It’s Thursday evening in the Presidio district of San Francisco.
Gabrielle Hamilton sits on stage with her blond hair half-swept and pours a glass of water for herself and the moderator. She is wearing a light gray sweater dress, black boots, and stylish dark red rimmed glasses. Her laugh, a deep throaty sound, echoes across the Jewish Community Center auditorium as she jokes about how she serves Anthony Bourdain free bone marrow at her restaurant in exchange for his glowing review of her best-selling memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter.
The moderator shakes her head, “I don’t even want to imagine how Anthony Bourdain would eat bone marrow.” More laughter erupts.
This exchange sets the stage for an hour long convivial conversation with Gabrielle, discussing her book, upcoming cookbook, her incredibly popular New York City restaurant Prune, and overall thoughts about food and being a woman in the culinary industry.
Last December, I picked up Gabrielle’s memoir and devoured it like a much anticipated meal. Her life story is gritty: from a lonely childhood and troubling adolescence centered on lying and shoplifting, alcohol and drug abuse, and dropping out of school on a few occasions. Gabrielle traces her disjointed journey through various stints as an underage cocktail waitress, a catering chef, and children’s camp kitchen lead to finding her way as a writer and eventual chef and business owner for Prune. Adding to her hard-earned credentials as an MFA graduate, her writing is raw, unflinching and brutally, beautifully honest.
She opens up her restaurant Prune as a culinary sanctuary for those seeking nourishment, family, and just plain, good comfort food. At Prune “there would be no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.”
The subject of comfort food came up frequently during the evening discussion. Although Gabrielle appreciates the innovation and creativity of food, such as the molecular gastronomy movement, there is nothing quite as timeless and classic as the comforts of simple, good food such as a roasted chicken. Comfort food is what she considers the canon of food – timeless and is relevant forever.
Granted, comfort food is not trendy nor is it very sexy. As a food enthusiast, I know all too well the feeling of getting swept up with the latest “foodie movement” – from 100 Things to Eat scavenger hunt lists, the Food Truck craze, Farmer’s Markets galore, going green/organic/local/sustainable/slow, Top Chef competitions, and touting off the number of Michelin star restaurants visited like earning scout badges. When food is viewed through this lens, as something that appears elitist, trendy, or pretentious, it starts to lose some of its fundamental, basic elements. Perhaps we start to forget that food is not only a basic necessity to live, to nourish our bodies, but that it is also a way to bring people together.
For Gabrielle, food put her in touch with her humanness. When she was hungry, either as a starving teenager working to make ends meat in New York City or a lonely nomad backpacking in Europe, she remembers the warm hospitality of people who fed her. The food was not fancy – it was either egg on a warm roll or fresh fish by the Mediterranean sea, but the comfort it brought her was unforgettable. This simple, yet profound sensation was the foundation for opening her restaurant Prune.
The podcast of Gabrielle Hamilton’s conversation will soon be available on the Jewish Community Center website.