Gabrielle Hamilton, the interview.

Do you do that thing where you imagine everyone in the room in their underwear? Gabrielle Hamilton asked me when I confided that I was a little nervous. I looked at her for a long second, then said she still looked great.

I met Gabrielle Hamilton at Frasca Food and Wine for an interview yesterday afternoon. As I drove there, I was nervous – not the star-struck way knot in my throat nervousness. It was more the butterflies in my stomach- please-don’t-disappoint-me way. I respect and love Hamilton for all she is – a solid cook, a skilled writer, and a well-recognized figure in the food world.

Hamilton won two James Beard awards in the last two years. Last year, she was named best chef for New York City. This year, her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef won her the James Beard award for Writing and Literature.

Let’s say she is on a roll. And there are no gimmicks to this roll – no stunts, no glitz, no flash. Prune, her restaurant, is not the latest and fanciest trend-setting spot. There are no new technologies being employed to cook, no liquid nitrogen, no gels, foams, and other cutting edge paraphernalia. Prune is enchanting, classy with an old-fashioned vibe, modest and unfussy with a personality you cannot get out of your mind. The food is simple and comforting, prepared with integrity, respect for both the cooking process and the human body, composed with ingredients that taste as nature meant them to taste – pure, unprocessed, not manipulated.

The book, Blood, Bones & Butter, is an honest account of Hamilton’s life so far and road that took her to where she is today. Sharp and intriguing, this book is what every memoir wishes it was – a page turner that makes the reader crave more. This is probably why one of the questions she always gets at book signings is “what happened next?”

Fishing for restaurant tips for an upcoming trip, I asked Hamilton about France and found myself back between the pages of her book. Last time she was in Paris was for her honeymoon. “I should have known then that it was not going to work,” she said. Asking these questions, I had hoped for some gem of a restaurant, a secret one that only she knew of in Paris. Instead I got an irresistible urge to read the book – again.

That led our conversation to restaurants. I wanted to know where she wanted to go and where she loved eating. “My days of fine dining are over,” said Hamilton referring to the trend of long, drawn-out, experience-based meals that consist of some 18 elaborate courses that require extensive explanation, equally verbose wine-pairing speeches both of which frequently interrupt the eating and the interaction of the diners. I moved on to the next idea- I wanted to know what restaurant she loved. Cal Pep, she answered. She dined at Arzak and El Bulli during a trip in Spain, but she loved Cal Pep. A comforting and well-known tapas restaurant in Barcelona, Cal Pep is charming in the same way that Prune is charming- good food, no fuss, and a relaxed and fun atmosphere. Hamilton – all that I thought she was- made even more sense to me after this answer.

Still a tad nervous to be sitting next to her for an interview, I asked Hamilton who made her feel nervous, who was the star, idol, person-she-looked-up-to that intimidated her. Her face lit up and she paused. There was not much she can come up with and that was obvious. Then, she tilted her head back and smiled as she recounted that her knees actually softened and shook when Jean-Louis Palladin walked into her restaurant in the very early days of Prune.

Palladin, an icon of the food world, was well-known among cooks in New York City. That night, four line-cooks from other restaurants happened to eat at the counter at Prune. Animated by the memory, Hamilton remembered those guys looking over at her in awe and the Oh My Fucking God, it is Jean Louis Palladin exclamation that dominated that entire experience.

The most exciting part of the interview was still to come: by 2014, there will be a Prune cookbook. Yeeeesss, I sighed to myself. Hamilton has a year to put it together, then the publisher, Random House, has another year to get it out in bookstores. Hamilton already loves working on this book – that was obvious. It not a “soul-searching, probing” exercise like the memoir was, but rather a generous account of the recipes Prune has charmed diners with since 1999.

What else? Hamilton remains committed to a fuss-free dining experience, enjoys cookbooks put together by Colman Andrews, and drinks negronis to survive feeding her two sons, ages 6 and 7 yet another meal of buttered pasta.

Shucking fava beans in the kitchen at Prune, with her sons working there, and time to write books — that is where Gabrielle Hamilton sees herself in ten years. I cannot wait to see the road that she takes to get there.

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  • Melissaiwai

    That’s so awesome.  I remember just loving her writing when I read an excerpt of her memoir before it came out in the New Yorker.  I would be tongue tied in your place!