482 of 515 people found the following review helpful
A memoir written by a chef is appealing because it promises to take us to a place few of us ever see, unless it's on the Food Network---that is, a restaurant kitchen. It promises to reveal all of the gritty, unlovely steps leading up to the moment when the beautiful plate emerges from the pass and into the hands of the waitstaff. In addition, after Anthony Bourdain led the way, such a memoir must also offer appetite-killers: dirty walk-ins, unsavory butchering scenes. And, like a religious testament, it also has those conversion moments, the moment when the chef discovers that she or he is destined to become an artist with food. Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir has all of these elements.
When Hamilton writes about food, she's entertaining, irreverent, and even spiritual. Her engaging account of her father's spring lamb roast (an edited version of this piece recently appeared in The New Yorker) establishes the origins of her love of food. Her account of her years working for catering companies will make you think hard before you pick up that next wedding hors d'oeuvre from the waiter's silver plate. And a chapter about cooking at a summer camp in the Berkshires is funny and deft in its handling of detail. I loved her wry depiction of the time she spent in a master's writing program, from the satirical descriptions of her fellow writers to her homage to Misty, a fellow cook and, for Hamilton, a kind of culinary muse.
This book aspires to be more than just a chef memoir, however, since the subtitle refers to "The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef." In particular, this is a book about family: about Hamilton's own family, painfully riven by divorce when she was still a child, and about her marriage and the birth of her two sons. With the exception of the opening chapters, these parts of the book are often difficult to read, mostly because they have almost none of the good qualities (sharp detail, humor, self-awareness) of the "chef" sections. Her relationship with her mother, the "spider" of a chapter about a long, miserable visit to Vermont, is so angry and painful that you want to avert your eyes. After such a rant, a reader comes not a whit closer to understanding this mother or why she behaves as she does. As for Hamilton's marriage to Michele, the man whose ancestral home in Italy is the setting for the last ("Butter') section of the book, this too is the subject of pages and pages of rage and disappointment. Yes, this unhappiness is somewhat mitigated by Hamilton's initial happiness in cooking and eating in Italy, as well as her pleasure in being part of Michele's extended family. In the end, however, the many pages devoted to descriptions of glorious Italian foodstuffs (think Frances Mayes, with cursing) turn into too much eggplant, the Italian family disappoints, and the marriage remains a source of sorrow.
There are many memoirs about unhappy families. How the writer shapes that material is key. The difference between "Blood, Bones, and Butter" and other memoirs about bad parents, like Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life" or Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club," is one of perspective. Even when Wolff is telling us about how his mother failed to protect him from his abusive stepfather or Karr is describing yet another chilling incident with her parents, we know the grown-up writers understand why their parents acted the way they did. This sort of perspective is not evident in Hamilton's memoir, perhaps because she has not yet gained it. In her book, the education of Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef, is presented as the most interesting of dishes, full of diverse and sometimes surprising ingredients---and so it is. (I was lucky to have the chance to eat, just once, in her restaurant, Prune, and she is truly a wonder in the kitchen.) However, her depiction here of her education as daughter, wife, and mother awaits a more finished account.
143 of 160 people found the following review helpful
"Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter -- just as my father had imagined -- and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat."
Gabrielle Hamilton looks back on her nine-year-old self in that passage -- over-the-moon infatuated with her older siblings, her mother's way in the kitchen and her father's way with setting a stage ... and unaware that divorce and neglect are just around the corner.
By 13, she's drugging with an older crowd and lying about her age to get work in restaurant kitchens to support herself; before long she's participating in a felony-level employee theft racket. Yet she has a knack for stumbling onto cooking mentors and gradually learns enough to run the kitchen at a kids' summer camp and freelance-cook at high-volume caterers for fancy Hamptons (NY) parties. She completes a fiction-writing MFA, but only because she simultaneously finds a wellspring of sanity and true creativity in a side cooking job that recalls the down-to-earth food and settings of her childhood. And it's with that "real food" perspective that she eventually opens a restaurant -- New York City's acclaimed Prune.
There's evidence of that MFA in this memoir -- a beautiful mix of literary and culinary creativity. I marked evocative passages throughout, and especially recall Hamilton's homage to the simplicity and humility of 75-year-old (chef extraordinaire) Andre Soltner preparing a perfect omelet. Although she does settle into a somewhat straightforward prose to tell the bulk of her story, and I don't think she's quite figured out her relationships with her parents or partners, these pages are fierce and vivid. And thus I also find myself over-the-moon infatuated -- with Hamilton's writing and with her story of reclaiming family ... or at least an adult, work-centered facsimile of it.
48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2011
Most bios from foodies usually either give a detailed lowdown on food, or on the writer's life - the really good ones often do both. This book didn't give much of either. The author describes herself as a lesbian, but somehow not only marries a man, but one she neither knows well, nor has a particle of affection for. Her dislike for him is so intense that he appears undeserving of even the most basic description, save a long list of his shortcomings. When she quotes him (usually as a means of explaining why he is such a blithering idiot) he speaks in an accent that (on paper) bears a bizarre resemblance to Tattoo on Fantasy Island. She spends chapters talking about going to Italy, where she can cook with her husband's family but can't really talk to them. Not much to learn there, unless you want to hear about how she made little penis shaped noodles with a knitting needle, and ate endless plates of eggplant.
So that leads us to her basic message, repeated again and agin - 1) that she is super pissed off alot, and 2) that she is also real (real) busy. That's why she writes to-do lists, and includes them in her book (clean kitchen, have baby, butterfly rabbits, blah) to demonstrate she has a blackbelt in badass. This, I guess, qualifies her as a real tough lady - which I completely believe, though she didn't need to spend nearly that much time convincing me.
I actually really enjoy reading books about folks who have completely screwed up personal lives (check out Running With Scissors for an amazing example). When done well, it makes for fascinating reading. However, because the author is unwilling to add any significant detail to her personal narrative, it comes off as bleak, self indulgent, and utterly monotonous.
The real problem here is that the story simply isn't that remarkable. She grew up in a family where her parents divorced, and where she had to deal on her own at a young age. She worked lots of restaurant and catering jobs, finally managed to finish college, got an MFA, and started a small restaurant in NYC. Oh, and she is a lesbian who married a guy she loathes. That about sums it up. So in the absence of an amazing life, she needed to tell an amazing story. She was unwilling to do this, however, and settled instead for either moaning about her lousy husband, or congratulating herself on being one tough chick. Mazeltov.
At times I felt like what she most desperately needed was an editor to tell her to quit vetching. Go to work, cook, go home, be part of a family, stop being such a self obsessed spaz. The old adage "if you only knew how seldom most people actually thought about you, you would quickly realize how insignificant your foibles really are" seems especially apt here.
The biggest bummer, though, is that she really didn't talk much about food, which I feel sure she would be better at describing than her personal life. At the very least, she could have focused on something she was good at.
125 of 142 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2011
Had this book ended in the middle, it would have been a good, light read. Hamilton is a skilled creative writer and the first part of her book was interesting. In it, she admits to a troubled past that included grand larceny, auto theft and drug use. She did not express remorse or any desire to make restitution, but I took this as the starkly candid confession of someone who had grown up and wised up. From there, she takes us through Europe and on to the opening her restaurant; very engaging. After that, the callous, deceptive self-obsessed character that I thought we had left behind pages before resurfaces - not as a forgivable mixed up youth, but as a scary, middle-aged woman. No reflection. No apologies. Hamilton seems to have an unhealthy and unrelenting contempt for other people and a superiority complex that fans the flame. She doesn't cut slack for anyone else, and never finds fault with herself. (In other words, she strikes me as one of those "Can dish it out, but can't take it" people--the kind who are so in the habit of being mean that they are unaware of how awful they're being and how horrible they are to put up with.) It's depressing to think that we live in a culture that rewards a person for this level of arrested development and shallow self-obsession. I'm sorry, but masterfully well-turned phrases and clever metaphors can't carry pointless, harsh, indiscreet talk for an entire book. Authorship is authorship. Therapy is therapy. After 150 pages or so, it began to feel as if Ms. Hamilton had completely confused those two very different things. Where on earth was her editor?
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2011
I read a lot, and in general I'm not too picky. I think everyone's got something worthwhile, interesting or at least amusing to say. But this really did nothing for me.
Perhaps it was some creative writing exercise on the part of the author--an attempt to evoke her lifelong emotional state in the reader as one progresses through the book. If that's the case, I guess it was successful. As I neared the end of the book, I felt like a lot of the events depicted seemed circuitous, confusingly narrated and pointless, and I wished I hadn't wasted time on all of them, but by that point I'd committed too much of my time to NOT see it through, although I knew deep down that the end result would somehow be disappointing, dissatisfying and lacking in substance or quality. That seems to be the author's general verdict on her life and accomplishments to date, and that's pretty much my verdict on the book.
There's some real passion and feeling in her descriptions of food: how she works with it, how she eats it, how it infiltrated all aspects of her life. Other than that, there's just not much here.
Plenty of others seem to love it for some reason, so clearly it's just not my particular thing, but I found it disjointed and whiny. She includes, at one point, a description of a panel discussion she was involved in, on the subject of women chefs, and she describes her reluctance to be there, her disagreement with the opinions of her fellow chefs and the organizers of the panel, and on and on. I couldn't help but get the feeling that she was just as reluctant to write a memoir, just as disgruntled with the world for expecting it of her, as she seemed to be a reluctant panelist, reluctant chef, reluctant wife, daughter, student, reluctant everything.
68 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2011
Anthony Bourdain's memoir, `Kitchen Confidential,' was a revelation for me. I had never been exposed to the hidden world of restaurant kitchens. His personality can be grating and his style is exaggerated, but he had a story to tell, and told it well. After reading his book, I wanted more of this insane cooking underworld.
I thought of his book when I purchased `Blood, Bones & Butter,' (BB&B) a memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York. In fact, his quote is on the cover of the book, "Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever." (Italics on the cover) Is he saying this with a sense of sarcasm since his memoir was so popular? I hope so. While there are flashes of inspiring prose and some compelling stories, the complete package is uneven and disappointing, like a collapsed chocolate soufflé.
As the title suggests, the book is broken into three sections. The first is called `Blood', and presumably refers to the author's family. Initially, I was seduced by Hamilton's very `writerly' style. Early on, I flipped to the back cover and sure enough, she has an MFA from the University of Michigan. She has legitimate writing chops. Her style is a mix between elegance and grittiness, which is somewhat of an odd combination, and yet works well at the beginning. In the first few chapters, I had difficulty adjusting to her style, which is somewhat dense, yet I was intrigued enough to keep going, and eventually found a rhythm.
In the first chapter, Hamilton paints an idyllic view of her French aristocratic mother, dreamer artist father and her siblings. She describes an annual party that the family threw, around her ninth birthday I believe, which seems to be the last happy memory she has of her family together. She masterfully includes poignant details, like keeping drinks chilled in a nearby stream, word play with her father's nickname, and vivid descriptions of food.
The fun ends with the first chapter, as her parents seemingly abandon her and a brother, to literally fend for themselves, in a big house in what seems like a somewhat rural area of New Jersey, but not far from a small town. Forced to earn a living at thirteen, she lies about her age and begins working at a local diner, as a dish washer, and then eventually works as a waitress in New York. These early chapters work because Hamilton has interesting stories to tell about her rough and tumble early entrance into adulthood. The last chapter in the section describes the author's gruesome killing of a chicken after a retreat from New York, while staying at her father's house. And she ends this section with a funny and memorable way, which shows her ability to turn a phrase:
"There are two things you should never do with your father: learn how to drive and learn how to kill a chicken. I'm not sure you should sit across from each other and eat the roasted bird in resentful silence either, but we did that too, and the meat, as if scripted, was disagreeably tough."
The section called `Bones' is the longest (about half the book) and I'm guessing that the title refers to her fully growing into adulthood, but there could be multiple interpretations. This section starts well, with some interesting stories, like her amusing work as a chef for a kid's camp (poor lobsters!) and the opening of Prune. I found her non-traditional training as a chef, during her romp across Europe (particularly the little restaurant in Serifos), enduring and particularly insightful for understanding her cooking.
While the story of Prune is compelling, the author's voice changes throughout the chapter, and sometimes she seems to be channeling Anthony Bourdain. The rants about cooking seemed forced and fake, and they seem to come out of nowhere. Like the following passage,
"Sunday is an order fire day. Every ticket comes in and is shouted out and is picked up immediately. We do not wait patiently while the customer enjoys a section of the New York Times over a nice bowl of homemade granola before firing up his sour cream and caraway omelette. We do not. We are sometimes laying down omelette pans on the flames by the half-dozen, and delivering that many omelets in as many minutes."
She's a professional chef with 20 years of experience. Is it really that hard to cook a bunch of eggs? Everybody thinks that they have a stressful job, but not everybody does. I don't know what it's like to be a chef, but her tough attitude seems inauthentic and wildly exaggerated.
When she meets her husband, on page 159, the book starts to fall apart. A couple things happen at this point. The stories start to become more infrequent and it's replaced largely with the author's ruminations. Her restaurant is already open and seemingly successful, so these stories start to trail off. The narrative arc where Hamilton overcomes long odds to become a successful restaurateur is over and the new one is her failing marriage, which is somewhat of a bait and switch.
Did she just run out of material? The last half of the book seems like a therapy session and her internal dialogue grates after awhile. She describes a visit to her mother's house, after not seeing her for 20 years. Nothing happens, except the author's vivid depictions of her mother as a spider queen and other terrible incarnations. Some scenes made me cringe, especially the resistance to showing her mother any physical affection seconds after nursing her own child. Give your mom a chance. If she doesn't deserve one, explain why ... otherwise I can't empathize!
The final section, `Butter', ostensibly describes her love of the simple life in Italy, but seems to focus more on her sham marriage. This un-love story is the most painful part of the book. She marries her Italian husband on what seems like a whim, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with a woman and he is legitimately in love with her. Huh? Okay, fine, I'll go with that, but then she proceeds to tear him apart with some vicious comments that took my breath away, like,
"In all the years we have spent together ... he has never, incredibly, incomprehensibly, said anything important to me."
Then, why did you marry him? Why did you have kids with him? She continued to take shots that seem unfair and snarky, and I couldn't really sympathize with this mess of a marriage that she got herself into. And what sends her over the edge, the dagger in the heart of this relationship? Her husband says he wants to buy a new iPhone.
The author's relationship with her husband is a balloon with a hole, which slowly deflates with each passing chapter. Yes, she also develops a special bond with her husband's mother and the people of Italy and their food, yet I was more distracted by the marriage spectacle. I had trouble concentrating on the negroni's and the warm barratta cheese, while she ripped her husband to shreds.
BB&B has some compelling stories that are beautifully told, but the narrative lacks cohesion. While she starts the book `in scene', she seems to devolve into her own head, which is maddening and one of the first lessons that I ever learned about writing effectively (rumination is not interesting). My wild, unsubstantiated guess would be that the first portion of the book was written while the author was getting her MFA (heavily work-shopped) and was the basis for the book contract. Then, she had to write the rest of the book, while running a restaurant, taking care of two kids and dealing with a failing marriage. I'm not sure if that's what happened, but I wouldn't be surprised given how the book degrades with each passing chapter. Too bad, because the first few chapters were really promising.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2011
I really enjoyed the first two sections of Blood, Bones & Butter. These are the parts of the book where Ms. Hamilton tells us about her non-traditional childhood and how she came to start her own restaurant. There's a flow to these sections, and the writing can be incredibly beautiful at times. Even if the author comes across as an angry teenager, even into her twenties, you know there is one more section for the author to find herself and enlightenment. And you can even understand why she might be the way she is as she grows up.
But then you get to the third section, which is basically a diatribe on how much she hates her mother and her husband. Ms. Hamilton sounds like a very confused, very angry woman. She spends most of her adult life as a lesbian, but then somehow decides it's a good idea to marry a man she hardly knows because the wedding will be like a piece of performance art for her friends to watch. Then, when her husband doesn't read her mind every second, she blows up, throwing profanity-laced accusations at him. I just kept hearing the same phrase in my head while reading: why doesn't she just tell him what she wants??? She also continually laments that five or seven years later, he's no longer taking her on romantic motorcycle rides. Does she ask him to? Nope. I also think it's strange that the two don't actually move in together until they have been married for multiple years and have two children, and then she doesn't understand why her marriage is failing and they don't get along. Her husband must have had the patience of a saint because I would have put up with her for about 2 weeks. And don't get me started on her poor mother. I STILL don't understand what the woman did, other than want her daughter to love her. And if the author had mentioned one more time how she cleaned the reach-in on her hands and knees while nine months pregnant, and how incredibly devoted and special this somehow made her, I was going to scream.
There were also a couple of other pieces that didn't make sense to me. At one point she says that the only people who are truly prepared to have children are restaurant chefs, and you can almost feel her derision towards anyone who would consider starting a family without ten years experience cooking on the line in a busy restaurant. Then she goes on to say the stay-at-home moms she meets in Italy are perfect mothers. Wait, what? I thought only chefs are prepared to handle children? Then she describes a time when she wanted a nice lunch with her husband, so they drive around New York looking for an open restaurant, and she makes a point of disparaging any restaurant that might offer a mimosa with brunch (and anything her husband suggests). Fine, you're a chef, if that's what you really think, I'll accept it, but don't come back a chapter later and talk about how you always hit up the nasty food court Chinese place at the airport before you leave for Italy. She also complains that she doesn't feel like part of her husband's family in Italy, but then admits that in the SEVEN YEARS she has been visiting, she has never once bothered to learn the language. Uh, maybe that's why you don't feel like you're a part of things?
In short, Ms. Hamilton took a book that could have been about falling down and getting back up, and turned it into a book about falling down and then angrily blaming everyone around you for the associated pain for the rest of your life.
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2012
I was so completely excited about reading this book! I purchased it on my kindle immediately after seeing a piece about it in Bon Appetit. What a let down. This woman is a whiny, pompous, arrogant ass. She admits to marrying her husband just to get him citizenship, but then is so hurt and surprised that it doesn't work out? She says that women who let their kids cry are heartless and cruel, but a short time later she admits to letting her hungry baby wail in the backseat rather than stop at a restaurant that was "below her". I rarely rate books here, and have never given one only 1 star, but I couldn't hold back on this. I could go on and on about it but who wants to read that? Celebrity chef reviews of this book had me looking forward to a story of a rough upbringing that resulted in creating a talented and "badass" chef. That is most definitely not what I got here.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2012
"Blood, Bones, and Butter" opens with an idyllic rural scene of the artist dad roasting three lambs, the elegant French mother making feasts from almost famine food, the two sisters and three brothers, the diverse community of friends and neighbors feasting. The language is suitable for Eden and the section lovely.
Then comes the expulsion from Eden. When Hamilton was 11, her mother dramatically divorced the father and abandoned children, hearth, and home, going to live in a remote village. For 20 years, Hamilton did not see her again. For a period, the 11 year old and her 13 year old nrother were literally abandoned, the father leaving too. The children shifted for themselves, Hamilton working as best she could at eating places and bars in the small town. At about 14, she lit out for NYC, and about six years of working in adult-type restaurants, mostly drugged and on the edge of survival.
After arrests, she goes to college, then graduate school, while working for caterers including one gently remembered as a friend---Misty. Hamilton decides to open her own restaurant, gets money from her father for two years of travel around the world, opens Prune (her mother's nickname for her way back when), marres an Italian M.D./Ph.D whom she despises, has two children, for seven year, spends a month with his family in Italy, and by the last pages, has divorced the doctor but is still welcomed by his family.
The book, after the mother leaves the idyllic home, is written in bile by a person most of us would avoid. This person wallows in self-pity, is the heroine of her own life in a grandiose way, explodes with furious shout-out angers at the smallest incident, sulks constantly, hates her mother, her husband, and it seems, everyone in the world. Even her husband's family, at first fascinating and a recreation of the lost Eden complete with loving mother, soon becomes ambivalently regarded, including a kitchen described as filthy beyond belief.
Even the language changes, as if the writer knew only a few words most of which are expletives. The sentences are harsh and ugly reading, the text repetitive of her angers and injuries. Little is given about her cooking or restaurant experiences; just a few tantalizing glimpses.
I bought this book on impulse attracted by the red cover and upside down hen (turns out to be related to a traumatic first hen kill by the inexperienced child). The reader can grieve for any person who is like a walking bag of such rage, such anger, such bile----and even more for the people around her, including those nanny raised children and the ex-husband who now has to live with this book----but it was not worth my money or my time. Actually, this is so poorly written, it is among the very few books I will not keep, pass along, or donate to a worthy cause. Caveat emptor even though I love books and want to encourage the world to buy them gnerally speaking.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2011
This book really frustrated me. In interviews, the author declares she wrote a book in the way she wishes others would write books. Please, dear literary gods, no! While a lot of her writing is wonderful, prose-wise, and she certainly has a lot to write about having led an interesting life, it jumped around more than the chicken whose head she happily lopped off as a teen. The parts about her childhood were terrific and then, ka-boom, she's a lesbian living in NY. She's in graduate school. She's living with a woman in NY, opens Prune. Marries a man. Doesn't talk to her mother for 20 years. She boasts about her honesty in interviews, but too many questions go unanswered. She's not honest about why she didn't talk to her mother, why she married a man she had no true feelings for. And the death of her brother is mentioned as casually as the specials on a menu. No mention of how he died or how it affected her--a person according to the blurb on the book jacket, hungry to recreate the family she left behind in PA. By the end of the book, I admired her passion for cooking, but found her totally annoying. Spoiled. Obnoxious. No wonder she and Anthony Bourdain are such good friends.