“Don’t criss-cross or zig-zag or otherwise make ‘restauranty’” — affectedly highlighted in pink marker — is an unusual phrase to read in a cookbook, but it is a common sentiment in the one just put out by Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of Prune in New York City. Handwritten modifications, scraps of tape with multiplied proportions and faux smears and stains of food is not all about crafty art direction. It’s to prove a point that the ingredients and the dishes are central. That’s it.
“It’s very back of house,” Hamilton says of the cookbook, running her hands over its soft canvas cover during a recent interview inside the East Village restaurant’s downstairs prep kitchen. It is Sunday afternoon, prime-time brunch hours. And, on the sidewalk upstairs, a crowd has gathered, patiently listening for their names. The wait is between 20 minutes and one hour, and most are content to stand patiently in the sun, sipping coffee from to-go cups while awaiting eggs Benedict with golden toasted potatoes rosti.
At the prep table where we sit, a cook is chopping shallots, and another sorts through herbs, standing alongside a vat of bones and skins from a meat stock. Hamilton points out a black binder on a nearby shelf, a collection of Prune’s house recipes, and the basis for the cookbook.
Later that night, Hamilton would be working primarily as the restaurant’s host, though morphing from one role to another as necessary. Back of house, front of house, wherever she is, Hamilton has her own way of doing things — which is also the Prune way. But, she’s not a ruthless leader; Hamilton stays rooted in the family, both the literal flesh-and-bone one (which inspired a best-selling memoir) and the one that has made the restaurant hum for 15 years, as we find out in our interview.
What cookbooks inspired you to write this one?
Well, I’m not thinking of other cookbooks. You see how this looks like a Moleskine journal [pointing at her book on the table]. I’m a writer, so I’m always walking around with one of these. I have a storage unit filled with decades of my journal. I’m always writing shit down. So that’s what this is. And the cookbook that this aims to remind you of is — I’m not sure if this even happens any more — the family heirloom that your grandmother might have given to your mother when she got married.
Right, my mother just gave me a collection of family recipes, for my last birthday.
What the matriarchs of families used to do is tear the recipe out of the newspaper and put it on an index card, put it in a notebook, then hand-write, annotate their experience with that recipe. This is what grandma pulled out of the paper, what she cooked for the family all those years, and this is what she ended up doing to those recipes that the recipe doesn’t tell you. You know, they modify. Coincidentally, the book comes out exactly at our 15th anniversary. I’m giving you the Prune family heirloom.
Speaking of books, will your memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter be made into a film?
I don’t know. It’s been optioned. Somebody gave me the advice that you don’t believe it until you’re walking out of the theater, having seen it. It’s very hard to get a movie made. But the fact that Gwyneth [Paltrow] bought it makes it more likely that it will get made, because she is a force.
How did you approach the cookbook photography?
Eric Wolfinger made the most beautiful photographs, and I love and admire what he did. The poor guy — I wouldn’t allow styling and propping, and he had to work within the confines of this crappy restaurant. What did he have to work with? Stainless steel, the white plate, the marble countertop, butcher paper and the black cast-iron stove top. And he managed to really find whatever beauty there is here.
As you mentioned, it’s the 15th anniversary of Prune. How has the restaurant changed over time?
[Long pause.] You know how you’re the same, because you’re you, but you’re different because you’re 15 years older than you were when you’re fifteen? I don’t know how old you are. So, how do you describe that in the restaurant? So Prune is still very Prune, but it’s also grown up. It’s smarter, more mature and carries the same habits and quirks and dysfunctions as it always has. The menu has changed a lot recently and constantly. For two weeks until Nov. 1, we’re running all the old favorites from 15 years ago — sweetbreads and marrow.
Why don’t you still carry those original dishes, like sweetbreads and marrow?
Because I’ve been cooking them for 15 years, because I’m a different cook than I was 15 years ago, because I have traveled. I have a denser knowledge, increased exposure and skillset. You know, it’s like the rock band that doesn’t want to play their hit from 1982 when they go on tour in 2014, except you know there is one that you love or you’re always happy to hear, so you play it again. But you want to be allowed to evolve and make new music.
Are you still finding deep inspiration in Italy, or have you traveled to other places?
I love Italy and I do get inspiration from Italy. But the restaurant won’t suddenly become a Thai restaurant if I spend time in Thailand. The restaurant has an idiom, it’s part of our voice. It will always be Mediterranean in the European tradition.
How do you perceive Prune in the broader New York City restaurant industry, in terms of the culture?
I’m running a restaurant. But it’s not really a restaurant. It’s like a halfway house for wayward people. A surrogate home, a proxy family, a party. It’s really a party, we’re throwing a party, and just paying the bills, making sure the lights are on. So, yes, I’m a restaurant in New York City and I am, in fact, running a business — a busy business — but I’m not very involved in this industry. I’m a lapsed restaurant industry person. I don’t read the media or industry news. I’m very behind on going out, so I don’t really know what the newest best restaurants are. I’m good to talk about food for about 15 minutes and then I’m bored out of my mind.
Prune is out today.
Read more FR Interviews on Food Republic: