Just got published at La Papillote (the CIA newspaper)
Yet another sleepless night. If I don’t fall asleep right now, I might just die – everything is a little bit more dramatic at three o’clock in the morning. I toss around to the sounds of a high-pitch hyena laughter coming from the gazebo right outside of my window and the slamming of the doors in the hall. I should be asleep. The mental list of things-to-do runs through my mind in vicious circles. I panic and my heart races. Just then, a strong, calming voice pops into my head. “Simply because it’s night time doesn’t mean you must be sleeping. Get up, do your laundry, take care of the bills, do what you need to do. Make every moment count.”
The voice belongs to Gabrielle Hamilton, a chef and owner of Prune in New York City. I am fortunate to have met Chef Hamilton and dine at her East Village restaurant on a recent visit along with members of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs group. Our early arrival pays off: we are whisked down the steep and narrow stairway of the restaurant to the prep area. We meet Chef Hamilton and spend over an hour asking her questions and listening, all the while trying not to get too much in the way of cooks and servers who are in the middle of finishing up brunch service.
Chef Hamilton answers each question thoughtfully and honestly without any pretense or hidden agenda and at the same time manages to put the final assembly touches on the individual pear and dried cranberry crisps (which we enjoy later on). We ask how she feels about being a female in the kitchen and she shares her journey of transformation from “one of the guys” to “a girly girl” to finally being herself in the kitchen. After working in the industry for over 20 years and owning her restaurant for the last 9 years, she has plenty to say.
When someone asks Chef Hamilton how she balances her professional life and her personal life (she is married and has two young children), I expect to hear a typical answer: I do what I can, and try to balance it all out. Instead, the answer is different and surprising. There is no such a thing as a balance in this demanding field; dividing the hours of the day evenly between each aspect of your life, each responsibility, simply doesn’t work if one wants to have an accomplished career and successful family life. There are days when you need to devote yourself to work and find someone else to take care of your children and days when you need to trust your sous chefs and leave them in charge of dinner service so you can take your sick child to see a doctor. After all, it is impossible to be in more than one place at the same time just as it is impossible to do everything at once with the highest standard of quality. And while the concept of “having it all” is quite appealing, it is hardly achievable. The best you can do is set your priorities and utilize every opportunity to reach them.
By the end of our conversation with Chef Hamilton we are ready to eat and eagerly take the same steep and narrow stairway up to the cozy and packed dining area where the food is just as honest and straightforward as Chef Hamilton’s advice. We don’t find a menu that requires a dictionary to understand, listing every hyped up trendy item. The plates arrive unadulterated without unnecessary garnishes, and the food looks approachable, inviting, and unpretentious. We eat family-style, starting with appetizers, passing the plates of grilled head-on shrimp with anchovy butter, Parmesan omelet, and Spanish goat cheese with buttered brown bread. Each ingredient plays in harmony with one another, showcasing skillful cooking technique. The food is perfectly seasoned and leaves a very satisfying, but not stuffed feeling.
There’s plenty of room for the second course. We choose among stewed pork shoulder with salsa verde, whole grilled fish and grilled prime ribeye with maitre d’hotel butter. The choice of main entrée comes with baked garnet yams with brown butter, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and baby white turnips, and bitter greens with virgin oil and lemon juice. I often find that vegetable cookery is a true test of the kitchen. And these vegetables couldn’t have been prepared any better: I would’ve been just as happy had I eaten nothing other than the garnet sweet potatoes and the bitter greens.
The dessert is a sweet ending to our visit with Chef Hamilton at Prune. The pear and dried cranberry crisp that the Chef was prepping earlier on, arrives with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. There’s also a dark cocoa cake with truffle center and wafer crumbs and Breton butter cake. We take the last bite of the dessert, thank our gracious host and head out of the restaurant with a sense of encouragement and inspiration.