Little did Gabrielle Hamilton know, when she opened Prune in 1999, that she was about to change up the conventional hierarchies of the professional food world. With her thirty-seat restaurant, Hamilton created a whole new genre of chef-ownership — she became an urban pioneer in her East Village neighborhood, a “badass” aspiring writer, a self-described reluctant restaurateur who came to approach cooking as a vehicle to tell her personal story.
Eventually, Hamilton wrote that story in words. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and her bestselling memoir, 2011’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, won a James Beard Award. Her debut cookbook, Prune, featuring recipes from the restaurant, was published in 2014.
When a new season of the Emmy Award–winning PBS documentary series The Mind of a Chef kicks off on Sunday, November 15, on New York’s Channel 13, the lens is aimed at Hamilton for eight full episodes.
Each 23-minute segment (narrated by Anthony Bourdain, also an executive producer) follows Hamilton while she works, cooks, and journeys to the places that hold meaning for her: in and around New York City, Rome, the backyard of an old family friend in New Jersey, and the site of her childhood home in Pennsylvania.
The first episode, “Prune,” takes viewers through a full day of service at the restaurant, from the early-morning moment Hamilton rolls open the metal door at its entrance to the end of the night when she undergoes the ritual salt-scrubbing of the cutting boards and the staff unwinds with last-shift drinks.
As the rest of the chapters (“Garbage,” “Rome,” “Hunger,” “Past,” “Hustle,” “Napkin,” and “Evolution”) unfold, it becomes clear that Hamilton and her restaurant are extensions of each other, that she brings the craft of a storyteller into the autobiographical aspect of her cooking. Along the way, we learn how she found the abandoned former restaurant space that would become Prune (her childhood nickname), when she first stepped onto the rat-shit-encrusted floor, and how her French mother, a frugal but “extraordinary” home cook, and her father, a theater set designer, influenced her cooking style and personality.
Executive producer Michael Steed tells the Voice that the intent of the series, now in its fourth season, is “to deep-dive into a chef’s life. What their motivation is, what their influences are outside the realm of food. What it takes to be a chef at that level.”
The show stands out for the length of time it devotes to each subject (previous seasons have featured fellow New Yorkers David Chang and April Bloomfield). Each chef’s total episodes add up to more than three hours of viewing time. That level of scrutiny could be a lot to ask of viewers, but Mind of a Chef tells each individual chef’s story in a way that feels compelling.
It’s an unusual method for food television, particularly when held up against the kind of “reality” shows that vie for our attention, which tend to be scripted with choreographed moments designed to titillate, to entertain in easily consumed bites.
During a phone interview, Hamilton says, “This was unlike any other television I’ve ever done. The series really gave me the time to be all that I am. Most television and magazines don’t have that kind of time, to let that gaze settle on the subject for that long.”
Steed agrees: “Doing the show allows us to really tell stories the way we want to, with a true undercurrent of vérité to it. It’s a very collaborative process.”
Hamilton was fully engaged in the way her story would be told. “It’s not really a written show,” she says. “We had topics, and that’s the fun thing about it. For me it was very important to have garbage and money and payroll and things that break, because these are things that occupy my mind.”
Steed says he always intended to explore Hamilton as a subject for the show. “Hers is an organic New York story; she’s such a New York person; the restaurant is so New York,” he explains. “She was here in the Eighties. She’s been watching New York transform. She was such an integral part of that neighborhood, with that city story we’ve always heard — you come here, you have nothing. With Gabrielle being the natural storyteller she is, she made it so much more fun.”
Introducing the episode titled “Hustle,” Bourdain’s voiceover intones, Surviving the restaurant game for fifteen years in New York City takes some major hustle. Moments later, Hamilton adds, “It’s a little overwhelming, but you want to get into that game — it’s a big double-dutch jump rope and you’re like, ‘Yeah, let me in.’ ”
In the episode, she says she didn’t know what she was thinking when she first opened her restaurant, in the days when the East Village was “still a very edgy, gritty, empty, graffitied, methadone-clinic part of town.” But Hamilton tells us she’s going to be here for a while.
“I can’t imagine where else I’d be. I’ve really loved it here — and, you know, really hated it too, but that’s a typical New Yorker feeling.
“I think, is the next phase going to be in Italy, retiring, making pasta for my children while they have their own children? I don’t know. I’m still here, still pretty New Yorky.”
To catch The Mind of a Chef, consult local listings on PBS.org or check out mindofachef.com to purchase all current and past episodes.