Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef and owner of a great restaurant in New York City called Prune. You should go if you can.
Do you remember when you realized that you had a knack for cooking? That you were better at it than other people? I never had any sort of a-ha moment. Cooking was not a discovered skill for me. I got chromosomally born into it. From birth I was saturated in kitchen life, kitchen chores, and a deep and close association with food — and with washing dishes. I have a French mom that could’ve been a cook for sure. She was not making shitty meatloaf, you know?
Where do your ideas for new dishes come from? Do you just wake up and say, “I’d like to make that?” Or are you thinking of holes that need filling on the menu or stuff that you feel confident will sell?? [Laughs] Are you asking if I make food based on concern for the customer? I make food based on my own cravings. I don’t invent anything ever. It always comes from somewhere in the universe; from somewhere in the idiom. I’m just singing the same love song as everyone else, but hopefully in my own voice. Can I go back to what you were asking about before?
Sure. I didn’t have any big moment where I realized I could be a cook, but I do remember having a moment in the 2nd grade. I was at school and we were carving pumpkins, and the way I was holding a knife, I was holding it almost like it was a paring knife. I remember looking around and seeing all the other kids struggling with their knives. I thought, “I know how to hold a knife and how to use it.” I was aware of having a weird skill set for someone that age.
Do you ever make something that turns out terribly? We just had a bust last night. We were trying to put something together and I was like, “This is not working.” I don’t know if you’ve ever clearned squid, but they swallow their food whole. It’s funny to pull an entire fish out of the body cavity of the squid. I thought, “That’s really funny, I should do that with a dish.” So I filleted a fish, shoved it back inside a squid with its tail sticking out, and fried it. It was fine, but then I got ridiculous. The dish also had stewed squid, the stuffed squid, and stuffed mussels. It didn’t work out. In the end only one component was really great. I did some editing. Cooking is a lot like editing sometimes actually. You get all the words on the page and then you weed out the crap.
You’re working on a cookbook right? It’s not a cookbook. It’s narrative. I’ve got one more edit left to go.
Do you see any similarities between the way you cook and the way you write? No. I’m a much better cook. I’m much more practiced. That writing stuff is so hard. God. I used to grimace reading my stuff over. I actually went to grad school for writing; at the University of Michigan. I had gotten there from a life in kitchens. I remember arriving and meeting my peer group and they were already deep in their writerly angst while I was thinking, “This is so awesome! We get to write!” I’ll eat my plate of crow now — it’s hard making sense of all that human condition crap. Then there’s getting your words right. And writing is isolating and cooking is all about being with other people. So yeah, I’m a much better cook.
What’s the last creative thing you did? It’s so mundane: I created some new desserts that are funny and quirky. One is a cold candied whole orange. You know how Chinese restaurants give you an orange for dessert? I can never eat fresh fruit after a meal. It’s counterintuitive to me. So I made a version that’s cooked. It’s a whole orange that’s been simmered and candied. It’s cold but not raw. I think it worked out well.