What does 20 years of cooking in second rate kitchens get you? A lot of scars, a good case of burnout, a master’s degree, and your own restaurant that you can call home. At least that’s how it worked for Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of the small and cherished East Village restaurant Prune.
Hamilton would be the first to tell you that her career and eventual success as a chef didn’t come easy. She started out her illustrious career as a dishwasher at the age of 12 in her hometown in Pennsylvania, but then went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts before returning to food. She moved to New York and started a catering business, which she later sold in 1995 to, as she says, “escape from cooking.”
Hamilton moved to Michigan and pursued a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing at the University of Michigan. To help make ends meet, she picked up a part-time gig cooking for a catering company. She quickly befriended the owner, Misty Callies, who became Hamilton’s mentor and showed the prodigal chef how to cook for pleasure. When Callies opened her own restaurant, Zanzibar in Ann Arbor, Hamilton joined her but still continued on with her master’s program.
Upon graduation, Hamilton returned to New York in 1999 and opened Prune , where her culinary intentions were simple: to serve the foods she wanted to eat at home. Her straight-forward, down-home cooking struck a chord not only with her neighborhood patrons, but also with gourmands, food writers, and chefs alike. As New York Times food critic Frank Bruni wrote in his 2005 review, “The proof was in the emulation, in the other restaurants that rightly began to accord homey cooking as much honor as haute cuisine: not a novel ethic, but one that Ms. Hamilton gave fresh currency."
Over the years Hamilton has put not only her cooking but also her writing skills to good use. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Food & Wine Magazine. Her work has been anthologized in Best Food Writing every year between 2001 and 2006. Hamilton was nominated for Best Chef: New York City by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. Her forthcoming book Blood, Bones and Butter will be published by Random House in March 2011.