Best of Design Matters: Gabrielle Hamilton

Chef and writer Gabrielle Hamilton talks dueling artistic passions—and how she has found balance and focus in her creative journey.

Chef and writer Gabrielle Hamilton talks dueling artistic passions—and how she has found balance and focus in her creative journey.


Gabrielle Hamilton:

After too many years cooking food for rich people in the Hamptons, I didn’t quite understand what my purpose was.

Announcer:

This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman. For 16 years, Debbie has been talking with creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are and what they’re thinking about and working on. On this episode, Debbie talks with Gabrielle Hamilton about her career as a cook and as a late blooming writer.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I said to myself, “You’re not a writer, lady. So let’s get with the program here. You’re just not a writer. You’re a cook, so get with it.”

Announcer:

Here’s Debbie.

Debbie Millman:

Back in PPT, pre-pandemic times, Gabrielle Hamilton founded and ran Prune, a bistro in New York’s East Village. But in March after 20 years in business, she had to lay everyone off and close the doors. Indeed, the shutdown has been such a catastrophe for restaurants that one wonders how many of them will be left when it’s safe to socialize again.

Debbie Millman:

But fortunately for us, Gabrielle Hamilton’s talents extend beyond the kitchen. This four-time James Beard award-winning chef is also the author of a best-selling memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. She’s also in the Emmy-winning television show on PBS and she’s a columnist for The New York Times.

Debbie Millman:

She joins me from her home today to talk about what was, what is and what might come. Gabrielle Hamilton, welcome to Design Matters.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Thank you for having me.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. Gabrielle, I know you’re quarantining with your two teenage boys and you stated that while artists and bakers may prefer their bread dense and chewy and crusty, your boys don’t. And if you’re going to lure them from their rooms in hopes of meaningful conversation about their inner lives, you need Kaiser rolls as perfect as those from the deli, with cottony interiors, dry, dusty domes, light and hollow in your hand, with a scattering of poppy seeds or cornmeal on their cloverleaf patterned tops. Why Kaiser rolls?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Why Kaiser rolls? My people, they’re good enough eaters, but they are not what you would think of as obnoxious chef children, asking for the balsamic vinegar to be passed at the meal or requesting foie gras. That is not what happened in my household.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

So they like a Kaiser roll. So it was my pleasure to make them.

Debbie Millman:

What are you putting on the rolls?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Oh, God, the littler one, the younger one likes plain liverwurst or he likes cream cheese and smoked salmon, and the older one will take salami and cheese or deli meats. Are you thinking less of me right now when you recognize that my children are…

Debbie Millman:

No, I know how you raised them on buttered noodles. So no judgment here whatsoever.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

They’re good.

Debbie Millman:

You grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a town that shared border so close to New Jersey, that you could walk back and forth between the two states, just by crossing the Delaware River. You were the youngest of five children. You’ve written about how your house was not really a house at all, but a wild castle built into the burnt out ruins of a 19th century silk mill.

Debbie Millman:

Can you tell us a little bit more about the house and the kitchen?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

My father bought those ruins I think in the early ’60s, and it had in fact been a silk mill. But it was the outside four remaining walls of a maybe five story mill next to a creek, and he designed and built our house onto the outside two walls, and left the remaining ruins as a kind of attachment or courtyard.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And we grew up in this house and it was spectacular. It was dramatic, theatrical. There were rooms that had sort of soaring cathedral ceilings and then tiny warren like bedrooms that were no bigger, like one a ship. So it was a dramatic house and it was a great place to grow up.

Debbie Millman:

Does your family still own the house?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Oh, no. My parents divorced when I was 13 or 14, their finalization. But no one’s owned the house for a long time.

Debbie Millman:

Your mother was a ballet dancer at the Met in New York City, when she married your dad, who was a set designer for theatrical and trade shows.

Debbie Millman:

You said this about your father, “From him we learned how to create beauty where none existed.” How did he do that?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

He had a remarkable, uncanny ability to see what didn’t exist, to imagine let’s say, the ruins of the Acropolis, complete with all the columns intact, and the plants and the people. He was a real dreamer. And that’s what I mean by that, he could see things that most people couldn’t. So is that a very strong imagination or a very active sense of vision, internal vision, that’s what I mean.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about how, as you were growing up, your parents seemed incredibly special and outrageously handsome to you. You could not have boasted of them more or said your name more proudly to show how it directly linked you to them.

Debbie Millman:

Yet you vividly wrote this in your memoir about a moment you just mentioned about one of the early defining moments of your life. “I was gazing at a full bushel of apples when my mother made a stunning announcement, which I have possibly never recovered from. “Jim it’s over. And the kids and I have decided you should go.””

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle, this statement came completely out of the blue, you had no inkling back at the time that this was possible?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I know, you would think I was some sort of imbecile.

Debbie Millman:

No, parents can keep things from their kids. My parents also got divorced when I was eight years old. I remember feeling terrified, hearing them fight, but just not ever imagining that that could happen. Back in the late ’60s when they divorced, nobody I knew, their parents weren’t getting divorced. So it wasn’t something that I even thought about.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I never saw them fight. I had no idea that there was any trouble in River City. I was in my little preteen cloudy mind and also everything seemed pretty nice to me. It was just a exuberant childhood that I didn’t know anything was going poorly. I thought my dad was great. I thought my mom was sort of great. I could appreciate her qualities.

Debbie Millman:

Our complicated relationships with our mothers.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Yeah. And the thing that I don’t know if it’s clear, but what I couldn’t recover from in the moment is not that they were getting divorced. It’s that she enlisted all of us in banishing him from the home, without any consultation. I had no idea, and there she was, and the kids and I think you should move. I was stunned and I’ve never recovered frankly from that kind of non-consultative decision-making and being used as a weapon in the arsenal against this man who I was in love with, he was my dad.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

The divorce I think would have been fine. I just don’t think they did a very professional job of it. It was terrible.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, no, after they separated, you were left in the house for an entire summer with your slightly older brother Simon. And while he was a little bit older, he was certainly not in a position to take care of a 13-year-old girl reeling from your family falling apart.

Debbie Millman:

I’m wondering, Gabrielle, if you could share a paragraph from your memoir, talking a little bit about what happened next.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“I smoked cigarette butts salvaged from public ashtrays and sidewalks and retrieved from the asphalt, from passing drivers who flicked them out the car window. I wore candy spiked heels that I shop lifted and a watermelon red tube top. I did my first line of coke. And then my second and third and made lots of friends in town who like me had no curfew and nobody watching. But who unlike me were 20 and not 13.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“I hastily grazed through the menu of adult behavior and tried on whatever seemed attractive for whatever incohate reasons as they occurred to me. It was a spectacularly scattershot and eclectic approach, as I found myself still going to little league practice in the afternoons while reading D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love at night, because it had a photograph of naked people in bed on the back jacket.”

Debbie Millman:

Then, pretending you were 16, you got a job busing at a local restaurant called Mothers, ironically. You’ve written about how you didn’t know how to wear an ironed shirt, how to properly pour ice water, the right way to clear a plate. Yet you felt instantly at home and have stated just like that, is how a whole life can start.

Debbie Millman:

But working in a restaurant was not what you were considering as a profession when you grew up, was it?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Oh, no, not at all. I wanted to be a writer.

Debbie Millman:

So you always knew that you wanted to be a writer?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I’ve always wanted to be and always have been a writer. I have been a writer since they started to make special groups for children in elementary school, and you start funneling people into their aptitudes, I guess. I was always shoved in to the, this is going to be the writers and poets group, or you’re going to go over here. Eagerly, with my… you win you’re stupid second grade poetry contest, and they’re like, hi, you seem to be in the poetry realm of things.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And then it just goes on from there. And then you’re in the sixth grade literary journal, and then in eighth… so it just goes like that and goes like that. And so I’ve been writing my whole life and studying it my whole life.

Debbie Millman:

In June of 1982, when you were actually 16, you graduated from your alternative high school, barefoot in an ankle length white gauze dress you’d shoplifted from this store in the town you grew up in. The next day, you moved to New York City with $235 that friends of your parents had given you for graduation gifts.

Debbie Millman:

What were you planning on doing? And where did you live at that time?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

When I moved to New York, I was accepted at NYU, which I would be starting in the fall. I had skipped ninth and 12th grade. I was 16. I was moving to New York and my sister had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen on 29th and 10th. And that’s where I was headed, and I was going to find a job and start college in the fall. I did all of those things eventually.

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle, I also lived on 29th Street. I lived on 29th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue at the same time.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

So you know the name.

Debbie Millman:

I do know the name, I went to that same little bodega on the corner of 8th Avenue and 29th Street were you bought your bruised fruit.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

To buy the rotten fruit?

Debbie Millman:

Yeah.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

You went to the Blarney Rock and…

Debbie Millman:

Yes, yes.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

How funny.

Debbie Millman:

There was a lot of drug dealing on my block. There was a lot of crack dealing right next to the bodega. I read that you had a cockroach infestation of epic proportions. I had a mouse infestation. It was so bad, I actually ended up having to get a cat, even though I was allergic.

Debbie Millman:

They weren’t even scared of me. They just lived on the furniture. I’d go by and they’d just look up and wonder why I was there.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Just like the roaches. Oh, you’re home?

Debbie Millman:

You eventually get a job at the Lone Star Cafe, the one with the giant iguana on the roof and overlooks Fifth Avenue, and you turned 17 during a waitress shift there, high on coke. Did you ever feel like you really had a problem with coke or was it just more recreational use?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

That was not recreational at that time. It started to become mandatory to get the day done, to get the evening accomplished. And then if you’ve ever done a lot of coke, it begets more coke, because you wake up whenever you wake up and you feel like shit and the thing that makes you feel better is more coke. It stimulates you, it takes your headache away. You’re back in the game and functioning, and so you keep needing it.

Debbie Millman:

How did you eventually stop?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Well, I got in some big effing trouble.

Debbie Millman:

Do you want to tell our listeners what happened, as we move into the next chapter of your life?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Sure, I wasn’t just doing coke, I was part of a, what did you call it? A company wide scheme that was taught to me by the older seasoned staff, after a while of grand larceny and possession of stolen property. We had a couple of ways of stealing money from the company. I was practicing both of the ways and so was everyone else. We all got busted eventually.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And the servers, we were all bonded. So the insurance company wanted to press charges and to recover their losses, I suppose. And then they discovered my age and the fact that I should not have been in the building at all, and should not have been serving alcohol. I had a lucky out, but the out was severe.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I had an attorney who I guess brokered a quick deal, because they wanted me to go to juvenile-

Debbie Millman:

Like a juvenile detention, right?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And she said, why don’t you get your shit together and enroll in school? Can you start to look like not a 16 year old, who’s just wandering around New York City doing drugs and working in a bar? It would do a lot for you.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And so I got an interview and put in an application at Hampshire College and got accepted and left the city very quickly and abruptly and landed in the countryside of Massachusetts. And couldn’t find the coke and came right on down up there.

Debbie Millman:

It’s so interesting when you talk about hearing the news about your parents getting divorced, your mother leaving your father or asking him to leave, moving to New Hampshire, and then even one of your first impressions of the location that is now Prune, apples figure in all three of those experiences and how you write about them.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Debbie, I love this when it happens. I never knew, who knew?

Debbie Millman:

All three times.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I love it when readers show you stuff that you didn’t see on your own. Someone wrote me a fan letter of that book Blood, Bones and Butter and said, oh, and do you know that whatever the trees are that I’m hacking down in the backyard of the house in Puglia, you know those are poisonous, right? I was like, what? The metaphor.

Debbie Millman:

Wow.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I didn’t know.

Debbie Millman:

That’s incredible. Oh, my God, that is quite a metaphor. Oh, my goodness. You stayed at your college for five semesters and you’ve said that they were brimming with the intellectual angst and political discontent that had first been foreign to you when you arrived. And now you were a staunch Marxist feminist, a budding lesbian, a black nationalist sympathizer, and a literacy advocate.

Debbie Millman:

And you were also once again, a drop-out and for a while, you moved into the cold basement apartment of your father’s house. What did you do after that?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I cleaned houses and I cleaned nightclubs and I cleaned bed and breakfasts. So I worked as a cleaning lady. I worked in a restaurant. I went back to Mothers that had been a childhood job and returned as an older person when I could be a server and a bartender.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I saved up some money and got a backpack and a one-way people’s express ticket for $99 to, I think Bruges and landed in Belgium and traveled for the next almost two years, around what I had hoped to be around the world. But I think I was 19 when I started that trip and ended when I was 21. I got as far as Southeast Asia.

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle, speaking of moving to Europe, I did pick a quote out that I’d love for you to share from your book about how that trip came to be. If you can read that, please.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“Those gloomy thoughts at dusk with the cigarettes turned from thoughts of my own death, which I, an otherwise healthy and robust and well mannered 19-year-old, couldn’t in good conscience accomplish. To significantly politer thoughts of disappearing, which I could.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“Soon, out of pragmatic consideration for others and a deeply ingrained adherence to good manners, I had planned my own clever death without actual death. I would leave, disappear, send an occasional postcard and be done with the whole dilemma. Goodbye, world. Goodbye, New Jersey. Goodbye, family, God and country. Hello, Eurail pass.”

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle, you learned a lot on the trip and encountered some of the best food of your life in very unexpected places. And you also learned what it really meant to be hungry and realized that to be fed in that state, often by strangers, when in that state of fear and hunger, became the single most important and convincing food experience you ever had. How so?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It’s so funny. When you define the best food you’ve ever had, for me, that is when you’re hungry, and you get something satisfying that you’d really like to eat. So that’s about what for me sums up the best food. Someone offers you a sandwich, you have been sitting on a bus for four days, you don’t want to change one of your few dwindling traveler’s checks that you’ll have a currency in your pocket, that has no value or that you don’t really need, once you get to your destination.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I would just make these long inter-country journeys, without eating often or without having any money. And someone would be like, hey, man, you seem hungry. You’ve been sitting in the back of his bus for three days without leaving, can I get you a sandwich?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Or to have arrived in a foreign place where you can’t even read the alphabet and to be greeted by someone who just plops you down on the terrace and throws an apple and milk and honey in the blender, and puts some incredible butter on some fresh bread and fries an egg with olive oil and just hands it to you without asking if it’s okay. It’s the best food, it’s the best care, it means so much. It just taught me a lot about my senses also of when I was starving, and it had been seven days with nothing but pumpkin seeds or a raw half red onion or a glass of warm vermouth. I remember a week where that was all I ate.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

My fantasies about food and eating tended to become very specific and not generic, not God, I’m just so hungry. I wish I could eat something. I just noticed that I would have profoundly specific cravings, including color.

Debbie Millman:

Really? In what way?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Including, I want this broth, and I want it to have saffron in it. I could see the golden broth, or I have to have radishes now. I wish I could have crunchy, crisp or juicy or fatty or I can’t explain it, but my hunger made me absolutely specific in my cravings.

Debbie Millman:

How did it impact ultimately how you began to cook professionally?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Well, ultimately, it’s all I had, really. By the time I opened a restaurant, I would say I was a very good cook, for sure. But I didn’t understand anything about how to run a restaurant.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Besides being a bit of a compulsive, clean person and a hard worker, I didn’t have a traditional resume. I didn’t have any credentials. But I relied upon this experience, this repeated experience that I had of bringing something to someone who needs it. Or in my case, receiving something that I needed and couldn’t get on my own, and it was revelatory.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I thought, that could work. What I lack in plumbing schematic information-

Debbie Millman:

HVAC.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And what I don’t know about a certificate of occupancy, I can probably learn that someday. But what I do have is this very, very acute sense of what it is to offer hospitality and take care of someone, from that experience.

Debbie Millman:

You began a 10 year stint working in what you’ve called the most unsavory corner of the food industry. This was after you got back from your trip. What part of the industry was that, and why did you feel it was the most unsavory corner? Besides from maybe the poultry processing business.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Okay, well, it’s slightly hyperbolic, but I hope you giggled a little bit when you read that sentence. I’m trying to be a little bit funny.

Debbie Millman:

I like your hyperbole, it’s all okay.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Just being a ham. But in fact, I was working in high volume, high end catering in New York City. While that world does come with some amazement and feats of ingenuity that you can’t even believe the way we could produce dinners for, hot, heated, well cooked dinners for 1,000 people out of a metal box with cans of Sterno in it in a back hallway of the Museum of Natural History, with basically saran wrap and duct tape. I’m kind of not exaggerating, like the things I can do with saran wrap now…

Gabrielle Hamilton:

But it just was also pretty soulless. It’s like factory work, you are making 60,000 little filo purses all day and then you’re sitting in the back of an unrefrigerated van on an overturned five gallon bucket. Or maybe the five gallon bucket is actually full of demi-glace and not overturned an empty and you’re sitting on it and driving out on the LIE to the Hamptons, to set up your makeshift shop in somebody’s four car garage.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And you’re trying to get the lettuce on the plates before it wilts and you’re wearing gloves and your hairnet. And the crews tend to be quite mercenary, understandably. You just want to pass through, make your money and get out. And if the sour cream goes in the mayonnaise, and the mayonnaise goes in the creme fresh, no one really gives a shit. And at least they put it in a quart container and labeled it and dated it.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I really prefer to work excellent. I do the best that I can, no matter where I am. I do the best of my capabilities, wherever I am. Sometimes I find myself in uncomfortable situations when I’m not in a group of like-minded people, and I am automatically alone or abrasive, because I have a little bit of control or OCD. It’s not that I can’t just let it go in my own station. I’ve got one eye on yours and I’m like, wait, you can’t do it that way. You have to wash your knife and please, wash your hands. Even though I’m not the boss of this kitchen, I just can’t live with our sauce ending up this way.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

So it was good for me to get out of there eventually, and run my own shop and just make everything go the way I think it should go.

Debbie Millman:

You also worked for several summers at a children’s summer camp in Western Massachusetts. And aside from cooking for your own children, you stated that it’s really hard to cook for kids. Why is that?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Well, I felt terrified of starving them or disappointing them. I don’t know that I love kids so much, but I actually feel for them. I admire children very much and I didn’t want to fail them.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

So of course, I wanted to cook food that I thought might be interesting. But I didn’t know at the time that children, they just want like salt on the chicken and they want the chicken to just be brown or fried.

Debbie Millman:

One of my favorite moments in the book was how you talked about how distressed you felt by a nine-year-old’s disgust with a flick of basil in his tomato sauce than you had in your entire previous decade of catering.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It was terrible. I wanted the approval of these kids, I wanted them to gobble it all down and know that I’d made it from scratch. I didn’t just pull it out of the Cisco frozen truck and I didn’t want to have 100 starving children in the middle of the woods in Massachusetts. I wanted them to eat the food.

Debbie Millman:

At that point, aside from what you’ve described as an ironclad work ethic, born of an early understanding of self-reliance, you were struggling to understand if you had anything else to offer, and wondered if you could still have a life of meaning and of purpose. Was that what made you decide to go back to school for an MFA in fiction writing?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Yes, I think after too many years cooking food for rich people in the Hamptons, I didn’t quite understand what my purpose was. I wasn’t writing, the purpose of freelancing is that it is supposed to keep you free and you make enough money to pursue whatever it is that you’re actually interested in pursuing.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And what I found in my freelance life is that I would spend 80 hours a week and on whatever day off, I just wanted to eat and drink or sleep and not write my great American novel. I did what I think many people do when they’re at a crossroads or they’re lost.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I think they just go back to school. And that’s what they used to do. And that’s what I did. I applied to grad school and got into the University of Michigan and did a master’s program, the MFA program there in fiction writing.

Debbie Millman:

What was that experience like for you?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I had a blast in grad school. It felt like a vacation. It felt like my first vacation in over 20 years. It was incredible. You got to read and write all day, and read and write all night. And the workdays were so short by comparison. I had spent the prior 20 years in kitchens and those shifts are much longer.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

So to just go to a three hour seminar or a one and a half hour class, and then you were free for the rest of the day, and the speed limit out there, I think was like 70. It was incredible. I was like, wow, you can go at 75 miles an hour out here? If you drive five or 10 over the actual limit, which most of us do.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I thought Ann Arbor and Michigan, I lived in Ypsilanti and I thought the experience was a godsend. It was just, my brain needed it so badly, to be blown back open. I often felt about my brain at the time, that it was like a balloon that had had air in it, but had shriveled. And when you go to re-blow it up, it’s like crackling and you have to separate the skin of the balloon.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And that’s how my brain felt when I got to Michigan, to be able to reconnect with concepts and books and words and language and theory and history and have brilliant, brilliant professors that would make your brain ache. I would be sometimes nauseous after class, from having my eyes opened so much. I loved it.

Debbie Millman:

What kind of writing were you doing at that point?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

What did I do there? I really ended up just fudging my way through, which I’m not sure you’re allowed to say. But hopefully there’s enough decades between now and then. But I was submitting shit to workshop that I had written in high school, just like, oh, you have to have 20 pages due on Thursday. I was like, oh, let me dig something up that I have.

Debbie Millman:

That you had written in high school?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I know. It’s ridiculous. I started this piece.

Debbie Millman:

I did that in a poetry workshop once, many, many years ago, pulled out the old stuff.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It doesn’t matter. I did write a whole thesis and I did some stripper work while I was in Michigan. I was a stripper as extra credit or extra money. I know, that’s really funny.

Debbie Millman:

Did you ever write about that?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

That was my senior thesis, I wrote my stripper novel. I think it’s good to get that out of your system, and not have that be your debut. That can just be shelved and live in the University of Michigan library.

Debbie Millman:

Now, you graduated and came back to New York, and once again, took a temporary stint at a West Side Highway catering company. What made you decide to do that?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Well, when I got back to New York, I also did some stripping here.

Debbie Millman:

Really? Where were you stripping?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

At the Baby Doll.

Debbie Millman:

Interesting.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And at Blue Angel.

Debbie Millman:

I probably would have wanted to do that if I ever felt like I had the body to do it, but I never ever felt like I did. And never will.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

You see, that’s the mistake that a lot of people make, it’s not what matters. Every body type isn’t a strip club… That’s not the connection that the dudes are looking for, believe it or not. Of course, some of them are, but it’s really not about your body.

Debbie Millman:

What is it about?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It’s about how they feel. If they feel cared for and connected and touched, held, et cetera. Like we all want.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

But I got a job for… So it was actually a friend who knew that a catering company needed an interim acting chef, while they were doing the headhunting, the search, so I took the job. And while I was doing that, this restaurant Prune, what would become Prune became available. And that’s when I found myself at a pretty incredible crossroads. I took the lease as you know.

Debbie Millman:

Why were you having such a hard time writing at that point?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I don’t know how to work, unless somebody wants me to do the work. I don’t just wake up in the morning thinking the world’s dying to hear from me. It turns out, I have to work to please somebody. So that’s why a contract or a deadline or somebody gives you an advance, that really works for me, because now I owe them something.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

But I’m not the kind of person… Yes, I am. I do wake up or I write constantly all the time. But what I mean by that is that’s just the shit you put down in your journal, or that you put on the back of a grocery store receipt, just to get your head cleared and you shove it in your bag, you shove it in your book or your folder.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

But I just mean, actual writing, when you have to edit and shape and bring the thing to fruition, I won’t do that unless somebody is tapping their wristwatch, hey, tick, tock, let’s go. It’s due on Friday, and you’re only allowed 1,200 words. So those mutual things, a deadline and a word count are my primo, it’s like my muse and my editor all at the same time.

Debbie Millman:

When you were first offered the opportunity to rent this space that would then eventually become Prune, your restaurant, were you struggling with the combination of being able to be both a restaurateur and a writer? Or did you feel that you would have to give up the life of a writer to own your restaurant?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

That was the most painful self-reckoning I’ve ever done, was to roll up the gate on the restaurant and understand that I had put to bed a 20 year dream and ambition of being a writer. And as I say, that’s not the kind of thing that comes easily. You got to really lie down on the floor and bawl your brains out about that for a while.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, could you read us a short excerpt from your memoir about that experience?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“I could wake up and tackle that in a way that I would never be able to wake up and take a crack at certain literary pursuits. Like, for example, illuminating the fog surrounding the human condition. This is not to suggest that I accepted this understanding about myself gladly, with just a sneering dismissal of the pursuit in the first place, human condition.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“It’s a blow to have to admit to yourself that you are not quite cut out for something that matters so much to you. More than a blow, it’s a knockout. I had to lie down on the floor of my apartment for a very long time, letting that one sink in. Did I have something more to offer, any other talent than a strong work ethic? Did I have something in me other than dishwasher? As it turns out, I did not.”

Debbie Millman:

It seems like from the moment you walked into the space that would become Prune, you felt in electricity about what that space could be. I think you described it as a blue lit electricity. And yet, you were also mourning what you thought your life was going to be.

Debbie Millman:

How did you navigate between those two states of mind?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Well, the first thing I did was closed the cleavage in my heart, by letting go of the idea of being a writer and I experienced an enormous wholeness when I stopped this constantly looking over my shoulder, toward what I thought would be a greener pasture, of writing and a life of literary pursuit. And when I finally focused my eyeballs and my heart on one thing, I said I am now a chef or I wouldn’t call myself a chef. But I said to myself, like you’re not a writer, lady. So let’s get with the program here. You’re just not a writer, you’re a cook. So get with it.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And it was incredibly liberating, believe it or not. To have your feet all moving in the right, same direction, to not be straddling two conflicting passions. It gave me a lot of energy and purpose and meaning and miraculously, having come to that, what I’ve often called the fork in the road, and taken one path and mourned the loss of the other path.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

But the miraculous thing is that I didn’t know is that up ahead, the two paths re-converged. And as you can see, I’m laughing and that’s how I felt in the moment too, as if I’d had a huge joke on the universe. I was the one having a fun time. I was like, oh, my God, someone just asked me to write my first essay and it got published, my first published piece of writing after I’d already said goodbye. So you just never know what’s coming up ahead.

Debbie Millman:

Did you have any trouble uncleaving your heart to get that space open again, to be able to wholeheartedly try and do both?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

No, I would say that was never a problem. I think the problem there on after was, how do you get the work done? That’s a lot. I don’t know about you. But I find writing takes some really substantial time.

Debbie Millman:

It’s brutal, I’d rather go to the dentist and I hate the dentist.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

From there on out, it was just, how can I get to the page when I’m picking parsley all day and butchering fish, when I really need to be sitting down and writing with a clear brain? But add to that later, a couple of children And other distractions, and then it’s just been a torment of time management, but nothing ever about a divided sympathy or loyalty or passion.

Debbie Millman:

Prune was the nickname your mother gave you, when you were a child. I’m wondering if you could read an excerpt about starting the restaurant. It was a very different time in New York in 1999, New York City, the East Village.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“At that point, New York didn’t have an ambitious and exciting restaurant on every block in every unlikely neighborhood, operating out of impossibly narrow spaces. There was no Eater, no Instagram, no hipster Brooklyn food scene. If you wanted something expert to eat, you dined in Manhattan. For fine dining with plush armchairs and a captain who ran your table wearing an Armani suit, you went uptown. For the buzzy American brasserie with Bentwood cane back chairs and waiters in long white aprons, you stayed downtown.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“There was no serious restaurant that would allow a waiter to wear a flannel shirt or hire a sommelier with face piercings and neck tattoos. The East Village had Polish and Ukrainian diners, falafel stands, pizza parlors, dive bars and vegetarian cafes. There was only one notable noodle spot. Momofuku opened five years after Prune.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“I meant to create a restaurant that would serve as delicious and interesting food as the serious restaurants elsewhere in the city, but in a setting that would welcome and not intimidate my ragtag friends and my neighbors. All the East Village painters and poets, the butches and the queens, the saxophone player on the sixth floor of my tenement building, the performance artists doing their brave naked work up the street at PS122.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“I wanted a place you could go after work or on your day off, if you had only a line cook’s paycheck, but also a line cook’s palette. I thought it might be a more stable way to earn a living than the scramble of freelancing I’d done up until then.”

Debbie Millman:

Prune was born in the ungentrified and still heavily graffitied East Village, and from nearly the time you opened, you got extraordinary reviews. Were you surprised by the response initially?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It was profound and overwhelming and completely surprising. The name alone, Prune, was a point of contention as you can imagine. It’s like telling someone the name of your baby before you have your baby, I guess, and people want to weigh in on the name.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I guess Prune is a terrible name for a restaurant because it conjures like diuretic or poop jokes and old folks. I know that about five years into my restaurant, the United Plum Board of California or like the prune council of California asked if they could switch their name to dried plums. I can’t remember-

Debbie Millman:

I remember that. Because Prune was so unsexy. Yeah. You made it sexy again.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I can’t help it, it was my name and it was true. And the whole restaurant was going to be about the food that I cooked naturally, or that I had really come from, like the food that my mother showed us and taught us and had us eat and those experiences. But it’s a terrible name, apparently. But that was the first review that we got about I don’t know six or eight weeks after we opened.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

The first line of the review said, Prune’s the name, and I like it or I love it. And we were off to the races from there.

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle, you’ve written about how since Prune opened in the East Village, in 1999, the neighborhood has changed tremendously in ways that reflect with exquisite perfection, the restaurant scene as a whole. Can you elaborate a little bit?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Yes, in the 20 years that I’ve been in this business, it changed while I was in it and what used to be, as I said in that essay, its sweet, gentle citizen restaurant has become a kind of unruly and colossal beast. And for example, the waiter has become the server, the restaurant business has become the hospitality industry. What used to be the customer has become the guest, which confuses a lot of the categories.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

What was once just your personality has now become your brand. And the small acts of kindness, the way we used to share our talents with each other became things to monetize.

Debbie Millman:

It feels somewhat terrifying, doesn’t it?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I wouldn’t say terrifying, just alarming.

Debbie Millman:

Do you feel like there’s ever going to be a swing back or do you think feel like this is the way forward?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I’m watching New York City right now divided between people who are swinging back hastily and with apparent light heartedness. And another sector of people who are alarmed and not swinging back and don’t want to. I imagine we will all find each other, in our little silos.

Debbie Millman:

On March 15th, you shut down Prune because of the pandemic. And now you and hundreds of other chefs in New York City and thousands around the country are staring down the question of what your restaurants, your careers, your lives will look like. How are you and your wife and co-chef Ashley Merriman managing?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It takes a very long time, or it took us a very long time, I would say, to drain all the fluids out of our hydraulic systems.

Debbie Millman:

Literally and figuratively?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

To use this metaphor as if you’re a great ocean liner and crossing a vast sea and you’ve been doing it for 20 years, and suddenly, to shut off all the engines and stop on a dime like that, with no port behind you in sight and no horizon, either no land on the horizon to know where you’re headed. And at the same time, just to carry this metaphor all the way through that you have to keep your propellers able and just lubricated enough, to be able to turn back on, should you figure out what your destination will be.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I don’t know if that metaphor conveys to you exactly how profoundly exhausting the last four months has been, emotionally and spiritually, to have had a complete, abrupt cessation of income, routine, purpose, identity. Anyway, I hope I’m describing to you just by telling you that, how it’s been.

Debbie Millman:

Yes. I read that you visit the restaurant every day. Do you have any sense of when you’re going to be able to reopen?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I really don’t have a sense of when we’ll be able to reopen. And the question for me is, why would we? And the question I have also for my peers is, why should we? We have a remarkable amount of power right now. People are desperate for us to open, and I wish so profoundly that we would join together in some sort of collective action and refuse to reopen, until we’ve fixed some major problems that we had prior to the pandemic, that the pandemic merely illuminated.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I really wish we would figure out if we can all have health insurance and health coverage. If we could actually figure out a freaking wage that would work for people, and not have the restaurant itself act as the government, which we’ve been doing, subsidizing. This experience of working in a restaurant, of going to a restaurant is so delightful, but it’s also not to use too radical a phrase, but it’s on our backs. It’s on the backs of people.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And it just has to stop, and we have a moment here in front of us to stop it. While we’re defunding police stations, I’m like, why don’t we just get rid of ICE while we’re at it? We have it, it’s right here in our hands. I hope we don’t squander it. But I’m pretty sure people are scared and they’re eager to get back to work.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And also chefs are by nature, I think just so hard working and so generous. So they’ve already pivoted, they’re already like, hey, man, let’s just keep going, let’s keep going. Let’s make community meals or let’s do takeout, without having maybe, I’m not saying without having thought it through, they’ve thought it through. But as you can see, I’m advocating, I wish they’d come to the same conclusion that I had, which is, oh, please, don’t open yet.

Debbie Millman:

Are you really seriously considering not reopening?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I have this little jewel box, this little lopsided 800 square foot, not even, I think it’s like 600 square foot restaurant, that will not work, in terms of social distancing. And it’s a space that’s dear to me and that I would like the time to sit in it and feel the blue electricity again, when the right thing appears. What is the right thing to do here?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And I’ll know it when I see it and it does percolate. I am certain that I will reopen here, something at some time. But I do believe that what you used to know, Prune, with 100 people in here, sitting on top of each other is not happening anytime soon.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I was talking to some friends recently also in the industry who are all suddenly asking themselves the same questions of, why would I return to that much work all over again, now that I’ve had a taste of this life where you actually can be home for dinner with your kids and your wife? And you can actually exercise and take care of your health and see daylight. So there’s some big questions here.

Debbie Millman:

Are you working on any new recipes?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

No, I’m working on writing.

Debbie Millman:

So you’re working on your next book, right?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Yeah, that’s right.

Debbie Millman:

And is the title of your next book Kind Regards? Have you kept it that title?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I haven’t. I think the title now is Next of Kin.

Debbie Millman:

And can you talk a little bit about what’s inside the book?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I can. I’m not eloquent, because I’m still puzzling it out. But what’s happening is, I’m writing about the suicide death of my oldest brother, and it’s not the fact of his suicide death. It’s the fact that he’s the second of my siblings to be dead while my parents outlived us.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And there’s a feeling that I found myself having, that I couldn’t quite reconcile, and that I’ve spent some time in this book trying to figure out what it is. And that was, they seemed to be winning, my parents, and we seem to be losing. And it’s a question, I don’t know why it came into my head that way, but that’s what happened to me automatically upon the news of Geoffrey’s suicide death. I thought, huh, that makes me feel nervous.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

In particular, it’s captivating to me or I feel hijacked by the question, because I have two children. I only have two, and I don’t have an heir to spare. And I am very, very, very similar to both my brother Geoffrey and I’m very similar to my mother and my father. I find myself slightly stricken like, am I the next to go, or am I going to survive my inheritance?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

And furthermore, am I going to pass on to my two children anything that might cause them to kill themselves or to die? So you see how it’s not very light hearted, even though I’m giggling with you a little bit.

Debbie Millman:

I was going to say it’s rather dark.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

You have to trust that I have a sense of humor. So it’s not all… it is dark, but you see what I’m saying.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, had you had to have difficult conversations with your other siblings or your parents in an effort to come to any new understanding of your psychology?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Not at all. One of the unpredicted fruits of this work, this book that I’ve been reading is that I had to call my mom. I haven’t spoken to her, now I have spoken to her, I practically call her every day, because I’m so interested in finding out some things. But I hadn’t spoken to her in 20 years prior, and then it had been 15 between the first time we reconnected and the second time.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I would say like, generally a 40 year lifetime of not speaking to this woman, this woman. It’s been interesting to call her and not have difficult conversations, but to have your greatest fears confirmed, is both very relieving, very satisfying. And also the thing that you’re most afraid to find out. Is it true what I’ve been thinking? And then when you find out it is, it’s a mixture of… I feel so well now, with that’s a heartbreaker.

Debbie Millman:

I do understand.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Side by side.

Debbie Millman:

I have had maybe one or two conversations on the telephone with my mother in the last 30 years maybe. I totally understand, it’s so complicated.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

It can be.

Debbie Millman:

One of the things that’s been on my mind quite a lot lately, given the state of the world is the unanswered questions that I have about my origin story and how much time I might or might not have left in trying to find those answers with my dad now dead for five years and my mom, 80, and we’re living in this COVID time. So who knows? I’ve been thinking about that a lot too.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I completely understand you, and it’s none of my business, but I’m on your side and I hope you do well there. I’m rooting for you to find joy.

Debbie Millman:

Ditto.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

To get to the giddy place of like, oh, it’s so good to just know or just… I wish that for you.

Debbie Millman:

When do you think we’ll be able to read your book? When do you hope that it will be out?

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I hope to be finishing a pretty solid draft this summer. Slow and steady.

Debbie Millman:

I had read that your memoir, your first book was optioned for a movie, and you were hoping that Robert Downey Jr. would play you. I thought that would be perfect casting.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Don’t you think?

Debbie Millman:

Tony Stark playing Gabrielle Hamilton. Absolutely. This magician in the sky.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

I was thinking Robert Downey Jr. pre-Iron Man.

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle, I know we’ve moved on to other topics, but I still would like to close the show with you reading a piece from a remarkably candid article that you recently wrote in The New York Times, about having to close down your restaurant, because of the pandemic. I’d love to close the show with you reading a short excerpt from that article.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“I have been shuttered before. With no help from the government, Prune has survived 9/11, the blackout, Hurricane Sandy, the recession, months of a city water main replacement, online reservation systems. You still have to call us on the telephone and we still use a pencil and paper to take reservations.”

Gabrielle Hamilton:

“We’ve survived the tyranny of convenience culture and the invasion of Caviar, Seamless and GrubHub. So I’m going to let the restaurant sleep like the beauty she is, shallow breathing, dormant, bills unpaid, and see what she looks like when she wakes up. So well rested, young all over again, in a city that may no longer recognize her, want her or need her.”

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle Hamilton, thank you so much for making the world a much more delicious place and a more biting place in all the best possible ways. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Gabrielle Hamilton:

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed myself.

Debbie Millman:

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune, which is currently closed because of the pandemic. Gabrielle’s wonderful memoir is titled Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. And her cookbook is simply titled Prune. For more information about the restaurant, you can go to prunerestaurant.com for read her columns in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Debbie Millman:

This is the 16th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters. I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, and we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

Announcer:

Design Matters is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is recorded in non-pandemic times at the School of Visual Arts, Masters in Branding Program in New York City, the first and longest running branding program in the world. The editor in chief of Design Matters Media is Zachary Pettit and the art director is Emily Weiland.