Blood, Bones & Butter: Gabrielle Hamilton on becoming a chef

blood bones butter.jpgFirst aired on Fresh Air (21/04/12)

Gabrielle Hamilton is a New York restauranteur and chef, and her bestselling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter has received rave reviews. Hamilton was in Toronto recently and spoke with Fresh Air host Mary Ito about the incredible parties her parents used to throw, and how her career as a chef has enabled her dream of becoming a writer.

The importance of good food was a constant in Hamilton's life, and her book opens with a party that any foodie would want to be at. "My bohemian, artsy parents threw parties of epic proportions, and the party the book opens with was a party with a lamb roast," she said. "We roasted four or five whole lambs...we'd have this incredible feast in the yard." Sounds labor-intensive, but Hamilton jokes that with five kids, her parents had themselves a workforce.

"My father was a set designer for Broadway and industrial and theatrical shows, so his whole life is about scenery. The mise en scene is as important as the food and the company," she said. "It's like in the old days, you'd have more kids so they could work the farm. My parents had us so they could throw great dinner parties."

But the parties stopped when her parents divorced, leaving Hamilton to fend for herself. "As soon as they left, I became immediately self-reliant in a ferocious way," she said. "I'd pay my own bills, make my own way, and nobody makes me cry -- tough as nails in a very defensive way." As she matures, however, she's letting herself mellow. "I'm so glad to be getting older and to have done enough work psychologically to be allowed to need and to accept help and to know that I am fallible and can't do everything on my own," she said. "You don't bond closely with anyone if you are a self-perpetuating island. You have to reach out and be helped."

Though Hamilton first found success through food and cooking, it's writing that is her primary passion. "Writing is the most important thing to me, it's what I've always done and always wanted to do. But I had to make a living and I knew how to cook," she said. "I think I got invited to this literary party because I'm a chef and that's what's hot at the moment. People seem to be obsessed with cooks and chefs and restaurant life, and while I can't explain that, I am glad to be in the right place at the right time."

So, in the spirit of combining books and food, if her book was a dish, what dish would it be? "I can't help but think of those lamb roasts," she said. "Those whole animals, very delicious, but a little bit challenging to see the eyeballs and the teeth. There's something straightforward and honest about that, but also a little challenging."