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Q & A with Prune’s Gabrielle Hamilton

5_18_14_Prune_Gabrielle_Hamilton_PortraitRTIf you’ve yet to read Gabrille Hamilton’s James Beard Award-winning memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, you might be surprised to hear her refer to herself as an “inadvertent” or “reluctant” chef.  After all, the owner of the long-running, much admired Prune (where it’s still nearly impossible to get a table, and for which she’s also snagged a highly coveted Beard award) is regularly upheld as one of New York’s greatest culinary talents, and that’s male or female. “ I didn’t choose this work necessarily.  I ran to it as an adolescent, in an emergency; I needed to work very early and very suddenly and dishwashing was the only thing I knew how to do!” Hamilton explains.

“Over the years you get better and better at the work, and you move up, and before you know it, your life is living you, instead of the other way around… and there you are, a chef,” she continues.  “I was reluctant until I opened my own restaurant, and then I was single minded and glad-hearted about my choice.”

We also spoke to the undeniably talented chef about her passion for creative writing, why she doesn’t see herself opening a second restaurant, and her new collaboration with American Express’ newly relaunched Premier Rewards Gold Card.

Can you talk about your unlikely and untraditional path to becoming a chef?
I didn’t go to cooking school, but worked in kitchens my whole life, starting as a dishwasher.  I traveled around the world for a couple of years with a backpack, and worked in kitchens, cafes, bars and restaurants, ate in those countries, worked in people’s homes and was immersed in the cultures for lengthy periods.  That’s an incomparable education. It’s just a little shaggy and scrappy and circuitous… not a polished or driven path to becoming a chef.

How did your parents effect your decision to enter into a life in the kitchen?
They left early and didn’t make provisions for their youngest children, and so we instantly got work in restaurants.  All five of us were very adept at kitchen chores.

Do you ever wish you had bypassed the kitchen and thrown yourself into creative writing instead?
No, I wouldn’t be able to a write a true sentence, wouldn’t have had a life lived, wouldn’t have been able to write well if I had just sat at a writing desk year after year. Though I would have liked to, and certainly could have improved my writing with a little bit more practice over the years. I need both… a work life and writing practice. Both get better in tandem, and serve each other, in a way.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
This wasn’t offered as advice and it didn’t come from a friendly source and wasn’t offered as guidance when I received it, but it’s still the most valuable and repeated mantra in my brain at all times… professionals deliver; amateurs explain why they couldn’t.

What do you love about being a chef, and what could you do without?
It’s pretty honest and tactile work.  I love the smells and textures and sounds of a kitchen.  I like throwing a party and cleaning up after a party more than I like going to parties, so being a chef is a pretty good fit for me.

You opened Prune back in 1999, and it still manages to command long waits for a table all these years later!  To what do you owe its longevity and continued success?  How do you keep it fresh and relevant?
I stay on top of the damned place every day, and care about it immensely.  If I stop giving a shit, you’ll know it pretty quickly, and Prune will no longer matter.  I feel as committed to Prune as I do to my children; meaning when I signed on and agreed to run this thing, I meant forever, not just until I grew bored with the project or until something newer and shinier came along.

I would imagine you get asked all the time what it’s like to be a woman in the restaurant community.  Do you think that the disparity between the sexes is an important conversation to keep having, or do you think it’s actually harmful to keep shining a spotlight on the differences? 
Real disparity and injustice and actual discrimination are always worth hollering about, don’t you think?  The way I’m wired, though, I can’t go on about gender without going on about race and class, and while we’re at it, immigration.

(Besides your own), what are your favorite places to eat in the city when you’re really looking to splurge and treat yourself, and what are your favorite casual spots or dives?
My neighborhood is so damned rich with good eating.  I love Gato, Vic’s, Empellon, Somtum Der, Ippudo, Momofuku, Russ and Daughters, Estela, Temple Bar, and the Punjabi Taxi Stand down the block.

Are your kids foodies or chefs in the making?
No, they’re just regular kids.

What do you like to do (and eat) in the city on a rare day off?
I like to drive to the little gem pockets of this city; City Island, Broad Channel, Pelham Bay, Hunt’s Point, Silver Beach, Clason Point, Throgg’s Neck, Edgewater.  This city is too good; too incredible… I love this town!

Considering the success of Prune, have you considered opening any other restaurants lately or are you still firmly against it?
I think for the moment with the one restaurant and the writing career I have and the two kids who are still small-ish and need my attention, I’m not up for a second restaurant.

How did you end up partnering with the new American Express Gold Card and why?
I freaking love American Express.  In my last year of college, I got offered my first card, a different credit card, not American Express, with a super high percentage rate and a too rapid increase in spending limit for a young person to handle properly. So years later when I got my first AMEX Card, it was like a rite of passage, a giant emblem of maturity and potency and responsibility.  I now have six or more cards in circulation between my personal life and restaurant; I love the Premier Rewards Gold Card in particular because it has double and triple points on the things I enjoy the most; Food and Travel!  Every time I put plane tickets or groceries on the Card, I feel pretty damn fine about the whole thing.  I’ve never done any sort of product endorsement before — it’s looked too cheesy or starkly mercenary when I’ve seen it played out in others — but when AMEX approached me about this, I felt like I’d been asked out on a date with someone I’ve had a crush on for decades.

Tell us about some of the dishes and cocktails you created to celebrate your partnership.
I love the challenge of working within a theme and trying to convey an idea through food.  This comes up for me every Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, and with every wedding that I cater.  You want menus to do their job, to speak to love or renewal or the particular personalities of the wedding couple.  But you never want to be cutesy or heavy handed or obvious.  The food and menu actually have to be delicious, grounded and sensible, because no one wants to eat your clever idea; they want to eat good food.  The Gold Card challenge posed all the same challenges as any themed menu.  I went at it will all of the discipline and humor and imagination and pragmatism I possess.  And I ended up with foods that are naturally gold, taste delicious and aren’t contrived to fit a theme; that reflect my style of cooking very accurately.

What’s next for you; another book, a stint on food television, perhaps?
I just finished taping six episodes of Mind of a Chef, which with air in September, I believe, and was granted a slot at Yaddo, the artists retreat, where I’ll get to hole up and write my brains out every day for a few weeks this summer.  I’m so excited.

You’re on your death bed; would you rather have sex or dinner?
Given that I’m pretty driven and effective, I’d say there’d be time for both, but just in case, we’ll have the sex first, and then eat dinner.

*The new Premier Rewards Gold Card offers 2x the Membership Rewards points at US restaurants and supermarkets and 3x the points for flights directly booked with airlines.

This post was sponsored by the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card.  As such, I was paid for my services, but all opinions about American Express are my own.

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