Interview with Gabrielle Hamilton

February 20, 2016

blog post #7 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders 

photos courtesy of Terry Manzo

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to have lunch with Gabrielle Hamilton at Rene’s Bistro. We talked about food writing, being a chef and her process for choosing menus. These are the bits of the interview that weren’t just us rambling about drinking at the Boars Head and our mutual love Eddie Huang. It’s a lot to read, but a person like Gabrielle Hamilton has a lot to say.

JAMES TOENDERS: As a budding food writer, and going to a school that brings professional writers in to teach, I’m curious: what’s the importance of having a formal education to a food writing career? Is it like cooking, where there are many successful chefs like yourself without any school-based education?

GABRIELLE HAMILTON: I think that, frankly, with cooking, with writing, with I don’t care… masonry, you have something or you don’t. Which is not to say that there’s not room for tons and tons of bodies in all of the industries. We need a lot of shit written down, there’s all kinds of ways to make a living writing. We need a lot of cooks, we need a lot of stone layers and I think the education can only enhance, and bring out what you innately have. If you have a little gift or a talent, the education gives you the structure, the architecture, the armature on which to hang your talent that’s just fluttering around in your body waiting to be harnessed.

JT: Have you ever done any teaching engagements like this?

GH: You have to teach in graduate school so I taught undergraduate classes, English class, writing class for 3 years, so I have that. Then I’ve done a lot of cooking classes, demos, but never writing in a food-related residency like this. So this was my first time.

JT: Did you like it?

GH: I was scared out of my brain. I find it very scary to stand in front of a classroom of mostly young people, I can stand in a room, an auditorium of 400 and do a book reading or a Q&A, I don’t have stage fright… But this small space with everyone looking at you, waiting to hear the great pearl of wisdom roll out of your mouth, it just makes me wanna wet my pants. I’d stay up the night before planning, and at the same time you need to stay in the moment, not force it. It reminds me a little bit of what it’s like to be a chef as a woman, which I no longer suffer any of the insecurity about!

JT: Not at all?

GH: Not at all! I have to deal with all the regular push back where Mr. Chef told me how it should be done, or Mr. Chef over here wants to tell me how long my thing’s really going to take to cook and I’m just like “sit down and be quiet”. I know how to cook this dish, and I know how to run a restaurant and I’m the chef. I never bring up the gender thing, I don’t like the gender thing at all, but of course I’m acclimated to society the way all women are so of course I don’t want to yell or insist or be abrasive… But anyway, it’s something very nice now at this stage of my career (laughing) I am abrasive and I don’t really care, I just wanna get the job done. So I wish I had some of that in the classroom. That kind of self possession and confidence makes me actually a much calmer leader in a kitchen and I don’t yell, I’m not mean and I don’t throw anything and I’m not defensive or overcompensating. I’m very quiet and clear and sure, and everyone can talk back for as long as they want, but I’m just gonna sit back here and say, “Okay, are you done now? Let’s do it my way, and thank you for all your feedback.” And in short, I wish in the classroom I had some of that.

After this we talked about a lot of things that were not so consequential: where I like to drink in Stratford (Boar’s Head), Gabrielle’s drink of choice (gin and tonic), her minimal experience in Canada, but nothing too crazy.

JT: What was your process in curating the menus for the school dinners? Obviously a lot of them are from the Prune cookbook, with some of your own notes from the restaurant. Was there a lot of thought put into what you were going to cook?

GH: I’m going to put it very frankly how those menus were chosen. I gave the task to my new assistant, Erin (shout out to Erin Keene), and said I want you to design the menus for Stratford and let me see them to see if you’re good at this. She did a great job! She had to be edited on 2 or 3 things, like “let’s not do that with that” or “that’s good but I can’t produce it for 40 people very quickly”. It was a great writing exercise, and a great get-to-know each other exercise, and that’s how it happened!

Both of us started laughing at this point.

GH: And I knew at this point she couldn’t go wrong because of the cookbook. Everything we make at Prune is everything I loooooove, so it’s not like it was gonna be “un-tasty” or food I don’t like. It was just right.

“Just right” was exactly how our week with Gabrielle Hamilton went at Stratford Chefs School. Until next time, Gabrielle, it was a blast!

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