The food-driven life

Mario Batali says Hamilton's writing is so good he wants to wash dishes at Prune, learn "at the feet of my new queen."
Mario Batali says Hamilton's writing is so good he wants to wash dishes at Prune, learn "at the feet of my new queen."
Posted: March 24, 2011

The way Jim Hamilton tells it, he's a bit fearful of his daughter for good reason.

Once rebuked, twice shy, or something like that, says the man behind Hamilton's Grill Room, a Lambertville, N.J., landmark for more than two decades.

The daughter who generates quakes is his youngest, Gabrielle, 46, best known as the chef/owner of the acclaimed restaurant Prune in lower Manhattan and now starring in her own nonfiction.

Her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (Random House, March, 2011), is hailed by critics as a searing, sometimes painful, always engaging account of a life that revolves around food as Earth does its sun.

Gabrielle Hamilton's story is not the memoir of a victim. You'll find no wallowing in regret, no blame, in these pages. In fact, the entire book seems to have been written in a no-whining zone.

Between these covers, Jim Hamilton shines as a bohemian who built sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and for Broadway shows. At he family's home, a burnt-out 19th-century silk mill near New Hope, he styled a world of rolling fields and rushing creeks where his children could swing from vines, feast on roasted lamb, and explore their lush surroundings free from the burden of shoelaces.

Why, then, the father's fear?

One morning in 2004, Jim Hamilton says, he opened the New York Times and was surprised to see a photograph of a dish that was a specialty at his own restaurant - with a caption indicating that the grilled shrimp with anchovy butter (see recipe) was a favorite on the menu at Prune.

Miffed, he dialed his daughter and prepared to give her what for. But she stopped him cold with: "And where did you steal it from, Dad?"

"And she was right, of course," say Jim Hamilton, who was taken aback at the time. "I stole it from a restaurant in Tel Aviv."

(Make that Jaffa, says Gabrielle's older sister, Melissa Hamilton, who recounts the meal and reproduces the recipe in her Canal House Cooking, Volume 1.)

So, no, Jim Hamilton says, he would not take credit for Gabrielle's successes, even though she did work with him at the Grill for about 18 months.

"We are close now," he says. "But she's something of a loner. She does it" - everything - "her way, on her schedule."

The point of the story is twofold: It is not what Gabrielle Hamilton says, but how she says it; and it is not what Gabrielle Hamilton cooks, but how she cooks it.

Blood, Bones & Butter debuted on the New York Times best-seller list March 20 in the No. 2 spot (No. 6 in e-book sales). The book-jacket blurb from Anthony Bourdain (a best-selling chef/memoirist himself) declares Hamilton a "prodigiously talented writer" and Bourdain as "choked with envy."

Chef Mario Batali, in his blurb, says Hamilton's writing is so good it makes him want to burn his own books and apply to wash dishes at Prune so he can learn "at the feet of my new queen."

Critics have consistently praised the simple but stellar fare at Prune, the East Village 30-seater (average entree $25) that Hamilton opened in 1999. This year, she is among the five nominees for a James Beard Award in the Best Chef,New York, category. (Winners won't be known until May.)

The name of her restaurant stems from a childhood moniker.

"When she was a kid, she made a funny face when she didn't like something," her father says. "So we called her Pruney or Prune Face and the name stuck."

Between her father's freewheeling nature and her mother's French-kitchen sensibilities, Hamilton says she had an almost magical childhood that came to an abrupt end when her parents divorced.

For reasons now elusive, preteen Gabrielle continued living in the family's empty Bucks County house with her 17-year-old brother Simon.

Then the real adventures began - years of learning the ropes in seamy catering kitchens during her drug-fueled years, and occasional backward glances of gratitude for her mother's culinary standards ("I bring my mother's compulsion for concrete order with me wherever I go," she writes).

Educated at New Hope's Solebury School, Hamilton never really wanted to become a chef (hence, the references to inadvertent and reluctant in the book's subtitle). She credits her mother for most of her culinary know-how, but she also learned on the job and through her travels, finding the true meaning of "room temperature" in France.

Through it all, she had an aching need to do more ("something meaningful"). That translated into getting a master's of fine arts degree in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, cooking all the while.

The desire to have her own kitchen led her to open Prune, but one senses that the cooking thing and the writing piece push and pull at her insides still.

Her magazine pieces have appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit, and Saveur, but this is her first book.

Contradictions abound in this saga. Hamilton praises her mother but keeps her at bay, for example. Some adult daughters may find that familiar.

And this: She has relationships almost exclusively with women all her life, and suddenly she marries a man - a well-dressed Italian on a motorcycle, with an M.D., a Ph.D., and olive groves in the seaside town of Santa Maria di Leuca, "at the tip of the heel of the boot of Italy."

Hamilton has two sons with her husband (Michele Fuortes) but never quite sees her way clear to living with the guy, and at some point, she says, after each gets official citizenship in the other's country, the two may actually divorce.

"I'm applying for Italian citizenship," she said in a recent telephone interview. "No point in rocking that boat."

In a different memoir, one might think this a marriage of convenience, an opportunity for the woman to become a mother. But not here. Here, the man does need a green card. But for this woman, the marriage supplies an even more exceptional opportunity - the chance to cook with his mother in Italy.

"So I came to possess, of all things, a husband," she writes.

"This didn't make sense for the longest time," until she meets his mother, 80-year-old Alda Fuortes de Nitto, "who cooks eggplant that satisfies like meat, grows her own olives, peels apricots from her own trees, and sun-dries her own tomato paste."

In time Hamilton wisely acknowledges the limitations of her Italian fantasy.

"It's promising and seductive, that huge Italian family, sitting around the dinner table, surrounded by the olive trees. But it's not my family and I am not their family."

She remains as she was, scarred, stubborn, smart, curious without caution, with a demanding intensity and the likelihood of a meltdown always looming as the result of low blood sugar.

Like an old-school newspaper reporter, she has mastered the art of churning out excellence on deadline.

And they can't take that away from her.

Grilled Shrimp With Anchovy Butter

Makes 4 servings

4 tablespoons butter

16-20 anchovy fillets packed in oil, chopped

2 pounds large shrimp in the shell

1 lemon, halved


1. Melt the butter with the anchovies in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add a little of the oil from the anchovy jar or tin. Stir occasionally to help the anchovies dissolve into the butter.

2. Grill the shrimp over a very hot charcoal fire or on a hot gas grill until slightly charred on each side and just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes total, depending on the size of the shrimp.

3. Transfer the shrimp to a serving platter and pour the anchovy butter over them. Serve with a hunk of lemon. Squeeze it over the shrimp. It helps cut the wonderful rich buttery saltiness.

- From

Canal House Cooking, Volume 1  by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer 

 Per serving: 361 calories, 52 grams protein, no carbohydrates, no sugar, 16 grams fat, 486 milligrams cholesterol, 1,177 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Roast Chicken and Next Day Salad

Makes 4-6 servings

For the chicken

1 (4-5 pound) chicken

11/2 lemons

10 garlic cloves, lightly smashed

3 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed from stem

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Coarse salt and black


For the salad

2 cloves of garlic, ground to       a paste with a pinch of          salt

11/2 tablespoons Dijon


11/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and black

pepper to taste

11/2 heads Bibb lettuce

4 heels of crusty bread


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Place chicken in ceramic or glass baking dish. Squeeze lemons on top and then leave the lemon halves in the dish.

3. Combine garlic, rosemary, olive oil, mustard, salt, and pepper. Rub the chicken inside and out with the mixture. Place chicken breast side down in the baking dish and rub again with the mixture.

4. Roast, turning and basting once, until a meat thermometer reads 160 degrees, about an hour. Remove from oven and cool.

5. Cut the chicken while it is still in the baking dish in order to catch the juices. Serve the chicken as you wish; the remainder of this recipe involves making a tasty next-day wilted lettuce salad using the chicken juices and bits.

6. Pick small pieces of meat from the backbone and the wings of chicken and put those in the baking dish with the drippings. Discard the carcass or save for stock. Discard lemon halves. Wrap the baking dish in plastic and refrigerate.

7. The next day, spoon off the fat from the pan. Allow pan juices to come to room temperature.

8. Meanwhile, mash garlic and mustard together in a wood or ceramic salad bowl using a wooden spoon. Mix in vinegar and gradually add olive oil. Mix until smooth and season with salt and pepper.

9. Tear handfuls of lettuce in half and add to the bowl. Toss until well coated. Let the lettuce rest until slightly wilted.

10. Warm the crusty bread heels in a low oven. Then add them to the pan with drippings.

11. To serve, scrape up drippings, juice, bits of chicken, garlic, and rosemary from the pan with the bread heels. Put each piece of soaked bread on a plate; top with greens.

- From chef Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune restaurant, New York

Per serving (based on 6): 691 calories, 92 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 233 milligrams cholesterol, 472 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

 Book signing.

Gabrielle Hamilton will sign copies of "Blood, Bones & Butter" from 4 to 6 p.m. April 10 at Hamilton's Grill Room, 8 Coryell St., Lambertville, N.J. Information: 609-397-4343 or The event benefits Solebury School in New Hope.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or Read her recent work at


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