Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

What inspires a famous chef to prepare those meals that satisfy us – both visually and gastronomically?
What training, background, and mentoring meld together to make the creative provocateur of food?  In the case of Gabrielle Hamilton, it’s not what you think.  In her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, Hamilton reveals her unconventional path to becoming the chef and owner of the renowned New York restaurant, Prune – referred to by the New York Times as “the small restaurant with a large footprint.”

Divided into three sections, “Blood” introduces Hamilton’s bohemian family and wild youthful days.  Before her French mother, ballet queen of the kitchen in heels, apron, and cigarettes, divorces her artist father, Hamilton describes a bucolic life in Pennsylvania with her parents’ giving parties with Spring lamb roasted on spits.  Afterwards, life is difficult but free for a thirteen year old left to take care of herself.  She stumbles through lonely years in a haze of drugs – dropping out of schools, smoking cigarettes, stealing cars, and working in kitchens as a dish-washer or waitress to survive.

Life gets better as she “jumps ahead” in the second section, “Bones.”  By now, she has graduated from college, backpacked through Europe, finished her Master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Michigan, is working as a freelance caterer for upscale events during the season, and a cook at a children’s camp in the summer.  At each phase of her life, Hamilton finds someone who can cook well, and she learns something different from each.  She stores it all away until later; when she opens her restaurant all her experiences seem to converge.  As she converts a deserted rat-infested hovel into the best place to have brunch on Sundays in New York City, she recalls the influence of her mother’s cooking and later, her Italian mother-in-law, who does not speak English and cooks by feel rather than recipe.

When she leaves her lesbian lover, and marries an Italian doctor to save him from the INS; her bridesmaids are her restaurant workers…

“If you want to feel like the most glamorous woman in the world on your wedding day, just be the only one dressed in a good heel and a vintage couture dress…my lesbian friends wore suits…to cover their tattoos…”

It’s easy to like Gabrielle Hamilton; she is frank, unaffected, and clearly loves food, cooking, and most people.  It’s easy to laugh with her as she recalls the day her father taught her to kill a chicken (note the book’s cover art):

“There are two things you should never learn to do with your father: learn how to drive and learn how to kill a chicken.”

and the night the drunk camp counselors who felt sorry for the lobsters she had planned to cook for the end of the season party, placed them all in a tank full of fresh water, effectively torturing and killing them…

After burying thirty dead lobsters…I shut down the kitchen for the season…I bought ten boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken, left it at the fire pit, and drove off campus for good…I hoped the bear would find the KFC and the counselors and eat them both.

and her husband asking her which silk tie he should wear, as she is in labor, waiting to get to the hospital to give birth to their first son.

In her last section, “Butter,” Hamilton describes her annual summer visits to her Italian in-laws in Rome, followed by three weeks in their villa by the sea.  Cooking becomes the universal language, as she connects with Alda, her old-school mother-in-law.  Her mouth-watering descriptions of food will have you salivating.

I’m not usually a fan of memoirs, but Blood, Bones, and Butter does not pretend to be an accurate accounting; Hamilton weaves her personality into her story and fictionalizes when it’s better than what really happened, but, at least she is honest about it – and she applies her degree in fiction to share her readable and amusing memories.   In her author’s note, Gabrielle Hamilton assures the reader…

…{I} have made up the names when I couldn’t remember them.  I have airbrushed a couple of people right out of scenes…I have compressed, contracted, and subtly rearranged time…and I have conflated several recurring, similar events into one for clarity, drive, and momentum…

It doesn’t matter.  Gabrielle Hamilton gets it right, using self-deprecating humor mixed with introspection – focusing on the important pieces of her life, while sending a message not only to aspiring chefs but to bright women trying to juggle family and career.   My favorite line in the book has her responding to being introduced as “the top, one of the best female chefs in New York”  with

“Now, if we could only get that word ‘female’ out of the sentence.”

Savor the book slowly, with a glass of “an excellent Bandol” and some nutty Gouda. Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef worth getting to know.

Bastille Day – Read Something French

To celebrate Bastille Day, a restaurant in Washington, D.C. is having a baguette relay race.  I remember a traditional waiter’s race in Annapolis – the waiters speed walk holding a tray of drinks (wine?); I wonder if they still do.  I’ll be looking for some crepes today, to eat while re-reading some of my favorite French books (not in French, of course).

Some ideas:

  • Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard
  • The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
  • Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle
  • Chocolat by Joanne Harris
  • Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick
  • My Life in France by Julia Child
And a new one I’m looking forward to –
David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

The French Laundry Chef’s Tasting Menu

Once upon a time, in the middle of the rolling hills of Napa Valley with miles of blooming grape vines in the small town called Yountville, the best chef in all of the cooking kingdom prepared a meal of nine courses for his house full of guests.  Each diner was the center of attention at a beautiful table set with fine linen, French Limoges china, polished silver, and a spray of fresh wildflowers.  The service was gracious and impeccable; the food on each plate arranged like a Picasso.  As each course was eaten, the diners proclaimed it the best ever tasted – until the next course arrived.

As I emerged from this fairy tale experience, I was amazed not only by the food preparation, presentation, and taste, but also by the quiet camaraderie of the service team.  Everyone was in a good mood, and the food tasted better for it.

As we closed the place down at midnight, we were treated to a quick tour of the kitchen. Nine chefs were seated around a table, pencils and paper in one hand, beer or wine in the other, preparing the next day’s menu.  No menu is ever the same.

The next morning I found myself in line at the Bouchon Bakery (originally built to bake for the restaurant) with a server from the night before; we were both looking for a good coffee and a sweet.  She suggested Keller’s brownie bites for the road, and told me that Thomas Keller, the acclaimed chef and owner of The French Laundry lives in the house behind the restaurant.  Of course, I made a pilgrimage back to find it – lovely French provincial house that would make Julia Child proud – surrounded by gardens.

Across from the restaurant are his acres of organically grown vegetables and herbs, and room for the lovely little chickens to roam – Silkie Bantams.  These chickens are smaller sized with fluffy down instead of feathers and little fluff balls on tops of their feet.  Not to worry; they are not used for the meals – just for their eggs.

The meal had finally ended the night before, but not before a few surprises at the end: Keller’s doughnut holes with cappuccino ice cream and hand-made chocolate truffles with six different creamy fillings (my favorite was the lemon) – and a goodie bag-to-go of shortbread cookies.

I thought I may have dreamed it all, but I did have the menu as proof of being there.  Yes, it is expensive; you might cringe at the price.  But, go, if you can.

 Keller’s heavy cookbooks are on display at the restaurant; he’s authored at least four himself, and contributed to others.  I browsed through them briefly, and may look for them in the library to relive my experience.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar

Are you a wine connoisseur or do you have trouble distinguishing between red and white?  How much are you willing to pay for a good glass of the bubbly?  Benjamin Wallace solves the “mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine” in his nonfiction tale of The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

Wallace’s research centers on an 18th century bottle of wine, allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, mysteriously discovered and auctioned by Christie’s.  Wallace chronicles the sale and resales, orchestrated by Hardy Rodenstock, the finder, and Broadbent, the seller.   The wine is authenticated in European laboratories, with an historical accounting of Thomas Jefferson’s collection, yet the Monticello curator disclaims the bottle’s authenticity.   When the wine is later denied its vintage by physicists with radioactive dating technology,  Bill Koch, owner of some of the few rare bottles and with all the resources a billionaire has to cure his  sour taste over being had, sued Rodenstock and Christie’s for selling counterfeit wine and uncovered the

“lab where he makes the bottles…you know {like} the movie Catch Me If You Can?…

No one seemed to be paying attention to the experts, however, even when the initials on the label are not the abbreviation Jefferson used – Th: J.     Rodenstock with his “audacity…as a good con man” smoothly dismissed any discrepancies and  kept the money flowing.

Wallace writes the information with the tone of an amazing adventure and fascinated amusement, subtly ridiculing those with money trying to be elitist.  He includes some funny incidents of corks slipping into bottles and disappearing, bottles breaking spontaneously, and tastings gone awry.  He also chronicles all the nuances of growing, storing, bottling, labeling, and selling wine – too much detail for me.

Even skipping the minutiae, supported by over 30 pages of references, I still enjoyed Wallace’s story, and appreciated his final comment: although Jefferson did collect wine “from the châteaux,” it was to drink, not to hoard or display.

In his later years, “Jefferson was drinking cheap table wine, and very happily so.”

I could relate to that.

Related Article:  The Jefferson Bottles from The New Yorker