The cover of Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education Of A Reluctant Chef features an Anthony Bourdain quote promising that it’s “simply the best memoir by a chef ever.” That’s high praise, but not entirely surprising, considering that Gabrielle Hamilton spends a significant amount of her debut book channeling Bourdain. But she isn’t him, and her work is much stronger when she finds her own voice.
The chef and owner of New York City’s hit restaurant Prune writes about her juvenile-delinquent past, when she did coke, drove stolen cars, and took money from the bar where she worked. Hamilton shares stories of the intense, sometimes disgusting work of being a professional chef, with all-too-vivid descriptions of gutting animals, or cleaning up human feces and a dead rat spewing maggots. Her section on working as a caterer is especially reminiscent of Kitchen Confidential, simultaneously revealing disturbing truths about the industry, and portraying professional cooking as a job people should only take if they can’t imagine doing anything else.
After years of working brutal hours, Hamilton decided to find out whether that described her. But by the time she graduated with her MFA in fiction-writing from the University of Michigan, she knew she wanted to get back in the kitchen. She puts her degree to good work in Blood, Bones & Butter, with smooth, highly detailed, often deeply personal accounts of the people, places, and events that shaped her. The section on her rural childhood is especially evocative, painting a portrait of an idyllic era of huge family dinner parties, and visiting farms and the butcher with her stylish dancer-turned-cook-and-homemaker French mother. All that falls apart when her parents divorce, her mother moves away, and Hamilton is left to fend for herself. The feeling of loss is so palpable that it’s unsurprising when Hamilton, a self-identified lesbian, is wooed by a man whose courtship involves introducing her to his big, food-obsessed Italian family. Only much later does she finally acknowledge that this is just the same sort of seductive image used to sell wine, as she writes “You are welcome for a plate of spaghetti and a glass of wine—but it is not yours, and it will never belong to you and you will never belong to it.”
There’s a turning point in the book, and perhaps Hamilton’s own life, where she details all the things she’s done that could be qualified as badass, from working back-to-back double shifts with only time for a nap on the kitchen floor to cooking 300 eggs during Prune’s brunch shift while 39 weeks pregnant. She writes, “But badass is the last thing I am interested in being. Badass is a juvenile aspiration.” That aspiration put aside, she’s free to delve further into a more nuanced definition of who she is, and that exploration produces a far more satisfying memoir.