In Gabrielle Hamilton’s defense, she’s as hard on herself as she is on everybody else. The chef-owner of New York’s much-loved restaurant Prune wields a pen that cuts like a knife.
Her vinegary memoir, “Blood, Bones and Butter,” starts with her unseemly girlhood in eastern Pennsylvania. By the time she was 13 she was shoplifting, robbing the neighbors’ houses and getting into coke. At 16 she moved to New York and went to work at the Lone Star Café, a Greenwich Village bar.
The other waitresses taught her how to steal efficiently. She avoided doing time for grand larceny only when her lawyer informed her employers that their cocktail waitress was in fact a teenager. A few aimless semesters of college followed.
And then she drifted into years of jobs in giant catering kitchens, working among “truly mediocre cooks” who would typically serve “a sit-down dinner for 300” that “had sat in the warehouse kitchen refrigerator, some components of it for days.” She hated the pretentiousness and the dishonesty of the food. Eventually she enrolled in a university writing program and found it just as phony.
One day she was parking her car in the East Village when a neighbor pointed out a leasable restaurant space. “I had nothing, in the traditional sense,” she remembers, “to qualify me as a chef or a business owner.”
What she did have was a lot of cooking experience, memories of food she had loved growing up and on trips to France and Greece, and a firm vision: “There would be no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.”
This isn’t material for a novel, but it makes for a delectable memoir, mainly because Hamilton is such a fine writer. Consider this description of a reunion with her mother, after 20 years of not speaking:
“My mother ... is outside our room in the lily beds peering in through the lace curtains to see if we have stirred, she herself having been awake, and rubbing her six hairy legs together with hungry impatience, for hours.”
“Blood, Bones and Butter” demonstrates once again what a curse it is to have a writer in the family. The estrangement from her mother is never really explained. The estrangement from her husband (or ex, I would guess), takes up the last third of the book.
Gabrielle Hamilton’s acidity fascinated me. It also made me squirm. It isn’t nice. Then again, if I wanted to publicly mortify her, I couldn’t find a better way than by calling her nice. Smart, capable, forceful, yes. Nice, no. She is a piece of work and proud of it.
“Life, on the Line” (I can’t explain that comma), by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, is the memoir of a Chicago chef who prepares the kind of avant-garde food that Hamilton loathes. She might be willing to cut him some slack, though, since he does it better than just about anybody else. He opened Alinea in 2005, when he was barely 30. The following year Gourmet magazine named it the country’s best restaurant.
Achatz’s life really is the stuff of a novel -- a grim one. In 2007 he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer of the tongue, and the leading oncologists he consulted advised him he had to have his tongue cut out immediately. He chose not to.
This drama, unfortunately, doesn’t unfold till the final quarter of a long book. The preceding pages chronicle the chef’s remarkably direct, if not remarkably exciting, advance to the top.
He has handed over something like a third of the writing to his business partner, Nick Kokonas (these passages appear in a different typeface), a decision that is part friendship and part insanity. When I got to the investor updates covering such subjects as the projected chair designs for Alinea, I began longing -- crassly, I know -- to get to the cancer.
“Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” is published by Random House (291 pages, $26). “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat” is published by Gotham (390 pages, $27.50). To buy these books in North America, click here and here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)