Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef-owner of Prune, a tiny East Village restaurant in Manhattan, has become the accidental muse for the culinary intelli
gentsia with her memoir, "Blood, Bone, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef" (Random, $26).
"Bad boy" Anthony Bourdain, who stumbled into fame with his own irreverent tell-all, calls it "the best memoir by a chef ever." Mario Batali wants to "apply for the dishwasher job at Prune." And the New York Times gave the book and author rapturous and extensive coverage.
In its third printing before its official publication date, this raw expose of Hamilton's flawed life, from thieving, drug-addicted teenager to work-obsessed restaurateur, is also the culinary manifesto of a chef who found redemption not only in the creative process of cooking but the day-to-day drudgery of kitchen work.
She rhapsodizes about bringing order to a walk-in refrigerator, about finding solace in scrubbing pots and pans and about her almost obsessive need to tackle the ugliest jobs on her own, from disposing of a dead mouse bursting with maggots to cleaning up a heap of human feces deposited outside of her restaurant's back door.
What she is really telling us is that in this age of the absentee, celebrity chef, she is fearlessly hands-on, painfully present and viscerally connected to her food and how it gets to the table.
Melissa Hamilton, the author's sister and a former food editor for Saveur magazine, says the discipline and rigor are reminiscent of their French mother, a former ballerina and talented home cook. The youngest of five children, Gabrielle Hamilton grew up idolizing the woman and absorbed her food sensibility.
Her parents' divorce and mother's departure when she was 13 slammed the door on an idyllic childhood, wounded her deeply and propelled her story forward with a sense of pathos unusual in a food memoir.
After a downward spiral of substance abuse, promiscuity and crime (including the theft of thousands of dollars from a Manhattan cafe where she waits tables), Hamilton is saved from the gutter by the work ethic, discipline and love of honest food that her mother instilled.
Anonymous cooking and catering jobs prepare her for the challenge of becoming a chef-owner in the most demanding of cities with little capital and no formal training in business or cooking.
"I had no idea how to open a restaurant. I had that work ethic and that nearly strange mania for cleaning and organizing kitchens to forever re-create my own mother's," she writes.
She finds the maternal warmth she needs in her Italian mother-in-law, and her sensuous descriptions of family meals and cooking sessions in Puglia make "Under the Tuscan Sun" pale in comparison.
After nearly two decades of unexplained estrangement, she has a reunion and unexpected reckoning with her own, much-altered mother.
"The woman who taught me everything I know -- delectable and odious alike -- has been shed, and here before me is a new woman," Hamilton writes.
"I've been trying for 20 years to rid myself of this Gallic snobbism. When I see my now seventysomething-year-old mom pour herself a tumbler of wine cooler, the oppressive, heavy, wet burden of snow slides off the roof of my soul in one giant, thawing chunk, and suddenly I feel clear, light, and permissive."
"Blood, Bones, and Butter" can't help but be a turning point for Gabrielle Hamilton. There is always the danger that fame could lead her down the slick path of other celebrity chefs, but her sister doesn't think so.
"Gabrielle will always stay true to her work ethic and beliefs," Melissa Hamilton says. "She is connected to her food; that's what keeps her grounded."