Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Part of my regular weekend routine, is listening to The Splendid Table podcast to learn what’s new in the world of food. I was listening to the February 26th episode, when I heard an interview with New York chef, and restaurateur, Gabrielle Hamilton. As she talked about her soon to be released food-centric memoirs, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, I remember thinking that it sounded a lot like Kitchen Confidential and the more recent Medium Raw. Sure enough, when I bought my copy on March 1st, there, on the cover, was an endorsement by Anthony Bourdain.

The blurb of support gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, Bourdain typically makes a point to deliver honest opinions, so his opinions will be trusted. On the other hand, when something gains popularity, numerous imitators seem to jump on the bandwagon, cashing in on the popularity of the original. I hoped Hamilton’s new book wasn’t marking the beginning of a string of Kitchen Confidential clones.

After reading and digesting this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that though there are obvious similarities in the early lives of the two writers, it’s unfair to compare Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef to previous works.

After 13 years of lamb roasting parties, gourmet fare prepared by her discriminating mother, and trips with dad to the country butcher shop, Gabrielle was suddenly left to fend for herself. In order to survive, Gabrielle took a job washing dishes at a local restaurant. Since then, she held many jobs, but always within the food industry. As the book follows her progression from dish washer, to waitress, to caterer, to summer camp chef, to eventually owning her own New York restaurant, we’re privy to her personal struggles with drug abuse, brushes with the law, attempts at higher education, and personal relationships.

Of course, her drug abuse and flirtations with larceny can be linked, at least in part, to her having been left alone at such an early age. She did what was necessary to survive, which included masking the pain until she was mature enough to deal with it. It’s interesting, at least to a former psychology major such as myself, that even though she blames her mother for her early teen abandonment, Gabrielle named her restaurant “Prune,” which was her mother’s pet name for her when she was a child.

Once Prune is open, we get an inside look at the plethora of issues she had to deal with in order to keep Prune up and running, including licensing, work schedules, staff resignations, and having to contend with unwelcome surprises being left on the eateries back stoop, among others. Meanwhile, we also see her trying to balance work with family while trying to ignite passion in a loveless marriage.

Although, the marriage itself is incredibly rocky, and arguably ill-conceived from the get go, the happiest times in her life seem to be the summers she spends in Italy with her in-laws. As she cooks alongside her mother-in-law, she finally feels like she has the mentor she had been denied for so long in her life. While it’s true that she had also named Misty, a previous lesbian partner, as being her mentor in a previous chapter, Gabrielle’s hunger to learn from, and impress, was much stronger in her relationship to the mother-in-law than it ever was with Misty.

Gabrielle successfully peppers this book with a good dose of humor to keep the work from becoming weighed down with emotional angst. One passage of dark humor, involves her trying to kill a rooster for the first time, as her father coaches her through the assault gone awry. Another tells the story of hers and her husband's futile quest for a decent 4pm meal, with kids in tow. Their increased frustration eventually leads the couple to adopt a rather make-shift, and not entirely legal, solution.

As readers take this emotional roller coaster ride, via a series of funny and touching stories, we are, of course, treated to many hunger provoking descriptions of food, which is why most people will buy this book. The simple egg-on-a-roll sandwiches she survived on in New York, the ravioli with herbs and ricotta visible through the dough, the purple beans and dense cheeses of Italy, and the salads & savory crepes of the French tavern are a mere fraction of the dishes which Gabrielle so vividly depicts with her prose. She even succeeds in making Burrata, an Italian cheese which I personally find to be bland, sound tempting and delicious.

All in all, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef is an entertaining read filled with humor, heartbreak, and enough culinary content to satisfy any serious foodie.


  1. A really thoughtful, enticing review, James - and I think I'm going to have to get this book now!

    I must have linked with your other blog through Networked Blog, but this one's just gorgeous. I'm definitely coming back.