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Married to the Kitchen

What amount of insanity is required to run a restaurant?

10:35 AM, Mar 2, 2011 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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In the weekend Wall Street Journal, bestselling foodwriter Michael Ruhlman reviews Gabrielle Hamilton's cooking memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Ruhlman prefaces his essay by saying the book "is not the usual 'chef memoir' in our era of sex-in-dry-storage and testosterone-fueled cooking tell-alls. It is instead a minutely observed, artfully structured, fluidly written account of how a tough, eccentric woman navigates her way through a wayward youth and New York kitchens to become a renowned chef and respected author—and still manages to be uncertain about it all." Exactly how eccentric?

Married to the Kitchen

Ruhlman describes Hamilton's childhood as "feral"—her home was built around the ruins of an old silk mill. She "somehow balances cocaine and stealing cars with Little League practice and an after-school job. By 17, she is in New York, befriended by deli owners and hookers and snorting up the money she makes waitressing at the Lone Star Café. The job ends when she is busted for stealing."

The only constant in her life is food—from the time her French mother had "'things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones'" continuously on the backburners to her journeys abroad, to Brittany and Greece, where she came to understand through the hospitality of others that food is love, where she was "'living at the source of something rather than reading about it in a food magazine.'"

Eventually Hamilton opens her own place, Prune, in lower Manhattan. Writes Ruhlman,

Ms. Hamilton de-romanticizes owning your own restaurant, recounting the morning she had to clean up a mound of human feces in the doorway to her office, dispense with a New York City rat and deal with a difficult tenant who lives in the building. "You want to own your own little place?" she writes, answering her question thus: "It's not the eighteen-hour days and the hot kitchen that'll get you. It's all that plus a half-naked six-foot-two, 240-pound man in front of your restaurant drilling holes into the basement then watering his ivy."

The chef never intended to be a chef. Hamilton received a writing degree from the University of Michigan. But, as Ruhlman notices, this skill comes in quite handy as she "demonstrates a sure sense of how to craft a narrative." In addition,

She also gets the experience of cooking exactly right. "Every time I step in front of those burners, in that egregiously tight space, less than 12 inches between the wall I am backed up against and the burning stovetop in front of me, I feel like we are two boxers—me and the heat—meeting in the center of the ring to tap gloves." And every Sunday morning she will take a serious beating as she and her crew crank out 200 covers in five hours from a kitchen "the size of a Lincoln Continental."

But about those eccentricities: "A committed lesbian, she is married to a man—an older Italian doctor—but refuses to live with him for seven years despite their having two children together." As Ruhlman later writes, "divorce seems imminent."

Sadly, that is nothing new. Acclaimed French chef Michel Richard once told me that chefs are married to the kitchen and true devotion to a restaurant can place a brutal strain on relationships. He would know—Richard's been married three times. Some people suggest the ideal situation for a husband and wife is for both to be employed at the same restaurant—one in the back of the house, the other in the front (as was the case with Andre Soltner and his wife at Lutèce). In fact, the Washington Post actually dispensed advice on how to cope in such a relationship.

As for the nastiness of running a restaurant, it isn't always the case that you as the owner will be scraping away human waste from your doorstep. Ruhlman's description of Thomas Keller creating the French Laundry in The Soul of Chef is like the painting of the Sistine Chapel by comparison.

Of course, there's only one French Laundry. And odds are, a person can find a decent bathroom within the vicinity of Yountville, Napa Valley.

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