If you have ever toyed with the idea of being a chef or a cook, or have had the urge to own a restaurant, especially after watching one of those ubiquitous competition-style tv shows, you might want to think about the reality of a life in food beyond a few hours of a contrived reality. Better yet read this autobiography of a chef and restaurant owner who got into this line of work without a plan or formal training.
This is an autobiography about family and food written with a passionate intensity for life and work by Gabrielle Hamilton: cook, reluctant chef/restaurant owner of Prune, wife, mother and writer. The book opens with the story of her early family life and concludes with two other families: the restaurant family of workers plus customers, and the other personal family that is fraying around the edges. It is to those families, past and present, that the book is dedicated and they inspire the title: they are her blood, bones and sweet butter in life.
The book is an attempt to make sense of a life lived in a whirlwind of activity and turmoil. She begins with her first twelve years in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, where her father was a major stage-set designer and builder. Her elegant French mother, a former New York City Ballet dancer, ruled the house with glamour and a knowledge about food-- how to prepare it, stretch the best out of the least expensive and desirable and make it the tastiest in the very best tradition of French home cooking. Hamilton was the youngest of five children. And then suddenly it was all over with the family splitting up. This thirteen-year-old girl's behavior was edging toward delinquency--breaking into houses, stealing, shoplifting, lying about her age to get a first job at a local restaurant where she washed dishes, did prep-work, and began to learn how to cook.
And as the years go on, she waits tables, learns through the necessity of work how to do a variety of cooking for all types of clients: New York catering firms that hire teams of cooks who produce large quantities of poor quality chi-chi food that passes for haute cuisine; chief cook at a summer camp where every year she scrubs down the kitchen from stem to stern, sets up the orders for massive amounts of food and caters to the tastes of young campers. It is when she travels to Europe and connects with her distant French family that she begins to experience the kind of food that will eventually be served at her restaurant. And finally in Greece, at the end of the port on the small island of Serifos, she has her food epiphany in Margarita's small restaurant where the wine is homemade and so is the food--freshly made every day. This is the food of family and place that offers both sustenance to the body and to the soul.
Along the way, she marries an Italian doctor who was seduced by the food at the restaurant and, in turn, seduces this erstwhile lesbian who marries him so that he can get his green card. Their marriage produces two children and an extended family in Italy where once again it is food that becomes a prime focus of Hamilton's life. Her mother-in-law, the eighty-year-old matriarch, Alda Fuortes de Nitto, cooks vegetables from the garden that she tends, dresses them simply with the buttery tasting olive oil produced from the family's grove, and with little knowledge of each other's languages, she and Hamilton communicate through cooking.
Somewhere in her writing or in an interview, Julia Child stated that she loved everything about cooking--the preparation, the cooking and cleanup--all of it! In many ways that is a description of being in love and making love, and that is what it takes to do this kind of work day in and day out, for better or for worse, which Hamilton conveys with joy, reflection, insight and wisdom.