After an idyllic early childhood, things came apart for Gabrielle Hamilton. Her parents’ marriage disintegrated, and she went from viewing her mother as a quirky icon to treating her as anathema. In the wreckage of the family, young Gabrielle was left to fend for herself. She and her brothers and sisters began to run wild, experimenting with alcohol and drugs and committing small crimes. Hamilton lied about her age to get work in a restaurant, and so began the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, as her life is labeled in the subtitle of her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter.
Early kitchen jobs led to many years in the less glamorous part of the cooking world: chef for summer camps and catering New York parties with trendy but bad food. This part of her book, the exposé, reminds me of Anthony Bourdain’s first effort, Kitchen Confidential. Hamilton always wanted something different–to become a writer in particular–but cooking paid her bills. With some reluctance, she finally decides that yes, a career as a chef will be her lot in life, and that if she is to be a writer also, her first subject will be food and its role in peoples lives.
The opportunity to open her own restaurant came unexpectedly, at a time when Hamilton wasn’t ready, but her earthy approach to food at Prune made the small restaurant a big hit and a culinary star was born. Still, Hamilton’s approach to the life of a celebrity chef isn’t typical. She always takes the gritty, sometimes even perverse path. Most of the writing about Prune for instance, focuses on the realities of restaurant work, not a false glamor. She describes the crazy neighbors, the battles with rats, the miserable working conditions, the irresponsible colleagues, even pages about the time someone used the space just outside her office as a bathroom and she had to clean it up.
This book is a great choice for groups, not because every reader will love it, but because almost every chapter will engage the senses, prime the emotions, and provoke an opinion. Hamilton describes her unusual personal life with total candor, and she isn’t afraid to show her difficult side. Hamilton is a lesbian who left a supportive long-term partner for a man, an Italian doctor who perhaps thought that his attention could create some kind of sexual conversion. She ultimately married him, partly to help him stay in the country, partly for reasons that remain unclear. In a way his ploy worked: the couple have two children and spend their July vacations with his family in Italy, but back in the US, they mostly don’t even live together. As this memoir ends (one suspects future installments will be forthcoming), the marriage seems to be breaking down (and if it isn’t, seems likely to shatter when he reads her book.) At times, Hamilton portrays herself as grossly lacking in self-knowledge, and at other times seems to revel in her own hard-ass, inflexible behavior. It isn’t always likeable, but I think mostly readers will admire the honesty. Others may not, but they will be hard pressed to forget her book.