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Chef Gabrielle Hamilton Talks Her Best-Selling Book "Blood, Bones & Butter," Eating in SF and More

Photo by Fred R. Conrad

Gabrielle Hamilton knows a thing or two about hard work. The chef-owner of New York’s wildly popular New American bistro Prune—now in its 13th year—has been working in kitchens since the age of 13. This past March, the restaurateur, who incidentally has an M.F.A. in writing, published her first book, which debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list. Foodies and lit critics alike have lauded Blood, Bones & Butter as one of the best chef memoirs since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Despite such praise, Hamilton keeps her head down and lets the work—both on the line and on the page—speak for itself.

How sweet is the success of your first book?
I didn’t imagine for even half a second that the book would get such praise. I thought about all the ways it would be savaged and ripped to shreds. But after Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali wrote up page-long fervent reviews, I became hopeful that others might feel the same way.

What was your writing process?
I call it guerrilla writing. I wrote on the line at the restaurant during service and at the desk in my office between services. I wrote in between nursing and in bed with my two sleeping babies on either side of me. I wrote in the interstices—whenever and wherever I could.

You don’t personally identify as a food writer. What books would you like Blood, Bones & Butter to appear next to in 
a bookstore?
The great American classics? Just kidding. I’d love to see it in the literature section.

What would you say to fellow chefs 
looking to publish?
I’d tell them that I brought everything I knew about the hospitality industry into my writing and treated the reader like a cherished guest in my restaurant.

You talk about growing up when there was no such thing as “artisanal” and “organic.” What do you think of San Francisco’s obsession with these terms?
I like the things themselves, but I’m generally annoyed by people who use these buzz words too much.

Have you had any memorable food-related experiences in the Bay Area?
I have certain rituals. As soon as I land in San Francisco, I go to Swan’s Oyster Depot. Then I always have a late dinner at Zuni Cafe. I love that it’s been around for so long and still delivers every time.

You write in the book that your parents divorced when you were 11, and your 
family went their separate ways. Do you ever regret not patching things up?
I don’t feel like I actively sought the happy reknitting of my own family, but I have 
created that sense of kinship here at Prune. I run the business in a matriarchal way. I make sure my staff has three meals a day. 
I’ll lend a cook money for the down payment on an apartment. If the dishwasher 
is sick, we’ll all pitch in. I suspect this close-knit community is part of what attracts me to the industry.

Would you ever open a second restaurant?
It’s taken me 12 years to figure out that I don’t want another restaurant. There are times when I think about the humor of opening in Las Vegas—down some alley behind one of the big hotels.

Have you ever swooned over a celebrity you’ve seen eating at Prune?
I give my customers their privacy. But when David Byrne is eating at the bar, how can I not go over and tell him that his music has been the backdrop to my entire life?

What do you eat when you’re alone?
I eat a lot of toast, eggs, and blue cheese—often while standing at the kitchen counter.

The paperback edition of Blood, Bones & Butter dropped in January. Tell us about the new epilogue.
People were asking the same questions everywhere I stopped on my book tour—they wanted to know about my marriage, how my mother-in-law’s health is, how old my kids are. So the epilogue serves as a chapter that better closes the book.

What will your next book be about?
I opted to take the wussy way out and go right for a cookbook. I’m deep in the throes of finishing my proposal.

There’s some talk about turning your memoir into a movie. Who would play you?
I’d just want someone who could be a little dirty and a little clean. Robert Downey Jr. is the obvious choice.

Gabrielle Hamilton talks about Blood, Bones & Butter at the Jewish Community Center on Feb. 16. 3200 California St., 
415-292-1200.