Chef Gabrielle Hamilton finds pretension incredibly distasteful, in food and otherwise.
Hamilton, who rules the kitchen at her own critically acclaimed restaurant Prune in New York's East Village and recently published a memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (Random House, $26), says the quality she can always appreciate in both cooking and storytelling is honesty - and she puts plenty of it in both.
"I really don't know much about food," Hamilton admitted, referring mainly to the culinary minutiae held to a high esteem by those who inhabit the world of chinoises and crème fraîche.
Yet Hamilton, a Bucks County native who discussed her memoir over a sold-out brunch Sunday at the intimate Pumpkin Restaurant as part of First Person Arts' "Edible World" series, clearly knows how to cook food that simply tastes good.
Celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain hailed Blood, Bones and Butter, which debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list, as "simply the best memoir by a chef ever." Award-winning restaurateur Daniel Boulud wrote, "Hamilton approaches storytelling the same way she does cooking - with thoughtful creativity that delights the senses."
With Pumpkin chef and co-owner Ian Moroney being a "huge fan" of Hamilton's and with rave reviews from the First Person Arts staff, the decision to host Hamilton was "a no-brainer," marketing coordinator Karina Kacala said.
"We wanted to find a restaurant that had a similar kind of food and culinary philosophy that Gabrielle does at Prune - food she would enjoy," Kacala said.
Hamilton's story starts during her childhood in New Hope, where her home so closely bordered the Delaware River that on the weekends, "we had breakfast at Smutzie's on the Jersey side, but then we got gas for the car at Sam Williams's Mobil on the New Hope side," she wrote.
Hamilton's mother, Madeline, is a French former ballet dancer, and her father, Jim, is a former theatrical set designer and owner of the well-regarded BYOB Hamilton's Grill Room in Lambertville, N.J.
Her culinary traverses began at her parents' sensory spring lamb-roast parties, in a kitchen where her mother "ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand," and while running errands with her parents to places like S. Maresca & Sons Fine Meats, the landmark butcher shop in Sergeantsville, N.J. "I wanted to be in with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat," Hamilton wrote.
After years of robotlike work in catering companies, experimenting with drugs, traveling through kitchens in France, Greece and Turkey and falling into a relaxed marriage to an Italian with whom she eventually had two children, Hamilton opened the cozy, 30-seat Prune in 1999.
"I was not looking to open a restaurant," Hamilton wrote. "That was never on my mind."
But when a neighbor showed her a cockroach-infested, abandoned kitchen, she knew immediately how her restaurant would take shape.
Serving dishes like fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers or sardines with Triscuits and mustard, Prune embodies a philosophy of "simply good food" that has customers lined up around the corner for weekend brunch.
Much like her "inadvertent" culinary education, Hamilton, who has a master's degree in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, did not intentionally seek to turn her experiences into a book.
"I've lived my life as this sort of rebel - this, 'You can't get me' attitude," Hamilton said. But now, "I'm a mother. I don't need to be that person anymore. I was writing essays, telling my story, and each chapter kind of fell into place, each as a stand-alone."
Although critics and colleagues have praised Hamilton's memoir for its soul, grit and frankness, the author claims it is "not nearly as intimate as [critics have] made it out to be."
"If I didn't want something to be in [in the book], it didn't make it in there," Hamilton said with a laugh. "I didn't get as far as to come up with a 'takeaway' lesson to the story. Can't we all just talk?"