Cooking with Prune: Gabrielle Hamilton's new cookbook is nothing less than unconventional

Cooking with Prune: Gabrielle Hamilton's new cookbook is nothing less than unconventional

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton knows what she likes. She is a two-time James Beard award winner who still serves sardines with mustard and Triscuits as an appetizer at her New York City restaurant Prune. Anthony Bourdain described her 2011 memoir, “Blood, Bones and Butter,” as “simply the best memoir by a chef. Ever.” And now she has a cookbook, simply named “Prune,” and it doesn’t disappoint. Chefs Feed chatted with Hamilton about her love of writing, her philosophy behind saltine crackers and why she doesn’t consider herself a culinary rebel.

November 25, 2014
Chef Gabrielle Hamilton knows what she likes. She is a two-time James Beard award winner who still serves sardines with mustard and Triscuits as an appetizer at her New York City restaurant Prune. Anthony Bourdain described her 2011 memoir, “Blood, Bones and Butter,” as “simply the best memoir by a chef. Ever.” And now she has a cookbook, simply named “Prune,” and it doesn’t disappoint. Chefs Feed chatted with Hamilton about her love of writing, her philosophy behind saltine crackers and why she doesn’t consider herself a culinary rebel.

Chefs Feed: Your restaurant Prune has been around for 15 years now. Why did you decide to do a cookbook now?


Gabrielle Hamilton: I’ve thought about it before but it happened to coincide with the birthday of Prune. We got asked within the first year of Prune to write one but I wasn’t sure who we were then or what we could contribute to the genre.

Most cookbooks have an intro and an index of recipes or ingredients. Why neither in yours?

I wrote it entirely in the voice that I use in the restaurant and with my line cooks. I started writing it in the conventional way and then stopped after 11 minutes flat. I realized that I had no voice or authenticity and wasn’t telling any truths. That’s why I wrote it the way I did. I have a writing education and I was not unaware of or ignoring the home consumer at all. I recognize and admit that it’s difficult to use without an index. We’re going to launch one online in the next few weeks to make it easier to reference the recipes.

I hope it’s obvious why I didn’t include head notes or explanations, but I had written my memoir a few years ago and it had a long introduction. So this ends up being the recipe companion to that, or vice versa.

What do you hope home chefs will take away from this cookbook?

I think the home chef falls into many categories. You have a novice who has the same skill set as my 17 year-old extern who doesn’t know the difference between a sprig of parsley and cilantro, the expert line cook, and everyone in between.

This cookbook includes all of the extremes. The home cook will get not only very, very detailed information, advice and helpful notes, but also get a feel for what it’s like to work in this industry. The story line falls along three different levels: recipes, tips and a narrative dappled throughout it about what it’s like to be inside the restaurant.

How do you decide when it’s appropriate to use different variations of an ingredient, such as homemade pasta versus pre-made wonton sheets?

I know how and when to make a homemade mayonnaise and the book has probably eight different mayo recipes. And I also know when it’s appropriate to use Hellman’s mayo. How do I know? Hm, maybe that’s just my skill set after being in the business for 30 years. I think there’s a time to use a saltine cracker and there’s a time to make your own bread.

Food waste is a big issue right now and you have a whole section called “garbage” that’s about using scraps. Any tips for the home chef on how they can reuse unwanted scraps?

Everyone has a limp head of celery in their fridge and there’s a great recipe in the book that explains my thinking behind scraps.

Are there any recipes that you wish had made it into the book that didn’t?

We had about 250 recipes that we had to pull out because it was turning into a huge book but now I think the finished product is absolutely loaded with all of the things that we’re known for and are asked for the most. The brunch service, the hamburger, the sweet breads... it’s all in the book.

Do you think this cookbook is a good reflection of who you are?

For better and for worse, I do. It’s an accurate reflection of who I am, what the restaurant industry is like and what our little corner of the world is like.

You’ve been called a “rogue” or “rebellious” chef. Do you think that’s accurate? Or is the world just not used to strong women running kitchens?

I think we work always within the classic and traditional idioms at Prune. Maybe it’s not so common what we do, but it’s not rogue. I’m an opinionated person and I live and die by my opinions. And I think that’s what has distinguished the restaurant.

This is your second book now, after your memoir, “Blood, Bones and Butter.” Do you plan on writing any more books in the future?

I think I do. I really enjoyed taking on this cookbook and it was a richer experience than I anticipated. I didn’t realize there would be so much writing in a cookbook. Cooking is my background and I’ve been in the kitchen my whole life, ever since I was old enough to wash dishes. Now I get to play barefoot in the front yard with literature.

When you have time to go out, where’s your go-to spot to eat right now?

I have not really had time to go out, so I’m way behind but have a long list of places to check out. If they’re still open by the time I get to them, then great. If they’ve closed down, that’s too bad.

Interview by Sara Bloomberg

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