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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gabrielle Hamilton's New Book Celebrates Simple, Elegant Cooking

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 2:04 PM


When I first read Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, I quickly surmised that she simply couldn’t be that good of a chef. Not because she was a woman or because lacked professional training; but because someone who wrote that damn well shouldn’t also be able to cook at that same (ridiculously high) level. It just wouldn’t be fair.

When I visited Prune a year after finishing her book, I quickly ate my words (well, truth be told I ate perfectly simple sardines, ethereal spot prawns, and a pork chop that made me wonder if she had found some otherworldly variety of pig that all other chefs had yet to discover). This woman could indeed cook just as well as she could write. I wanted to hate her, I really did; but as I took another sip of sparkling rosé and scooped up another generous spoonful of mascarpone ice cream, I realized that was never going to happen.

This past Monday, the culinary and literary stars aligned at Oakland’s Camino restaurant for an evening with Hamilton. Hosted by Noe Valley’s Omnivore Books in celebration of her newly released cookbook, Prune, the night began with an hour of drinks, appetizers, and book signing. Pink-clad servers circulated the room with roasted eggplant flatbread, lamb meatballs with mustard, fried oysters, and radishes with butter; bartenders served rum cocktails and glasses of crisp rosé; and attendees clutched cookbooks to their chests as they lined up to have Hamilton touch her powerful Sharpie to their newly-acquired paper.

As the ink dried and the hunger for her food increased, we found our handwritten name cards at the restaurant’s long, wooden communal tables. Introductions and niceties among strangers were exchanged: questions about vocation and interests quickly gave way to the all-important ones of “Have you read Blood, Bones, and Butter?” “Have you been to Prune?” and “Have you cooked from the book yet?” There is something instantly comforting and exhilarating about sitting in a roomful of people who have come together to eat, to share their personal food stories, and to celebrate the beauty of cooking (and consuming).

Using recipes from Prune, the talented chefs of Camino prepared a three-course menu worthy of Hamilton’s East Village restaurant. Paired with the crisp and subtly tropical 2013 Domaine Font Mars Picpoul de Pinet, the first course was a perfectly tender beef tongue with salsa verde and mimosa d’egg. Served alongside a shaved fennel and radish salad, the dish was both rich and bright, bold yet wonderfully elegant.

Bottles of Picpoul were replaced by 2013 Bruno Debize Beaujoulais, and servers presented plates of roast pig and fresh shelling bean ragoût with cardoons and mint. There was a hushed silence in the room as diners cut into the lusciously marbled pork and sopped up the last of the herbaceous ragout. Our pleas for “more crispy pork skin” were answered with another towering plate of porcine perfection, and a wave of contentment swept through the room.

Anyone who has read Blood, Bones, and Butter knows that Hamilton writes in a straightforward, “no bullshit" manner, and thankfully her approach to Prune is no different. She proudly disclosed that the cookbook has been criticized for the way it was written. The recipes are not altered (read: dumbed down) for the home cook. “I wrote this book as if I am talking to my line cooks,” she says with no hint of remorse. The book opens with a photo of the restaurant’s graffiti-tagged roll-up door, closes with a one of Prune’s staff drink (a Negroni) and between them is Hamilton’s story as told through 15 year of recipes.

It is safe to say that no one in attendance wanted that meal to end. We savored the final bites of cornmeal pound cake with rosemary-poached pears, slowly drank the last of our coffee, and eventually bid adieu to our newly-formed friends. We left reluctantly, but we left with the memory of an incredible meal and with a beautifully-bound story of one woman’s unapologetic food journey and invitation to join her on it. I, for one, cannot wait to get in the kitchen.

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Alexis Katsilometes

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