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Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef Hardcover – March 1, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 498 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2011: Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, is just what a chef's story should be--delectable, dripping with flavor, tinged with adrenaline and years of too-little sleep. What sets Hamilton apart, though, is her ability to write with as much grace as vitriol, a distinct tenderness marbling her meaty story. Hamilton spent her idyllic childhood on a wild farm in rural Pennsylvania with an exhilarant father--an artist and set builder--and French mother, both "incredibly special and outrageously handsome." As she entered her teens, however, her family unexpectedly dissolved. She moved to New York City at 16, living off loose change and eating ketchup packets from McDonald’s; worked 20-hour days at a soulless catering company; traveled, often half-starved, through Europe; and cooked for allergy-riddled children at a summer camp. The constant thread running through this patchwork tale, which culminates with the opening of her New York City restaurant, Prune, is Hamilton's slow simmering passion for cooking and the comfort it can bring. "To be picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in that state of fear and hunger, became the single most important food experience I came back to over and over," Hamilton writes, and it's this poignant understanding of the link between food and kindness that makes Blood, Bones & Butter so satisfying to read. --Lynette Mong

Guest Reviewer: Anthony Bourdain on Blood, Bones, and Butter


Anthony Bourdain is the author of the novels Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo, in addition to the bestseller Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour. His work has appeared in the New York Times and The New Yorker, and he is a contributing authority for Food Arts magazine. He is also the host of the Emmy Award-winning television show No Reservations.

Very quickly after meeting Gabrielle Hamilton, I understood why she was a terrific and much-admired chef. I knew that her restaurant, Prune, was ground-breaking, that she seemed to have come out of nowhere, instead of being a product of the "system" (she'd emerged from the invisible subculture of catering), to open one of the most quirky, totally uncompromising, and quickly-embraced restaurants in New York City. Her purportedly (but not really) Franco-phobic menus were intensely, notoriously personal, her early embrace of the nose-to-tail attitude was way, way ahead the times, and chefs--all chefs--seemed to like and respect her. Almost as quickly, it became apparent that this chef could write.

Short pieces appeared here and there over the years and they were sharp, funny, incisive, unsparing of both author and subjects--straight to the point and pretense-free, like Hamilton herself. She could write really well. And she had, from all accounts, a story to tell. So when it was announced that Blood, Bones, and Butter was in the works, I was very excited.

It was a long wait.

Five years later, I finally got my hands on an advance copy and eagerly devoured it. It was of course brilliant. I expected it to be. But I wasn't prepared for exactly how goddamn brilliant the thing was, or how enchanted, difficult, strange, rich, inspiring and just plain hard her life and career--her long road to Prune--had been. I was unprepared for page after page of such sharp, carefully-crafted, ballistically-precise sentences. I was, frankly, devastated. I put this amazing memoir down and wanted to crawl under the bed, retroactively withdraw every book, every page I'd ever written. And burn them.

Blood, Bones, and Butter is, quite simply, the far-and-away best chef or food-genre memoir...ever. EVER. It certainly kicked the hell out of my Kitchen Confidential, which suddenly, in a second, felt shallow, sophomoric and ultimately lightweight next to this...this monster of a book, this--at times--truly hardscrabble life…Blood, Bones, and Butter is deeper, better written, more hardcore, more fully fleshed-out; a more well-rounded story than every sunflower-and-saffron account of soft-core food porn in France. It's as bullshit and pretense-free as AJ Leibling--and at least as well written, but more poignant, romantic--even thrilling.

It makes any "as told to" account of famous chef's lives look instantly ludicrous and bloodless. I've struggled to think of somebody/anybody who's written a better account of the journey to chefdom and can't think of anyone who's come even close.

Writing a memoir of one's life as a chef--or even writing about one's relationship with food--has, with the publication of this book, become much more difficult. Hamilton has raised the bar higher than most of us could ever hope to reach. This book will sell a gazillion copies. It will be a bestseller. It will be an enduring classic. It will inspire generation after generation of young cooks, and anyone who really loves food and understands the context in which it is best enjoyed, NOT as some isolated, over-valued object of desire, but as only one important aspect of a larger, richer spectrum of experiences. Each plate of food--like the menu at Prune--is the end result of a long and sometimes very difficult struggle.

Read this book and prepare to clean your system of all that's come before. It's a game-changer and a truly great work by a great writer and great chef.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Owner and chef of New York's Prune restaurant, Hamilton also happens to be a trained writer (M.F.A., University of Michigan) and fashions an addictive memoir of her unorthodox trajectory to becoming a chef. The youngest of five siblings born to a French mother who cooked "tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones" in a good skirt, high heels, and apron, and an artist father who made the sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Hamilton spent her early years in a vast old house on the rural Pennsylvania–New Jersey border. With the divorce of her parents when she was an adolescent, the author was largely left to her own devices, working at odd jobs in restaurants. Peeling potatoes and scraping plates-"And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start." At age 16, in 1981, she got a job waiting tables at New York's Lone Star Cafe, and when caught stealing another waitress's check, she was nearly charged with grand larceny. After years of working as a "grunt" freelance caterer and going back to school to learn to write (inspired by a National Book Foundation conference she was catering), Hamilton unexpectedly started up her no-nonsense, comfort-food Prune in a charming space in the East Village in 1999. Hamilton can be refreshingly thorny (especially when it comes to her reluctance to embrace the "foodie" world), yet she is also as frank and unpretentious as her menu-and speaks openly about marrying an Italian man (despite being a lesbian), mostly to cook with his priceless Old World mother in Italy. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140006872X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068722
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (498 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #138,068 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By M. Feldman VINE VOICE on February 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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"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.
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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.
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