On Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton, and “The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef”

In my very first blog post, I described myself as someone who has finally discovered that she is a cook masquerading as a law clerk. For the last four years of my life, I have been working in various parts of the legal field, struggling with the idea that perhaps I am trying to make myself into something I am not. Outside of working, I have fallen in love, fallen on my ass, and learned more about myself than I honestly cared to know. I have learned that the self that I was before law school – the self that loved to read, to write, to cook, was the one that I loved the most. The law school process is a tough one and often, students find themselves different people once they graduate. And they are not always necessarily pleased with the outcomes. Law school is hard on the soul, the spirit, and on relationships. It requires utter devotion and a single-mindedness that I admire in many of my peers.

But that’s not really me. My brain goes about a million miles an hour, thinking about everything from “If a black hole opens in space, what is on the other side?” to “I wonder why Agador (my cat) likes to lick my nose all the time?” Trying to focus on a problem that can never really be solved is incredibly frustrating to me, to the point where I just want to give up. The phrase so often repeated as an answer to a legal question is “it depends.” That doesn’t sit well with me. **Understatement of the year – in actuality it drives me nuts.** In baking, your souffle either rises or it does not — there is no “it depends”. If you added the ingredients in the wrong proportions, then there is no question that you will fail. Your house is either clean or dirty, your steak is either medium rare or wrong, and potatoes are either inedible or cooked properly.

I also need to feel a sense of satisfaction and reward from whatever it is I’m doing, and I get a better sense of satisfaction when I can look at what I’ve accomplished (i.e. baking a perfect cake, turning out a delicious meal, cleaning my house) versus just chipping away at a theoretical problem that potentially has no solution anyway. I like working with my hands, too, because it frees up my mind to think about bigger problems.

All of this leads to Gabrielle Hamilton. She is the chef and owner of the amazing Prune restaurant in New York City, home of the best restaurants in the world. Also a place where it is famously difficult to open a restaurant, much less have a sustainable business. She started working in restaurants at the tender age of 13, eventually working her way up to owning the wonderfully funky and eclectic Prune. Along the way, she was charged with grand larceny, mingled with hookers, and found herself, both as a chef and as a person.

I took heart when I read about her. I have failed in my life, no question. Everyone has. But the important thing, I have found, just like she did, is to keep going. Yes, there are times when you don’t have enough shampoo for one more shower, or when your only options for food are the stale crackers in the back of the cupboard or the cheap vodka in your fridge. Those moments don’t define you, though. What does define you is your ability to keep working, to keep your head down, and just power through whatever bullshit life has to throw your way. Inevitably, we all get ourselves into messes. Sometimes, it’s like having an out of body experience, or like watching yourself on television. You can see what’s happening, but you seem to have no power to stop it. And that’s okay for a while. But eventually, you have to pick up the remote and change the channel. You have to get out of the toxic relationship, change careers, or even just take a nap.

Yes, sometimes “have you tried turning it off and on again” is a perfectly acceptable question when faced with a huge life problem.

Hamilton started as a dishwasher, lying about her age and essentially living on her own when she was only thirteen. She made it all the way to New York City, where she would scrape together change in the morning to have an “egg on a roll” before pounding the pavement to find herself a job. When she did land one, in a cheesy New York tourist bar, she found herself going down a rabbit hole of theft and drugs. Eventually, she pulled herself out of it. Hamilton realized that being charged with grand larceny was a defining moment in her life: she could either keep going down the same path or she could change.

So she changed.

She went back to school, worked crazy shifts as a caterer, and narrowly avoided getting eaten by a black bear when she cooked for a children’s camp. Eventually, she ended up founding Prune, a restaurant that I only dream about for now. Her menu evokes memories of a childhood that was too brief and an adulthood that is based on being stealthy with what you have. Every ingredient has a purpose; nothing goes to waste. The things that you or I might not normally eat are quite at home on her menu. I don’t know about you, but fried sweetbreads aren’t something that I naturally gravitate towards. But when I go to Prune, you can bet your last dime I will order the sweetbreads.

What I love so much about Gabrielle Hamilton is that she is unapologetically herself. As she would put it, she is “integrated”; she’s not “too much of one thing or another.” That’s the kind of person I strive to be. Not wholly one thing or another. Not a person who only eats organic; throw a pop tart in there once in a while. Get dressed up for dinner, but have a beer on the beach with sand between your toes. Balance. It is difficult to achieve, but very possible.

Everything has its place.

Mine is in the kitchen. It is playing with my son. It is sleeping beside my partner. I have many places, I wear many hats. I am getting a better grip of my authentic self and I am really starting to like her. She is tender, romantic, sarcastic, occasionally callous. She has an extensive vocabulary but often relies on expletives to get her point across. Wine is great whether it is from a bottle or a big box. This is a person that I think I can be comfortable living with for the rest of my life. After all, at the end of the day, that’s really who we spend our lives with — our true selves, the one that stares back at us in the mirror.

That’s really what I took away from “Blood, Bones, & Butter”. That sense that at the end of the day, you need to be satisfied with your work and with your life. If you are unsatisfied with your work, then it is so unlikely that you will be satisfied with the rest of your life. After all, we spend so much of our time on this earth working. You might as well do something you love. For me, that is cooking, writing, and being a mother. I will make money doing whatever it is I have to for the time being, but eventually, those are the three titles that I will have. And the only titles that I will be proud of.

Chef. Author. Mother.

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2 thoughts on “On Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton, and “The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef”

  1. Great instalment, Lucy! Your writing is as terrific as your dishes look.

    In 1999 I started my first job in a restaurant; I’ve always loved cooking and entertaining but this was way different. My chef, who is now my cooking muse would say “make a Thai peanut dressing (or whatever item needed) for a salad that’s on the menu this week”. There were no cookbooks, no Google in my pocket at that time. It was trial, error, writing things down! That’s how I have learned to cook. Learned what goes together, how to “kick it up a notch” by adding a little salt or acid, learned that love really is the secret ingredient. One question my chef always asked is, “Is this the best tasting……..creme brulee……chicken salad…….grilled chop…..that you’ve e er Had? If not, keep working it.”

    I understand the feeling of finding who you really are, that first job lead to a 15 year stint in the biz. Though I don’t do that any longer as a career there are so many life lessons and applications that came from the love of cooking. I use those lessons and applications every day. Including the colorful language I picked up working the line, in the weeds with a packed house on a Saturday night!

    Keep cooking (and writting)!!!

    Like

    1. Thank you, Missy! I’ve loved getting to know you and your family. You are a constant inspiration to keep cooking better and to never give up. One day, I hope to follow this dream and see where it leads. Thank you so much for your kind words and your support. They mean the world.

      Like

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