In Blood, Bones, and Butter (Random, March), chef Gabrielle Hamilton recounts her meandering life and gives foodies a dose of tough love. [Editor's note: this is an expanded version of the Q&A that appeared in the February 7, 2011, issue of PW.]
Why do you think people love to read about the inner workings of a restaurant?
I don’t know why people are so fascinated. Maybe because it’s something they can imagine themselves doing? They hear about what cooking is like in a professional setting and it’s enlightening? I don’t love that people are so obsessed with chefs and kitchens. Come on, guys, there’s so much going on in politics and the world around you—let’s get away from the food. But it does seem soothing to people.
At the Brooklyn Book Festival last year you mentioned your disappointment when you hear diners at your restaurant talking about the food.
I sort of feel like I failed [when that happens]. It’s a little heartbreaking. I don’t get to go out very often, so when I do, it’s not how I want to spend my spare time, talking about where this freaking arugula came from. I’m interested in it for five minutes and then I want a full night of ‘What’s going on with you?’ or 'Can I tell you what’s going on with me?’ What are people avoiding talking about if they’re getting so into the food? I don’t understand people’s obsession; I don’t know what we’re seeking.
What do you make of the heightened interest in farmer’s markets lately?
I love going to markets. It’s something that’s done around the world. I was just looking at some pictures I took on a backpacking trip around the world 20 years ago, and I was looking at the food markets I went to and how workaday and utile they are. In many of the poorer places in India it’s just these burlap sacks laid out on the sidewalk, and there’s stuff piled up against a building or a clay wall. And this is where you buy your food. These markets are so useful; they’re for the people, all the people; the stuff is cheap, abundant, and so vibrant and exciting. But the markets here... I don’t know ... They’re so beautiful, so styled, commodified. I don’t have any problem with the farmers or the produce itself. But there’s the people who are buying one tomato, or they spend all day there to buy their perfect little leek and they put it in their bicycle basket [groans].
The writer Jo Carson once told you, “Be careful what you get good at doin’ ’cause you’ll be doin’ it for the rest of your life.” Do you think that it’s easy to get “stuck” on a path?
I think there are afflictions that can befall you. One is that you don’t know what you were born to be. And I think that’s an incredibly unenviable position to be in. And then there’s the other problem, which I did have, and I prefer it, which is, you know what you were born to be or what you want to do and you get derailed. Somehow that’s more optimistic for me.
Ever worry you got good at the wrong thing?
I had to resign myself to what I was good at. It’s not what I thought I would do, but at a certain point, it’s unattractive in a way to keep going on thinking, I was going to be a rock star, or I was a good singer in high school, or I was a good soccer player in high school, or whatever the idea you had of yourself was—to carry that along too far or too long gets sort of unappealing. It’s like, come on, girl [Hamilton knocks on the table twice], you know what you are? You’ve been a chef for 20 years and you’re good at it, so why don’t you just buck up and realize that this is what you do?
It was incredibly relieving to finally just sort of resign. It sounds sad to resign, but it’s also kind of nice. I like what I do very much and I’m committed to it—enough. But I’m never going to have an aneurism over this work. It’s not important enough to me in the greater scheme of things. It’s nice to have a job that I like very much; it engages me and it’s incredibly pleasurable. I get so much sustenance and warmth and human interaction and all my senses and faculties get challenged—it’s an incredible job that way. But at the end of the day, it is food and I’m not going to die over it.
In the book, you muse on the subject of gender in restaurant kitchens. Do you feel that the tide is turning at all, in regards to women seeking to work in kitchens? Or do you think most women who are interested in food are turning to the less-threatening world of food writing instead?
The women who have passed through here in the kitchen recently weren’t going into it for the long career haul. Everyone was visiting, doing what I call restaurant tourism. They pass through the kitchen to check it out and to get some kind of cred. Then they can write at the end of their column, “was a trained chef” and that becomes part of their bio. But I don’t think that’s true. Being a chef and training are two different things.
How did you feel about getting published in the New Yorker last month [a chapter of Hamilton’s book was excerpted]?
I was glibly going around saying, ‘Fuuuck, the New Yorker! I could get hit by a taxi tomorrow and I’m cool! I’m done; I’ve arrived!’ And sure enough, later that day I’m in a goddamned massive taxi accident with another taxi and one of those SUV black TLC things—and we got smashed across the FDR. We were fine, we were really shaken up, but isn’t that incredible? In a way I was kind of relaxed in the back of the car. I’m like, ‘I’m fine. Sorry Leone [my son], I hope you don’t die.’