By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 8:34 PM
A strange image graces the cover of Gabrielle Hamilton's luminous new memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter." At first glance it might be an oyster, slipping off its half shell and nestled in some kind of grassy nest, with a pearl at its center and frills underneath. Is this the futuristic creation of some modernist chef?
Then you realize that the pearl is an eye and those frills are feathers. Turning the cover upside down reveals the unmistakable head - severed, one assumes - of a glaring, sharp-beaked rooster. Along with the title, it's the first clue that Hamilton's story will be visceral and possibly even revelatory.
Sure enough, Hamilton quickly proves that her decade-in-the-making work can live up to the extraordinary "best memoir by a chef ever" hype. That quote, by the way, is from the previous title holder, Anthony Bourdain, whose 2000 blockbuster, "Kitchen Confidential," hilariously deglamorized restaurants while simultaneously feeding the fire of public obsession with celebrity chefs. Hamilton, chef-owner of the tiny Greenwich Village restaurant Prune, shares two of Bourdain's traits: a wicked, sometimes obscene sense of humor and a past checkered with drug use and crime. But as he admits in his jacket testimonial, she's the superior writer by a mile.
To read "Blood, Bones & Butter" is to marvel at Hamilton's masterful facility with language. She turns something as mundane as the deep-frying of "stacks and stacks" of flour tortillas at a touristy Pennsylvania restaurant when she was 15, for instance, into a duo of evocative metaphors: The tortilla "would float and sizzle on the surface for a moment like a lily pad on a pond," she writes. "Then, with a deep ten-ounce ladle, I pushed down in the center, and the tortilla came up around the bowl like the long dress and underskirts of a Victorian woman who had fallen, fully clothed, into a lake, her skirts billowing up around her heavy sinking body."
She manages to make an account of killing a chicken just as poetic (if more gruesome). As her dismayed father watched, she spun the bird around to disorient it, laid its head on the block and raised the hatchet: "This first blow made a vague dent, barely breaking the skin. I hurried to strike it again, but lost a few seconds in my grief and horror. The second blow hit the neck like a boat oar on a hay bale. The bird started to orient."
Like Bourdain, she strips the work of restaurateuring - and catering before it - down to its least glamorous realities. There are maggot-filled rats to deal with, a neighbor wanting to talk about the water bill during the chaos of the Sunday brunch rush, a line cook giving eight days' notice when Hamilton is nine months pregnant. The latter led to the following To-Do list:
Get w/AT and limit menu
Train CR on a 2-man line
Call Roode for fill-in?
Tell brunch crew vinaigrette too acidic
Pick up white platters
Change filters in hoods
Figure out pomegranate syrup.
But those are side dishes to Hamilton's main course: the story of her search for identity and belonging after her parents' divorce in her early adolescence. Her French mother moved to Vermont, and her father left her and her 17-year-old brother alone for weeks at a time, an abandonment that "may have been an oversight, like leaving your cup of coffee on the roof of the car while you dig out your keys and then drive off." Whether it was parental influence or not - memories of her father's lamb roasts and of learning to cook by "opening old jars of stuff my mother had left behind in the pantry" - she gravitated to restaurants, working first as a dishwasher as a young teenager and then on to the line, with a stint as a grifting cocktail waitress thrown in for good measure.
"Blood, Bones & Butter" tells of Hamilton's drift from "catering hacker" to summer-camp cook to university writing student, listless and searching. She found meaning in the opportunity to open her own restaurant in the spot where a bankrupt one had been fossilizing. She had never even supervised a restaurant kitchen, let alone owned one, and she's just as surprised as the reader at how brilliant she is at it. It turns out that her biggest source of inspiration, in hindsight anyway, was an aimless backpacking trip through Europe in her 20s, horribly ill-timed in the middle of a miserable winter. She didn't "stage" in Michelin-starred kitchens like so many driven chef wannabes; she instead drifted, near-penniless, through Greece, Turkey and France, depending on the hospitality of strangers to ease her hunger. She sold cigarettes and lottery tickets at the cash register of a "sports bar cum creperie" in Brittany, where she ate the same meal every day for weeks on end without getting tired of it. "I was sucking something in," she writes. "Something unmitigated. This is the crepe. This is the cider. This is how we live and eat."
Those taste memories and others fuel a stripped-down, let's-just-have-a-dinner-party cooking philosophy that perfectly suited New York in the late 1990s. "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," she writes.
Of course, Prune was a smash hit, and Hamilton became one of the standard-bearers of a particular type of Manhattan restaurant: small, ingredient-focused, chef-driven. But as attached as she was to the staff at her restaurant, her search for family went on, which might be why she so easily dropped her Michigander girlfriend in favor of an Italian man who "washed up on the shores of the kitchen and landed his sights on me." She stumbled into marriage as nonchalantly as she had stumbled into cooking, becoming a reluctant wife and mother whose annual trips to visit his family in Puglia sounded appealing when she related them to friends but were becoming ever more stifling in reality.
If you're hoping the memoir culminates in an Oprah moment, this is not the book for you. Hamilton is too devoted to grit and realism to allow her story to be neatly resolved. In her telling, it's not so much "Eat, Pray, Love" as "Snort, Steal, Cook." Nonetheless, one of the biggest thrills of "Blood, Bones & Butter" is watching her self-discovery unspool as the independent streak she was forced to nurture at such a young age takes stronger and stronger hold. By the book's end, she may or may not have found herself, but one thing is clear: She is reluctant no more.
Yonan is the editor of The Post's Food and Travel sections.