Chicagoist Grills: Author and Chef Gabrielle Hamilton

By Kim Bellware in Food on Mar 28, 2011 8:30PM

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Gabrielle Hamilton (photo courtesy of Blood, Bones and Butter)

Chef, writer and recent memoirist Gabrielle Hamilton visited Chicago this past weekend to support her memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter with a celebration at The Publican. Before Paul Kahan cooked up Sunday's feast (a recreation of a meal in the first chapter of Hamilton's book), we caught up with Hamilton, chef and owner of Prune in New York, to discuss how she strikes the chef-writer balance, her least favorite food trends and why she said "No thanks" to being the next Iron Chef.

Chicagoist: You've owned and operated your restaurant, Prune, for more than ten years, so you've seen plenty of changes in the restaurant industry, including the increasing sophistication (or just picky-ness) of the diner. What have been some of your experiences with perhaps peculiar expectations from diners?

Gabrielle Hamilton: [Prune] is very anti-trendy. We just cook sort of honest, delicious food that we’d want to eat (laughs). I just think when you read the menu, you know if it’s your kind of place or not. The dining population of the restaurant tends to already be pretty much on our team. We seem well-suited for each other in what we cook and what the people who come there want to eat. I guess some people ask a lot about the provenance of their meat or fish, but I’m not so into “We got it from Suzie the farmer, a pig in the third row...” Some people are very, very knowledgeable about that. They’re hyper sensitive to even the names of their animals. I don’t run like that.

C: With diners wanting excitement and inventiveness in their meals, how would you separate--either as a chef or as a diner--exciting but honest food from exciting but perhaps pretentious food?

I’m steadfastly opposed to food as anything but food. There are phrases that I’ve never understood, such as “comfort food”, “guilty pleasure”--I don’t understand that one either--or “food as entertainment.” We just cook food! The entertainment is not coming from us, we’re just the servants for your evening. Whatever you’re bringing to the meal, that’s going to be your entertainment. We’re just going to put some food on the table and have some knowledgeable, professional people serve it to you and that’s all we’ve got.

C: When you hear about people who dine at a restaurant and then don’t connect at all with the idea or the food--people who aren’t exactly food Luddites, either--what do you make of that? Does the chef cook for the pleasure of her guests or does she try to challenge them?

GH: Yeah. I just don’t go [to those restaurants]. Some of the technology is foreign to me; much of it isn’t. Once you get past the gimmick of it and get down to the actual flavor and pleasure sensations, much of the gimmick is lost on me. I know how the gelatin stays gelatinous when it’s warm, but for me, once you take the trick away or the technology away then you’re left with the product itself and it isn’t very satisfying. I like to eat food that I’d want to eat a second time. I generally remember the first two of the 48 tiny plates I’m given and the rest of the 46 others are lost in a blur. I don’t have ADD, but I can stick with a meal of one thing and enjoy it. I think this [trend] will pass. In the long, long, long history of the culinary path, this is a little moment. It’s fascinating and it’s exciting but I think it’ll lose its currency.

C: When it comes to food trends, in reading your book it seems that you have a bit of disdain for the commercial catering world, and in a broader sense, those food industry trends we’re talking about. In your experience, what were some of the worst offenders? In the book you mention the mid-’90s trend of serving food in shot glasses and on soup spoons, among others.

GH: I wouldn’t say that I have disdain for catering by any stretch. I just happened to work in catering at a time when it was kind of abysmal what you had to do to food in order to produce it at that kind of volume. I actually think catering has evolved quite a bit since a dozen years ago. In general, I like food that resembles itself. When it’s been rolled, and beaten and shredded and put on a piece of toast or on a spoon...a lot of the food I was cooking at that time was as much about the garnish. There was so much garnish debris all over the plate! When cooking at that volume, you had to do everything in stages. You couldn’t cook anything a la minute so that’s just the way the game was played. You can cater food that’s fresh and great, but it has to be a certain clientele. They have to give you the money to set up a kitchen so you’re not heating stuff up over Sterno. The current trend of eating more naturally has worked out in my favor. We can just start a big fire and grill meat and cook vegetables down in the coal. That seems to appeal to people now.

C: You walked off the set of an “Iron Chef” screening, and, by some indications, you had a strong shot at taking home the prize. What turned you off about that experience?

GH: I did “Iron Chef” once (ed. note: Hamilton appeared as a challenger on "Iron Chef America"), that was a good thing to do and I’m glad I experienced it and we won. That was the best part! I did it once because I got caught up in the moment. They called me up and they wanted women [chefs] and that always rallies me that my gender is not doing its part; I feel like it’s my job to “prove” something for us--which is really tiresome, we don’t need to do that anymore--but I was standing in the prep kitchen which is mostly populated by 24 year olds all of whom watch TV like crazy. I don’t watch much TV so I didn’t even really know what the hell it was, but I put the phone down and was like “You guys, “Iron Chef”--should I do it?” They were all “Yeah! Yeah do it!” So I kind of took one for the team. It was great for morale and for all the kids who work here, so I’ll live and learn. I’ll try something.

C: What changed after that first appearance?

GH: After I did it, I started to pay attention to what was going on in my industry, and I guess everyone else has noticed this too, but these shows are very bad for us (laughs). In my opinion. They just demean us as chefs, as cooks, so egregiously. It’s all competition, it’s all entertainment, it’s all boasting and cooking under incredible duress. The painful part of it is that if you’re on TV, there are asses in your chairs, in your restaurant. And if you're not on TV, you may have an anemic 6 o’clock and ten o’clock seating. And that kills me when some chefs I know--very good chefs, old souls, so I know they know how to cook--go on the show, they’re going on TV just to stay in the game. And that seems really demeaning to me.

C: What happened during the "Next Iron Chef" taping?

GH: For "The Next Iron Chef” it was the same rallying cry [from producers]: “God, we’re having such a hard time getting women [chefs].” I said “Oh, all right. I’ll show you,” and sent in my first batch of stuff. They wanted to see what you’ve already done. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but the producer came back and said “Oh, you are perfect, we loved it, please come to the second phase,” which was an on-tape kind of interview. I was very reluctant going in, but the producer was so cute and enthusiastic and kept reassuring me how important this was for “our people” (laughs), “our gender.” Then she got to the last question which was on-camera: “So, why are you dying, why are you burning to be the next Iron Chef?”

I was just stunned in silence and I said (laughs) “Oh man. I am so not interested in that.” And [the producer], her shoulders slumped and she said “Should I turn this off?” I just got waylaid and caught up in something for a moment and lost my confidence. Now it’s back (laughs).

C: A lot of the most popular cooking shows like “Iron Chef” seem to highlight the competition in a kind of bloodsport-y way, really turning the heat up, metaphorically, on chefs to produce something that they ostensibly enjoy making. The more brutal aspects of preparation and cooking are really brought out.

GH: I think it’s interesting that it’s so hard for us to notice subtlety anymore. As a culture. Everything has to be very brazen and loud and in-your-face and brash. Connecting, whispering, quietude, these things are not honored are appreciated much anymore, it seems to me. Real technique seems to have lost fascination with a lot of people. At Prune we have a course that I guess I would think is “in-your-face” with marrow and innards, but we have a lot of vegetables and subtle things. For example, we peel your soft-boiled eggs. I know it’s not a big deal, but to eliminate that whole rigmarole that one goes through where you have to cut the top of the egg off and then your spoon has to fit in there and inevitably you get a little bit of shell in your mouth...it’s so subtle; it’s nothing to put on television! (laughs). But I do wonder with this hyped-up entertainment value in television if we’ve lost our attention span for anything quieter.

C: Now that you’ve had success in both cooking and writing, are there other interests that you want to pursue?

GH: Getting ready to speak some languages that I am now currently semi-literate in. I sort of speak five languages really badly and I’ve been that way for 20 years. I want to dig deep and get better. Also, this is so weird for me because I don’t eat it, but I’m more interested in pastry than I have been. It’s so not my favorite thing at all--I’m a salt girl, like crazy--but I’m interested in getting better at pastry.

C: What has it been like balancing these new rigors of promoting a book, freelancing and running a restaurant?

GH: Prune is my real job. Writing is a freelancer gig or whatever. I’m the owner and chef of Prune and that’s where I go everyday. Because of the book tour, I smartly hired a chef who was a line cook at Prune for a couple of years, so now he’s taking care of my job while I'm on the road. Ideally though, I’d like to cook a little bit, write a little bit and raise my kids. That sounds like a good life.