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The 'Blood, Bones & Butter' Of Restaurant Work

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The 'Blood, Bones & Butter' Of Restaurant Work

Author Interviews

The 'Blood, Bones & Butter' Of Restaurant Work

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

This is Prune. It's a shoebox-sized and highly acclaimed restaurant in the East Village of New York City. The chef, Gabrielle Hamilton, opened it in 1999.

And she's not just deft with a knife, but it turns out with a pen as well. She's made that clear in her new memoir. The book's called "Blood, Bones & Butter." It tells the story of a young girl whose otherwise perfect home life is shattered at age 11 by her parents' divorce. Petty crime and drug abuse followed, as did hours and years toiling away in industrial kitchens.

I sat down with Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune this past week. Prune, by the way, was the pet name her mother used to call her. She read a passage from the book for me, this one about her early bond with her mother and how she used to curl up in her lap at the dinner table.

Ms. GABRIELLE HAMILTON (Author, "Blood, Bones & Butter"): (Reading): I leaned back into her soft body and listened to the gurgling as she chewed and swallowed. I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerine, cigarette smoke. While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished. I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth and felt the treble of voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head.

She cracked walnuts from the (unintelligible) and picked out the meats, extinguished her occasional cigarette in the empty, broken husks, shifted my weight in her lap. She squeezed the tangerine peel into the candle flame, and we watched the oils ignite in yellow and blue sparks.

I sat in that woman's aproned lap every single night of my young life, so close to the sounds and smells of her that I still know her body as if it were my own.

RAZ: A lot of the early parts of the book, and then many themes in the book, are really about your mom. And I want to ask you first about the impact that your mom had on your relationship with food. Can you describe that?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. I had this French mother who made us eat very, very well as kids. She took us into the woods. We picked fiddlehead ferns. We knew how to hunt for chanterelle mushrooms. She had French wartime parents, so she had grown up highly attuned to, you know, the economy of feeding a family. So we were often just cutting away the moldy bit and getting to the rest of whatever was edible on the product itself. And she always had stewing pots of claws or shins or things with marrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: And so from her, I really got all of that, which I use in the restaurant, of course. I'm trying to get as much money as we can out of a product. You don't just want to throw it away.

And in the restaurant business, it's incredibly hard to make your margins. So I have used her discipline and sense of thrift, I think.

RAZ: As a kid with an idyllic childhood...


RAZ: describe this beautiful countryside where you lived and sort of being outside all the time. And then it all - I hesitate to use the word because it's almost a cliche, but it was shattered. And your parents announce that they were splitting up.

And you were left alone, you and your brother. Your brother was 17. You were...

Ms. HAMILTON: I was 12 or 13 that summer that we were left alone.

RAZ: For a whole summer.

Ms. HAMILTON: They were caught up in their own moment, which was not a beautiful moment in their lives. I think it happens frequently. I think when they end their marriage, they also end their parenting commitment by accident.

RAZ: But that period of time, those few months that summer were, like, seared into your consciousness. I mean, it clearly had a huge impact on your life.

Ms. HAMILTON: Well, it was pivotal. It was pivotal because I ended up in this business that summer. I was left alone and had to scramble to get some money.

Needing a paycheck, I walked into town and got a job at a restaurant. And that was when I was 12 or 13 years old. So it was a pivotal summer in that I've been in that kitchen ever since. I never quite got out.

RAZ: After your parents split, you write about basically you almost screwed up your life. I mean, let's see, stealing cars, doing hard drugs, almost arrested for grand larceny. You dropped out of school. Am I missing something?

Ms. HAMILTON: You think that's ruining a life, or in fact, some people would see those as solutions, not problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Life experiences.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes. I immediately started cultivating a kind of badass demeanor and took it as far as I could and started smoking filterless cigarettes and swearing like a sailor and letting everyone know that, you know, I was tough and bad, working at a place in New York City, doing a lot of drugs and paying for that with stolen money, which thankfully, my underage status got me out of these charges of possession of stolen property and grand larceny.

So by the skin of my chinny chin chin, I got out of that one. And now, I'm Honest Abe.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Gabrielle Hamilton. She is the author of the new memoir "Blood, Bones & Butter." And we're in her restaurant in New York. It's called Prune.

You talk about your marriage. It's complicated.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yes. I have the only complicated marriage in America.

RAZ: You are the only one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: And I think for most of us who are married, we're curious to hear about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: What is this strange thing...

RAZ: What is this strange phenomenon?

Ms. HAMILTON: ...complex marriage?

RAZ: You have two young sons. Can you explain the way your marriage works a little bit?

Ms. HAMILTON: I wish I could. You mean how it doesn't work, or how it works? Sure. I got married almost on a lark because there were some green card issues. And what I didn't quite realize when I married was my almost psychopathic...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: ... attachment to family. And through him, through my husband, I met a family and really...

RAZ: His family in Italy.

Ms. HAMILTON: His family. The in-laws, exactly. The Italian family there. And he has a magnificent mother who I adore and a large family.

RAZ: It's something you haven't had since you were 11 or 12.

Ms. HAMILTON: Right. I think that explains the marriage.

RAZ: But it's something you had for the first 11 or 12 years of your life.

Ms. HAMILTON: That's right. So I didn't know what was going on at the time, but I think in hindsight, I do. He had a great family, and I wanted in.

RAZ: And now you're a celebrity chef.

Ms. HAMILTON: A celebrity chef, hardly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: I'm a chef.

RAZ: I know. And I say that half-joking, but only half-joking because this is a huge book. This book has - I think even before it was released, the publisher had to do three printing runs of it. I mean, this is a big deal memoir. Whether you like it or not, you've become a celebrity.

Could you ever imagine yourself doing what someone like Anthony Bourdain did and leave the restaurant?

Ms. HAMILTON: I don't think that appeals to me. I really like the way writing and restaurant work go together. They sort of counterbalance and are antidote to each other. So if I could, I'd like to stay right where I am, some writing, a lot of restaurant and my kids, and that's a pretty full life right there. Not to suggest that there's balance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: There's never any balance. It sort of is like being on a ship that swings to one side and keels over on the other side. But once you get used to that, it's a pretty good life.

RAZ: That's Gabrielle Hamilton. She's the author of "Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef." She's also the chef and owner of Prune here in New York City. You can read an excerpt from her book at our website,

Gabrielle, thank you so much.

Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you so much.

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