Papeles de Cocina: A Conversation with Chef Gabrielle Hamilton

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Galician seafood scan-cropped
Saveur: Briny Bites—Galician Seafood Fresh From the Tin
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By Sofia Perez

[Published by Papeles de Cocina (VI Edición), March 2010]

[Note: I wrote this article in English for a journal in Spain, and it was later translated by the publication’s editorial team and published as part of a special issue that focused on women and gastronomy. What follows is my original (unedited) text. The Spanish translation can be accessed via the link above.]

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton (Sketch by Guillermo Ganuza)

Since it first opened on a side street in New York’s scruffy East Village, the tiny restaurant Prune has drawn the attention of diners and critics alike. Though the dining room is Lilliputian, it’s by no means precious, looking instead like it was furnished by your best friend’s older sister, the one whose fashion sense deftly straddled the line between punk and elegant, and who always managed to discover the best new rock groups before everyone else did. In the New York culinary scene of the late 1990s, chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s restaurant was a breath of fresh air, free of the stuffiness of its peers and, like the chef at its helm, unafraid to be anything other than its idiosyncratic self. Her menu included bone marrow and a spectacular veal sweetbread dish at a time when the city had not yet embraced the so-called lesser cuts of meats with the fetishic zeal it does today.

Critics have described Prune’s offerings as unpretentious, playful, and refreshing, but despite the levity these adjectives imply, Hamilton, 44, takes the quality of her food seriously. Raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she grew up in a food-oriented household—her father owns a restaurant, and her mother, whose family hails from France, is an accomplished home cook—and she herself began working as a dishwasher at the age of 12.

Toiling in restaurants all through high school and college, Hamilton moved to New York City after graduating and split her time between writing and working in catering kitchens. Eventually, she decided to go back to school to study fiction-writing and earned a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from the University of Michigan. When she returned to the Big Apple, she continued cooking professionally while pursuing a writing career. In 1999, she opened Prune and one month later the New York Times gave her a glowing review, the first of many to follow. In 2009, she was nominated for a James Beard Award in the category “Best Chef in New York City,” and her first book, a memoir, will be published in the fall of 2010. She sat down recently with Sofia Perez to discuss her experiences as a woman in the culinary world.

SP: So, 10 years…congratulations. It’s not easy to have a restaurant anywhere, but to have one in New York that’s successful and relevant for 10 years is an accomplishment.

GH: Thanks, I know. I was just talking to a friend of mine who is on the West Coast, and he said that there’s much more openness to whimsy there, to the half-formed idea. Not here. New York is a hard town. But it has merit in that way because you have it pretty together by the time you become successful here.

SP: What was it like for you when you first opened Prune? Were you terrified?

GH: Totally terrified. I didn’t know how we would do it—even though this was the perfect place to open. We bought it out of bankruptcy court, and the price was right. I decided to put as much money into this as I had into my liberal arts education up to that point. I thought, “Why not have a different education for the same amount of money?” And here we are, 10 years later.

SP: And has it been an education?

GH: A massive one. I was not a chef when I opened my restaurant. I became one here. I definitely started out as a cook only—a decent cook, but I didn’t know anything about how to be a chef, and now I think I understand the term very well. I’ve actually gotten good at it. That’s the part that makes this conversation about women and cooking slightly strange. I don’t know what’s female about being a chef.

SP: Or what’s male about it, for that matter.

GH: It’s just a skill set that you either have or you don’t, but it doesn’t require a division of gender. I had an experience recently where I ran into a colleague on the street. He’s not a chef—he’s an owner who has a well-known female chef installed in his restaurants. He’s a nice guy, and he was very charming. That day, he was with his mother and he turned to her to introduce me. He said, “Mom, this is one of the two best female chefs in New York City.” So I said, “Well, it’s very sweet of you to say that. It’s not true.” And then, not even thinking, I said to the mother, “You know what would be great next? If we just could take the word ‘female’ out of the sentence.” [laughs] So then of course it immediately becomes preposterous. “Hey Mom, this is one of the two best chefs in New York.” Somehow, when you add female to the sentence, it’s legitimate. One of the two best—well, there’s only five of us, and sure, I’m probably ranking high in the five. So it sort of works if you diminish the pool like that.

Sofia Perez (Sketch by Guillermo Ganuza)

SP: Does the discussion diminish you and the other women who are in that pool? When you were nominated this year for the Beard Award, you were asked by a journalist what it meant to be the only woman in the category, and you said: “It fucks things up, and undermines all the potential joy of the nomination.” Was the problem that there weren’t more women in the category or that someone was pointing it out?

GH: Both. As soon as I learned about the nomination and saw who was in my category—and saw that I was the only woman—I couldn’t help but think that I had been selected because they needed a female nominee. Especially this year, because 2009 was the Beard Awards’ “Year of the Woman.” They do a theme each year. I think last year was the year of the farmer, and maybe next year will be the year of the dishwasher. [laughs]

SP: How does half of the human race become a category?

GH: They have their logic, I guess. So at the time I thought, “It’s the year of the woman, and I’ll be the woman in this category.” I was content to have my private thoughts about it. I’m probably the token. That’s fine. I’ve been the token before, and I’ve used it as my way of getting through the turnstile. But then once I’m through, I try to succeed at the game. It didn’t bother me that much to be the only female nominee, but it’s hard when it’s explicit, when a reporter calls and says, “So, how do you feel about being the only woman?” I thought, “Shit! If you hadn’t said it, we could all just pretend.”

SP: It could just be the elephant in the room.

GH: Exactly. Let’s just leave that elephant right where it is, sleeping. It would have been so nice had there been two or three of us in the category and then the situation could have been: “What we’re doing here is picking a best chef for the year.” But let me back up for a second. A priori, we understand that the whole awards thing is ridiculous and you’re just participating in the shenanigans. It’s a big, stupid, money-sucking event—though it’s also fun and glamorous. It’s like the prom, and who doesn’t want to go to the prom. But, it would have been nice had there been some more ladies there, just to make the mix seem more normal.

SP: Are you friendly with some of the other women…

GH: The other three in New York? [laughs]

SP: Well, you said there were five total [laughs], so by my math, there have to be four others. Do any of you complain about the kind of coverage you get?

GH: I don’t. I notice that within the female chef category, there’s a subcategory. Basically, there’s A-team and B-team. I don’t want to sound like the biggest fucking asshole on earth, but the reality is that I’m not sloppy and I work hard. And then there’s B-team girl who is not doing very good work and is mad at the patriarchy. That’s hard for me to be around. The A-teamers that I talk to are not angry and are totally cool, and this whole thing is very fun for us. And actually, to be fair, I feel the same way about male chefs. Guys at the top of their game are really fun to hang out with because they have nothing to prove. They are not gunning for the their third star or their eighth restaurant. They’re there.

SP: It’s a confidence thing. The people who are striving are caught up in that.

GH: That’s right. It’s hard to hang out with someone who’s striving, and it’s a lot easier to hang out with someone who’s where he or she wants to be.

SP: Everything you said rings very true to me in other fields. Working in journalism, it’s the same thing. For me there’s a C-team as well: the women who embrace the role of coquette and use that to get ahead. But then there are also divisions based on internal politics, irrespective of gender, and there are always going to be people who complain or try to maneuver their way to the top instead of it having it be about the quality of their work.

GH: Well, right, it’s about the work, so women have to be doing the work. Whatever absence of women we have in our industry is not the fault of the patriarchy. It’s like, “I don’t know what you want, honey, but you can’t be a famous chef if you’re not cooking—if you’re magazine editing or doing food styling or recipe testing.” If you want to be a chef, you have to be cooking in a restaurant.

SP: And it’s a hard job for men, too. Perhaps some women and men go into it to seek fame, but they haven’t embraced a work ethic, so they try to use whatever they can as their ticket to stardom.

GH: I’m completely uninterested in the stardom part. I don’t know what we’re measuring. If we’re talking about chefs and cooking, then we’re talking about whether your restaurant pays its bills, are you still in business, is your food excellent, do people come, are you making an impact in the workplace, or in the world of farmers, or whatever.

SP: And none of that has to do with gender.

GH: Exactly.

SP: You were talking about the distinction in your mind between a chef and a cook. Describe that difference.

GH: A cook is someone who can cook, and a chef is a thousand other things. You are the system-maker, the leader, the teacher, the cleaner-upper, the strategizer—it’s a completely different skill set. I’m almost speechless by how big it is. And I’m going to throw in another category, which I find is really important the more I’m in it, and that’s “chef-owner”. Talk about two full-time jobs! I could just sit here and be an owner, and the phone could ring and my next week would just fill up with a full-time assignment right there—let alone thinking about putting a menu together.

SP: When you talk about what goes into being a chef, some of those tasks are seen as stereotypically female, almost motherly—caring for your staff, cleaning up, training, making sure everything gets done. Do you think that women are better prepared to be chefs? I don’t mean biologically, but because of the way we’re raised to be caretakers?

GH: My chef skills are about being an effective leader, not nurturing. But, actually, I think I learned to be a mother by being a chef. I never felt more prepared for my job as a mother than because of my background here. It’s been reiterated constantly for me from the earliest stages: physical discomfort, long hours, working through pain, lack of sleep, having no time to pee or eat properly. All of those things were so familiar to me from my job before I ever became pregnant, so when I did, I thought, “This is the big deal?” Then you have the baby, and is it any different than hearing your name every 15 seconds here? “Chef, chef, chef, Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle!” You have to answer a thousand questions, and then the next minute you’re on the phone, and then you’re sautéing. Wrangling a fussy baby is like trussing a chicken. And the liquids—the oozing milk, the urine. Being a chef is the best training for motherhood you could imagine.

SP: Does being a mother of two small children affect the way you interact with your staff?

GH: I don’t feel that I bring that to the interaction—it’s put on me. A lot of people need to be mommied, and of course that brings out my “evil mom” side.

SP: Do you think that happens more to women than men?

GH: Of course. I’ve had this one experience repeatedly. I ask someone to do something a certain way, and then I come up and I see that the thing is not being done that way, so I say, “That’s too brown. You’re going to have to do that again.” And the response is: “Ohhhh!” [whining] as if I’m telling you that you have to clean your room. And I’m thinking: You’re going to be a chef one day? And you’re going to open a restaurant, and I’m a taskmaster to you because I’m telling you to properly brown the fucking meat? And your response is “Oh, Mommm!”? You can just hear it: “Mommm!” And if I were a man, they would have said, “Yes, chef,” and they would have run down the stairs, re-tied the ballotine and browned it on all the sides exactly like it was supposed to be done the first time.

SP: Do you think the work environment here allows them to feel more familiar with you—because this is an intimate restaurant…

GH: Well, I am extremely familiar as a person. If I’m going to spend 18 hours a day here, it has to be with people I want to talk to and know about. I want my workplace to be lively and interesting to me in ways that aren’t about food. It tends to be informal here, and maybe people think that that’s female. I think it’s just my personality.

SP: In preparing for this discussion on women and gastronomy, I found that the subject really becomes a prism for whatever assumptions you already have. I read an article on the Internet that went on and on about how your feminism is proven by the fact that your entire staff is female—which I know is not true because a male friend of mine used to work here.

GH: Exactly. Actually, at the moment, our kitchen staff is all men. I remember that in the very beginning—I think we had just taken the brown paper off the windows—somebody phoned and asked, “So what kind of restaurant is it?” I said, “Well, we have grilled branzino…” and I went on to describe some of the dishes. And he said—I’m not exaggerating—he said, “Okay so, it’s French-gay-Moroccan.” So, yes, people definitely see you through their own prism. It’s true that there are a lot of women here, but I don’t think I hire that way. I do not divide by gender. The criterion for me is: “Are you really good?” Then we can hang out with each other. There have been plenty of men who’ve worked here—good men who are manly and not threatened by anything.

SP: Let me play devil’s advocate and say, okay, maybe you haven’t sought out women to hire, but maybe you’ve created an environment that’s more welcoming to them, and they come to you.

GH: If anything, I’m harder on women than men. My expectations of women are so high. I want so much from them, and I’m so regularly disappointed. And that’s actually where identity politics fails me. They’re so important in the beginning when you’re trying to form your own identity. You really need that little haven to rush back to, as you figure out who you are. But then identity politics fail. Ultimately, they’re limited politics. I am not an ally of a woman who wants to bomb the shit out of Iraq. The fact that she’s a woman does not make her my kind of person. On the other hand, there are many women who work here, and what I have come to really enjoy about that is what it says to other women entering this place to work. I know that when I started in those male kitchens, I was not the first woman, but I was always the second. And that is such a horrible experience, to be the “other” woman in the kitchen. The one who got there before you is worse to you than the men, because she’s fought so hard for whatever she’s doing. As soon as she sets eyes on you, you are fucking dead meat. To me, that has created much of my ambivalence about women in the kitchen. So I love that this place is saturated with women, because when women enter to work here, it’s not a big deal. Come on in. There are girls. There are guys. Just do your job.

SP: Tell me about what it was like for you in those male kitchens, before you opened this place.

GH: You know, when I opened Prune, it was the first time I realized how painful it had been before. I was not raised to complain about anything—in my family, you are never a victim of anything, ever. But when I opened this place, it was like the removal of a thorn. Oh my God, it’s been hurting for so long—I didn’t know that that thing was sticking in me! Because you just calcify around it. To no longer have to spend literally half my shift figuring out how to be, just like you were saying: Should I flirt? Should I smoke filterless cigarettes? Do I wear lipstick today or not? Should I say “fuck” twice as much or never? Do I lift two heavy pots or just one? The whole act of trying to figure it all out was exhausting. It was such a relief to get in here and realize that that’s over. I can do all of those things and they have no meaning whatsoever, because I turn on the lights, I pay the bills, and I lock the door. As soon as the résumé comes in that says, “Dear Sir,” I say, “Well, you’re not going to work here.” I don’t even have to get mad. We’re not wasting that energy any longer.

SP: I find myself in a similar situation when I connect with people as I report a story. Are they helping me because I’m being perceived as the surrogate daughter? The love interest? I’ve always been conscious of why I was getting access to information and of trying to figure out which role I could stomach the most—because the high-heeled flirt is not me, but I don’t really want to be the daughter, either. I just want to be the journalist and writer that I am.

GH: Exactly. When I decide how I spend my money here, it’s such a pleasure to be able to say: I don’t like how you’re treating me, so I’m going to take my $250,000 a year and put it somewhere else. I don’t know if you’ll miss it, but it sure makes me feel better not to give my money to someone who calls me “honey” when I’m about to spend a quarter of a million dollars on his company’s products.

SP: Speaking of products, let’s talk about the food itself: What’s your approach to the way you put together your menu? Because Prune definitely has a distinct personality…

GH: My only approach is that it has to be delicious. I want to crave it. As Jeffrey Steingarten says, “Do I want to eat it twice?” I like to create—well, I don’t create shit, but you know what I mean—I like to cook food that I can’t wait to have again. The restaurant that I opened was a response to what I had been doing for a long time in other people’s kitchens. I had always wanted there to be a place like this, but there wasn’t, so I opened it. I wanted a restaurant with delicious food that you didn’t have to sit in an uptight atmosphere to eat. Now, they’re a dime a dozen, so that’s good. I can go out to eat a lot and have what I want—and in fact have my menu. [laughs]

SP: Yes, you’ve definitely had an influence on others…

GH: I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I’m pretty sure that those are my menu items across town at a few restaurants.

SP: I think about some of the quirky dishes on your menu and the ones that have components that are less worked over. To me, they seem to reflect a level of confidence on your part.

GH: Well, the food I serve is food that I eat. Some of it is deficient by technical terms: some elements might not be cooked or altered. I like that very much. I’m exhausted by the well-composed, technically accurate menu. It’s generic and boring. I read those menus and think, “I don’t want to eat there.” My food has my thumbprint on it. I like those places that are a little quirky. It’s why you love your grandmother’s dish so much; it’s not that it’s so good—she burnt it half the time—but it was hers. It had her point of view all over it. I think that’s what people have responded to here. It’s not cookie-cutter.

SP: Was that a conscious decision when you opened?

GH: Totally. I had been trying to get out of the business. Actually, I had never been in the business in my heart—it was what I did for a living for a long time. I was getting older and living paycheck to paycheck, so I decided to settle down for a bit and stop being an East Village bohemian writer. I bought the place and I thought, “What am I going to do in here?” I certainly was not going to do what I had been doing in catering kitchens my whole crappy professional life.

SP: You never went to culinary school…

GH: No, and I never cooked in any good restaurant. I didn’t stage. Self-taught is a good way to go. Hopefully, though, you pick up some technique over the years. I don’t love it when people skip the training part and say, “I’m Picasso” or “I’m Pollock.” I feel like saying, “Could you draw a figure first and then we can splatter the canvas?” I know how to poach a fish and make mother sauces. I know a braise from a sauté.

SP: In the spectrum of cooking styles out there—including places that deal in “meta-food” and serve dishes that are designed to call attention to an idea or philosophy—your style comes across as a relaxed approach, even though there’s a lot of work that goes into it. It almost feels like I’m at a friend’s house, with better-quality ingredients and preparation.

GH: If I see a customer stop and discuss what’s happening on the plate in front of them, I feel that I’ve failed. My favorite thing is to look out at the dining room and see no one looking at me. They’re gazing into the eyes of their partner, drinking the wine, and just eating the food. Of course I like it when they say, “Oh my God, this is delicious,” but these days I wonder what’s wrong with the dining public. This is why you go out to eat now? To talk about the food and talk about my résumé and get half of it wrong? There’s a lot going on in the world, and it needs to be discussed, at length. I don’t want to get into a “sky is falling” thing, but it’s hard for me to watch people with their phones and i-shit on the table during dinner. For me, the things that are going on in my life are huge. Raising children is mind-consuming, marriage is fucking mind-consuming, and having a business…These are huge human topics for me. When I discover that people don’t talk except about what’s going on with the food—even though we’re bombing the shit out of Afghanistan…

SP: Or dealing with a healthcare crisis…

GH: Exactly. It’s hard for me to know that people are going to fly to Roses and sit down and have Ferran Adrià tell them to eat with their right hand and smell the rosemary sprig and…Wow. That’s luxurious. We are living in some good times, I guess, if that’s what we’re up to, but I find it a little heart-crushing. So I love this place, because people come here to talk and know each other and eat.

SP: You’re creating a space where good food exists, but it’s not the focus—though of course it has to be good.

GH: Right, because I can’t stand the other extreme either: “Food doesn’t matter at all and you guys are all food snobs, and I’m so down with the people because I eat Wonder Bread.” Okay, wait a minute: poor people in every country eat delicious food, and food is very important in our lives.

SP: For someone who reads this and hasn’t been to Prune, how would you describe it?

GH: I like the honesty of the place, the lack of posturing. Though some of the influence I’ve had on others has been bad in a way, and I’m sorry about it. There is a rash of this kind of restaurant now.

SP: What do you mean by “this kind of restaurant”?

GH: A small, independent restaurant that is opened by a non-trained person. I think it’s possible that this place gave permission to people who were not quite ready to be Jackson Pollock, who don’t know how to draw a figure. I often mention that I don’t have a résumé and have no formal training, but I’m very serious about cooking. We’re not messing around here. We understand salt. We understand technique. It’s not sloppy. When the wedding client tells a caterer, “We just want a casual and elegant wedding,” they don’t understand that in order to create casual and elegant, what’s going on behind the scenes is very precise.

SP: When I first contacted you for this piece, we talked about the premise, and how we were both ambivalent about it and felt that it was strange. Whenever I read interviews with women chefs, I feel almost sorry for them—not because of anything they’ve said, but because the discussion is taking place at all.

GH: This morning, I was having a conversation in which we were comparing this to other fields. The only place I could find a reason to have a different arena for women was sports, because you can’t physically lift the same as a man, but in the food world, I couldn’t understand why there would be a category of “women chefs.” There’s not a single skill here that is gender-specific. Why are women being interviewed as women in the industry as opposed to just being interviewed because they’re in the industry? I mean Elizabeth Faulkner [chef, Citizen Cake in San Francisco] uses all the techno shit—the PacoJet, the lecithin, the guar gum…she likes to play with the toys, and is no less female because of that.

SP: And there are lots of guys who cook comfort food…

GH: Jonathan Waxman [chef, Barbuto in New York City] just roasts a chicken in the wood-burning oven. I can’t find the differences, and whoever keeps insisting on them has a problem or needs the categories to exist for some reason. I’m not sure why.

SP: I think it all comes back to the same thing we talked about earlier—it’s marginalizing. It reminds me of the civil rights movement in this country, when successful black people were expected to represent their entire race. Most women I know are longing for a time when gender in the workplace is not a discussion any more, when you can just be whoever the hell you are. Are you a chef that I like? And do you have a restaurant where I enjoy eating? Great, then I’ll go there. It doesn’t have to be about identity politics.

GH: I love that you said that about civil rights. That’s exactly how I feel. The men who work here—every last one of them—understand that an entire society is diminished when any portion of it is diminished. Identity politics are important, but they fall short. They just don’t go the distance.

SP: Because ultimately, our humanity is our main identity.

GH: Ultimately. I recognize that I needed all of those stepping-stones to carve out my identity, but now that I’m here, it can become a kind of ghetto. I don’t want to be in the girl ghetto. I want to be in the world. I am in the world.