By Gabrielle Hamilton
(Vintage Books, R180)
IT WAS her appearance, her talk about food and family on a Charlie Rose show (DStv channel 411, Bloomberg TV) that caught my attention.
She was horrified that after only a year of running her tiny restaurant, Prune (only a 30-seater), in Manhattan, she was offered a book deal. That’s all it took, she exclaimed, to be given the chance to write her own cookery book.
It’s preposterous and that’s what makes Hamilton so appealing. This is no run-of-the-mill chef who is happy if others are duped by her skills. She’s quick to say that she’s had no formal training. She learnt the hard way. Her parents were divorced when she was in her early teens and as the second-youngest of five children, she and her brother were almost forgotten for a few months in their house and had to fend for themselves.
That’s when she first turned to kitchens as her solace and at her age, not only was she not allowed to work professionally, she also didn’t know what she was doing.
She learnt the hard way by working in the scullery and winding her way upwards through the years until she was working – finally and luxuriously in her eyes at the time – as a waitress in Manhattan. This didn’t end well and finally she moved to food and high-end, huge-scale catering – not something she views with too much honour.
But that is probably where Hamilton also discovered what she really wanted to do with food and what she didn’t enjoy. She also picked up some mentors along the way and discovered how much of an impact her family meals as a child had on her future in the food industry.
Talk food in New York and you know that it must be one of the toughest places to crack.
Like some of the best chefs in any town, she knows she doesn’t want to go big because for her, it needs to be a hands-on operation and a personal one. She’s most happy in the kitchen or cleaning up long after she should have been home. That’s when she lets her hair down and clears the cobwebs from her head.
“Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever,” writes Anthony Bourdain on the cover. It’s easy to see why he feels that way once you’ve read the book.
Hamilton studied writing more extensively than she did food. She’s a dame who knows precisely what she wants, she knows what she likes and when she does, she goes out to get it.
She’s also very honest about her marital ups and downs and that his family, rather than the man himself, kept her loyal. She married an Italian doctor who works in Manhattan but spends his annual holidays back home with Mama in Italy. This is where Hamilton loses her heart.
It’s also what first hooked me when I heard her talking to Charlie. She was absolutely enamoured with the ageing women of rural Italy.
She believes they have the best lives in their funereal black dresses, planting and picking their own vegetables and cooking, yet always ruling the family. She has, in fact, divorced her husband in the meantime – but not his family.
And according to news sources, the movie of her life is being considered with Gwyneth Paltrow as the lead. It will be glorious to make, I’m sure, and hopefully like Julie & Julia, a pleasure to watch.
It’s an extraordinary story about loves gained and lost, about a woman who truly made her own way in the world and about food and the way someone believes it should be treated and served to those who wish to dine at her table.
Bon appetit, but this is much more about the appetite for life than anything else. So if you want to read about a fascinating woman who doesn’t allow life to dictate the rules, this is it.