Nothing about Prune is straightforward, and that is part of its charm. This small restaurant in downtown New York, run by chef Gabrielle Hamilton, can barely squeeze in 30 people. We only managed to secure a table by booking at 9.30pm, late by New York standards. And though we were told the table was ready we were then asked to wait: dodging waiters with plates of food and trying not to hover too close to diners clearly having a good time.
But loitering with intent for a few minutes did take me back to one of my favourite restaurants in Paris, Le Bistrot Paul Bert. The bustle, the bar, the bonhomie reflected in the food, and the pleasure emanating from the customers. However, the engaging chat of Prune’s female bartender was much more fun and open than that of an invariably taciturn Parisian. And there is no way Prune could follow Paul Bert’s practice of taking its menu around the room on a blackboard without inflicting serious (and doubtless actionable) injury on its diners.
When beckoned, we were led past the open kitchen and down a narrow, spiral staircase – not wide enough for the two-way traffic it conveys – to a small kidney-shaped table in the basement, our own private dining room.
Our appetites whetted by all we had seen upstairs, it did not take us long to order. Grilled octopus and squid with chilli flakes; a celery salad with blue cheese toast; a special of shad roe with capers; succulent slices of veal breast braised in milk; grilled quail with ricotta and hazelnuts; and luscious ice creams and “pots au chocolat”. The wines were equally illuminating: an Assyrtiko from Santorini, Greece, and an Olga Raffault Chinon from the excellent 2005 vintage in the Loire.
We had just two complaints. The salsa verde with the roasted half-chicken had too much garlic in it, and we were very close to a door leading to a cool storage area which the waiting staff failed to shut properly after passing through. The only time the door was opened and then firmly closed was when Hamilton herself stepped out from what must double as her office.
Elegantly dressed in white trousers and a black jacket, she clutched a sheaf of papers and a few copies of her new memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, an enjoyable insight into how she became one of a very small band of successful female chefs/proprietors with children.
Recognising two well known authors at our table, Hamilton stopped to chat before asking for some advice. Many people wanted to buy the book, she said, but she wasn’t sure where best to direct them. I told her to pile them high on the bar. Nobody, I assured her, would walk past them.
I have now finished Blood, Bones & Butter, and can appreciate the insouciance with which Hamilton has progressed through her career, and the crucial role that this increasingly rare trait has played in her success.
She inherited a love of all things edible from her French mother, whose nickname for Gabrielle, the youngest of her five children, was Prune. Her parents’ divorce at a very impressionable age led to drugs, travel and, eventually, a job cooking for an events company in New York. Twenty years later she manages to express the joy in her work with exceptional perspicacity. “What I have loved about cooking my entire life, especially prep cooking, is the way that it keeps your hands occupied but your mind free to sort everything out. I have never once finished an eight-hour prep shift without something from my life – mundane or profound – sorted out.”
The book also describes the practical life of a restaurant: the accidental discovery of the location; the pleasures (and occasional pains) of belonging to a neighbourhood; and how hard it is to stay profitable when there are no real economies of scale. The restaurant’s annual turnover is more than $2m, but she rarely reports more than a 10 per cent net profit. This is in spite of the fact that in the five hours Prune is open for Sunday brunch, it can serve more than 300 customers.
Hamilton is tough on herself – and even tougher on her husband – but in one sentence manages to speak for many who have opened their own restaurant. “Maybe some guys open restaurants because they think they’re going to meet chicks or drink for free or make a lot of money, which are pleasures not to be underestimated, but there is a subtler gratification in that lovely exchange with the customers that is worth all of the profound anguish and worry and hours clocked in.”
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54 East 1st Street
New York, NY 10003;
00 1 212 677 6221; www.prunerestaurant.com
‘Blood, Bones & Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, $26; Chatto & Windus publish in the UK in June, £12.99)