it again!

  • She had a good interview with Charlie Rose last month. It was so interesting. Putting the book on my birthday list to read this summer. Looking forward to it. She mentioned she didn’t include recipes. Nice to let people know it’s not a cookbook in advance.

    Last summer I was awaiting Medium Raw, which is now out in paperback with the essay winner from last fall. Another book to put on the list.

  • I almost forgot that this book was on my to-read list–moving it to the top. Thanks for reminding me.

  • David, you and I had very similar reactions to this book, though your years in restaurants probably allowed you to relate to it in a more direct way (whereas I felt more like a voyeur). I loved that her writing was entertaining, challenging, and thought-provoking, often in the same paragraph.

    Good stuff indeed.

  • I’m looking forward to reading this book. I first heard GH on NPR several years ago with a panel of chefs like Daniel Boulud & Jacques Pepin, promoting a book of writing by chefs. The other chefs spoke eloquently of the inspiration behind their particular contributions…GH said she had a small restaurant and a finite amount of money she could wring out of it so she turned to writing to make more cash! Her acceptance speech for the James Beard Award for best chef in NYC… “All you have to do is open a can of sardines and a box of Triscuits, call it a signature dish, and you get Best Chef New York City.”

  • A friend of mine made me aware of this book awhile ago and after reading your review, I’d be adding it to my ‘to purchase’ list. Thanks!

  • Melissa: That’s kind of one of the qualities I liked about the book and the author – she wasn’t looking to come across as a sympathetic character; you were glad she ended up where she is, but there was certainly a bit of something disquieting about her.

    Maggie: I haven’t been to that region of America but I would venture to guess that 30 to 40 years ago, it was a quite different place…as many places were. (I grew up in New England and in the past few decades, anything remotely near New York City went through substantial changes since I left.) I didn’t want to re-tell her story here or go into too many specific details for people that haven’t read the book, but I pretty much relied on her description of her childhood home and the surrounding community which sounded as if they weren’t very upscale at all, at least not at that time. But readers may find it to be otherwise.

    Trish and Dany: Yes, do try to put your book in an e-format, which will make it available to a wide(r) variety of readers. I just bought an iPad and since I live in a small apartment, I’m going to start using that to acquire books, although I know a lot of people love their Kindle and Nook readers, too.

    Carolyn Z: Now that you say that, it’s funny because I wouldn’t expect a “memoir-style” book from Anthony Bourdain to have recipes, but was thinking just a few would have been nice in this one just to read a bit about the food that she prepares. I’ve eaten at Prune a couple of times, though, so I had some idea in my mind.

  • I thought it was a fascinating book. I was appalled by her parents and how they let the ball drop when it came to being there for their children. I found her tales of going to Italy really great-especially when she finally got to clean and rearrange her mother in law’s kitchen- and the story of her sort of nonmarriage was something. And how she came about opening Prune–how unusual was that? Really, life can be stranger than fiction. Good for her for being such a success in making a place that people want to eat at, just as she dreamed.

  • Thanks for this David! I read a review of the book by a mutual friend and came away unsure whether it was positive or negative. After reading your review, though, I’m intrigued enough to put it on my Amazon wish list!

  • There was a chunk of the book in The New Yorker and it was gripping tales in every way – not at what you expect from NYC hot hot chef.
    BRAVO for Gabrielle & Prune

  • I refer to the recipes in ‘Sweet Life’ frequently, thank you very much! They are classics in my cooking repertoire.

  • Forgot to add I read Hamilton’s book and found it a bit …gritty and possibly disturbing. That’s just my opinion.

  • David,
    thank you for this book tip! I read little more than the first four paragraphs and you had me rush to Amazon to put it on my wish list! I will come back for the rest of your review after I have actually read the book (will not be before August, unfortunately).

    Reading “people think that living in Paris means sitting around in cafés all day eating croissants and macarons” made me laugh out loud: same here, but for the Sachertorte and Schnitzel! ;-)

  • I just finished reading this book as well. I, however, did not find it as great as some of the other food memoirs I’ve read. I didn’t mind that Hamilton is a bit rough around the edges. But I found her to be rather arrogant and the book to be a pretty narcissistic endeavor. She has some thoughtful insights into her life and the restaurant business and culinary field, but the book left me kind of annoyed with her and glad I don’t have to deal w/ such a brash and cocky person on a regular basis.

  • I loved this book. Very honest and absorbing. Perhaps for me it resonated even stronger because I, too, was young and scuffling in NYC at the same time that she was, and her writing brought back so many memories.

  • David, you are such a brillant and descriptive writer. I so enjoy reading your work.

  • just finished bourdain’s kitchen confidential, so i’m a little behind on chef’s memoirs. but this one sounds great! thanks for the review.

  • Thank you for the truly insightful review. Truth be told, while I was incredibly excited upon learning of Hamilton’s book, I’m a little afraid to read it– I’m more than a bit intimidated by her, and know that the book will be (at many times) a gritty, emotionally raw journey.

  • Sorry this is off topic. I’m not very good with twitter.

    I too am learning the no-knead bread technique. This is due to the January baking entries on Michael Ruhlman’s blog, and a mention on your blog from Nancy Baggett. In fact, I have tried one of her recipes twice, and the results were amazing.

    The method is straightforward with lots of steps. The first loaf had big oven spring. Still as much as I enjoy shaping kneaded bread, the flavor is better in a no-knead loaf. (My husband likes it better too.) This is due to the longer first rise, part in the refrigerator and part at room temperature.

  • @Jess “…where it shined…”? I know this is the current grammar fashion but what ever happened to “shone”? Much pleasanter on the ear even if it’s archaic and unstylish. So many newer books and articles are ruined for me because of the “shined” trend. Seriously, why try to fix something that isn’t broken? Am I the only one this bothers?

    Sorry for the rant. I wouldnt have reacted except you say you are a writer and use it as a reason to criticize someone else’s style.

  • Thanks for the very thorough and thoughtful review. I will now have to buy this book. I also hear that she is a really talented writer as well as having an interesting story to tell.

    As for shined vs shone, a lot of verbs that used to have strong, beautiful, irregular past tenses are slipping away. I’m not bothered by this, but I’m going to keep using shone, and strove and dove, etc., because I, like Jess, enjoy the sound of them!

  • I haven’t read this yet, but appreciate the great review. It’s on my list as are so many others…

  • I started this on the way to work today, she had me from the first sentence. I reached work wishing my commute was longer..

  • The the book started off amaxing and then drifted to making it a hard for me to finish this book. There were way too many unanswered questions (anger towards her mother, and husband, from being lesbian to being married…) and too many emotional outbursts that did not make sense to me (because author does not explain).

  • Great review. I’m not normally into biographies by chefs but I really enjoyed reading Hamilton’s book. The question of crying really stuck with me too.

  • Y: That whole chapter was really good, about the conference that discussed “the place of women in professional kitchens.” It’s kind of crazy that that’s even a question anymore. I’ve worked with women who could make men cower in the corner, and it’s a shame that a culinary school is still promoting the idea that women are somehow ‘different’. I think as long as that question gets asked, the idea that women may not be capable of doing the same work that men can do. And from my experiences in professional kitchens for 35 years, yes, they can.

    samy: I, too, didn’t understand what caused the rift between her and her mother. But sometimes those things can’t be explained and perhaps because Hamilton became sort of a vagabond-like character for a while, she dropped out of contact with her mother (like she did with other members of her family.) I’ve heard there was an essay in a magazine that explained a lot of it, which perhaps was a chapter that was edited out – which happens in publishing sometimes.

    Nancy/Julie/Jess: Lots of comments have errors, both typographical and spelling. (Sometimes the posts do, too!) Sometimes I fix ‘em, especially if they are written by non-native English speakers, whose comments I especially appreciate because I know how hard it is to write in another language. Plus comments are like text messages or Tweets – I expect them to be topical or passing thoughts, in many cases, so I’m happy when people take the time just to add their thoughts, using whatever words they choose.

    Well, as long as they’re nice words : )

  • First off I love the site David and I’ve never commented before so I had to tell you that. I just finished reading Blood, Bones, and Butter and thought it was really good. I enjoy reading memoirs generally and this was no exception. Hamilton’s voice seems authentic and honest. Her words are not sugar-coated or dripping with sentimentality. Instead, her writing is heartfelt and passionate. It isn’t sappy, but that doesn’t mean it is emotionless. I felt she was someone I could relate to, even though I haven’t had experiences similar to her life. I think that being classified as a “woman” or “female” chef (or anything) puts the person in a sub-catagory and is condescending. She recognized the challenges women face, but more importantly shows how anyone is capable of achieving great things if they do great work. The best way for a woman to prove she can do something is to do it. I appreciate this attitude as a woman. Hamilton wrote about blood, bones, and butter, but left out the bullshit. Overall, this book was a great read and I want more.

  • Excellent review and reflections. It sounds like this might be one of the chef memoirs well worth reading. At Prune. :)