Blood, Bones & Butter
How about that gruesome, attention-getting title? Chef memoirs are all the rage these days, with the Food Network having made chefs cool. The first one for me was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which I read twice. Gabrielle Hamilton, a notable New York chef and owner of the restaurant Prune, has entered the fray. Just as Bourdain does in his book, Hamilton pulls no punches in describing her life and culinary path. Rather than writing a full review, I’ll just point out a few things about it that may be of interest.
Her writing, just as the blurbs claim, is excellent. It’s very much in her own voice, and extremely vivid – so much so that during many passages I could feel stress and exhaustion as she described some of her kitchen life and activities. Later on, her warm feelings and passion spill over as she tells tales about her experiences in Greece and Italy. It’s a roller-coaster ride of incidents and impressions. Bourdain extols her as having written the best chef memoir ever, and his opinion carries weight, as he is an exceptional writer. That said, I find Bourdain’s writing a lot funnier, and I can scarcely think of a more entertaining and incisive essayist and polemicist. But she’s great, make no mistake. Hamilton has an MFA in writing, but having read about her career, it’s hard to imagine her having any time to do that – her energy level must be spectacular.
Hamilton’s early life is poignant, as she was essentially left by her parents to fend for herself at a certain point. Messed-up family life is part and parcel of many chef’s backgrounds, I gather. As a teenager, just short of legal age, she recounts a lengthy stint as a waitress at the Lone Star Cafe in New York (a place where I saw Larry Coryell play guitar once), where the extra-legal activities and antics are amusing, and even instructive for aspiring bar owners.
There’s a great anecdote about watching famous chef Andre Soltner make an omelette. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re a serious chef or real food geek, you’ll love it. I found the most pleasurable parts of the book to be her lyrical chapters about meeting special people and eating scrumptious food in Greece and Italy. I wonder if she recovered some of the missing family feelings in these visits. Finally, she painted a lucid picture of her views on women in the culinary industry, framed by her appearance on a “great women in the industry” type of panel at the CIA. While some of the women were blithely touting getting into a relationship with your local organic farmers and other such ideal circumstances, Hamilton cringed, thinking that these very young women need to be told that they may be under trial by fire indefinitely, possibly never to see the lofty restaurants and luminaries at the posh top of the food chain. Oh, and as a bonus, they’ll be treated badly because they’re women, and don’t forget the massive student loans!
I confess that as much as I admired her writing and enjoyed parts of the book, I think this will be the last chef memoir I’ll read for awhile. Simply put, I’m burned out, after having visited the CIA (Culinary Institute, not that one) several times, having observed my stepson getting educated there, and having read too many foodie books. I’m thinking of moving on to something lighter, such as combat memoirs. Mario Batali’s blurb on the cover describes how he’ll read this book to his children. Hmmm, I wonder which parts they’ll like the best? Family abandonment? Drug use? Tremendous hardships that come with a kitchen life? Getting married for a green card? Oh, maybe it’s the tasty omelette!
Hit Me, Beat Me, Make Me Write Bad Paychecks!
The sheer insanity that is running a fancy restaurant no longer appeals to me as a reader. Two parts of Hamilton’s book drove this home. One was where she talked about meeting someone and instantly being able to tell they’re in the business, and how gratifying that is. It reminded me that I am very much an outsider, never would have succeeded in that business, and can’t really relate to it. Restaurant owners demand loyalty, work attendance even when sick (scary for us diners, no?), and unrelenting hard work, all for crappy pay. (Come to think of it, they’re just like bandleaders!) And as she says in the book, when someone “crosses her” by deigning to quit at a bad time, that person is “dead to me”. Then again, when’s a good time to quit a busy restaurant? Under the stress they live in, with small profit margins and nearly no time for a normal life, it’s understandable that she’d react that way. Yet from the outside, I’m thinking, I can’t believe that they stay as long as they do. It’s cuckoo land, essentially volunteering for abuse.
But anyone who does buy into that lifestyle or who loves the hardcore restaurant life will LOVE this book.