Chef talk: Gabrielle Hamilton

It’s 10.45am, and Gabrielle Hamilton is finally sitting down to breakfast. She has already raced uptown to drop off her two young sons at school, and is back in the gritty East Village and her tiny jewel box of a restaurant, with its compact bar, tiled floor and vintage mirror. Dressed in a crisp white chef’s jacket beneath a neat apron, her hair swept up in a twist, her manner equally controlled, she is nibbling on a petite biscuit and quail egg sandwich, with a side of greens. The dish is an oh-so-fancy version of the ubiquitous egg roll from the corner deli she downed every morning as an impoverished teen newly arrived in the big city in the 1980s.

Hamilton, doubly celebrated as chef-owner of Prune and as author of last year’s food-centric memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, has come a long way since those days of clubbing, drugging and committing grand larceny at the bar where she worked aged 17. After years toiling in catering kitchens, Hamilton opened Prune in 1999, serving haute home-style cooking that has drawn a fervently loyal crowd. Think braised rabbit legs, roasted marrow bones and grilled pork chops. In 2011, the third year in a row she was nominated, she won the James Beard award for New York City Chef of the Year. Critics, meanwhile, were eating up her new book, which follows her from untethered youth to triumphant restaurateur with a refreshing frankness.

Now Hamilton will join Angela Hartnett – of Murano fame – in the kitchen of 1 Lombard Street in London next month, for one night only. Their teaming is part of a series of three dinners dubbed “Girls Night Out”, initiated by Hartnett and food and wine writer Fiona Sims to highlight women’s culinary achievements. Each night will pair a female foreign chef with a British one, and the sommeliers will also be women, who will serve wines produced by, you guessed it, women.

It’s not an event one expects to find Hamilton headlining. In one biting anecdote from her memoir, the reader can feel Hamilton cringing as a fellow restaurateur introduces her to his mother as “one of the best female chefs” in the city.

But Hamilton says Girls Night Out is not ghettoising. “This seems like an event with other strong, accomplished women at the top of their game,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to join a club of women chefs. That makes me feel itchy in my skin. But to hang out with some awesome broads, that’s cool.

“I’m not anti-girl by any stretch,” she continues. “Love the ladies.”

Ever wry, Hamilton is alluding to her self-proclaimed status as an “honorary lesbian for life.” Though she lived as a lesbian for most of her adulthood, she says she no longer identifies as gay. Since marrying her (now estranged) husband, an Italian doctor named Michele Fuortes, she has considered herself straight.

Women, however, have dominated Hamilton’s culinary education, beginning with her mother, a French-born former ballet dancer who taught her children to eat things such as grass and clover. When Hamilton was about 12, her mother divorced her father and left their rural Pennsylvanian farm for Vermont, setting Hamilton on a path of self-destruction.

Other women would eventually take on surrogate roles, at least in the kitchen, including Misty, an adventurous chef in Michigan, where Hamilton studied creative writing; Alda, her Italian mother-in-law; and even Pasqualina, an aged servant of her husband’s family, who killed and skinned her own rabbits.

When the sisterhood’s influence is pointed out, Hamilton doesn’t deny it but is quick to credit her father, an artist who was a grand entertainer if not a cook. “He is so dreamy and aware of the mise en scène of a party or meal,” she says. “He’s big into the narrative, as I am. From my mom I got all the brass tacks – how to be thrifty and organised and how to eat. She introduced us to virtually every food in the world.”

After 20 years spent labouring in male kitchens – “hacking, burning, hissing, jostling, manipulating the food” – Hamilton’s own style favours “gently spooning, not constantly tonging – and I do think there’s a difference – food that does not have so much done to it, that is much more straightforward. I find that food is much more about the guest and less about the chef.”

The menu she and Hartnett are planning sounds simple but hearty. There will be a poached egg served with French ham and brown butter, as well as what Hamilton describes as a “very clean boiled beef”.

Hamilton is also writing a cookbook, which she says has provided a fun change of pace. “It’s like giving directions to your house to a friend of yours you actually want to arrive,” she says. There are no plans for a second bistro but Hamilton is toying with the idea of a shop selling ready-to-cook foods. Foodies would no doubt be lining up, despite the fact that Hamilton has never tried to hide her contempt for the culinary snobs.

“I really enjoy eaters,” she says. “The foodie tends to obsess and fetishise to the exclusion of being a well-rounded person in the universe. All they can talk about is the food they ate last night and the food they’ll eat tomorrow.” If she’s trapped next to one at the dinner table, “I glaze over. I’d rather talk to a dentist.”

Girls Night Out in partnership with American Express will be held on March 11 (with Gabrielle Hamilton), 12 and 13 at 1 Lombard Street, London; £200 per person. Call 020 7929 9511. “Blood, Bones & Butter” (Vintage) will be published on March 1, £8.99

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