This article was also published in the Financial Times.
My investment in Prune restaurant in downtown New York took two different forms and produced two very different returns.
The more immediate, and far more substantial, cost US$500 but brought an immensely satisfying and original dinner for six including service and two bottles of excellent wine.
The second was the purchase for US$26 of Blood, Bones & Butter, the autobiography of Prune's founder, Gabrielle Hamilton, just published that day. Reading this most unusual food memoir, accurately subtitled The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, gave me several days' pleasure as well as long-lasting insights into how Hamilton learnt her trade and eventually became one of a very small band of highly successful female chef/proprietors with children.
Nothing about Prune is straightforward, which is part of its charm. Prune seats barely 30 and we had managed to secure our table only by booking at the more European time of 9.30 pm, late by New York standards. Even though we were initially told the table was ready, we were then asked to wait, which, in such a restricted space, means dodging waiters walking one way from the kitchen with plates of hot food or walking the other way back to the kitchen with distinctly empty plates, and trying not to hover too close to intimate couples blatantly having a very good time.
But loitering with intent for these few minutes did take me back to one of my favourite restaurants in Paris, Le Bistro Paul Bert. The bustle, the bar, the cast-iron pipes, the sense of bonhomie reflected in the food, and the overriding pleasure emanating from the customers – all these are common to both.
Very different, however, is the engaging chat of Prune's female bartender, so much more fun and open than an invariably taciturn Parisian. And there is no way Prune could follow Paul Bert's practice of taking its menu around the room on a portable blackboard without inflicting serious and doubtless actionable injury on several of its diners.
We had our own minute of danger as we were led past the open kitchen and down a narrow, spiral staircase – not wide enough for the two-way traffic it conveys – to a small, kidney-shaped table in the basement, our own private dining room.
Our appetites whetted by all we had seen upstairs, it did not take us long to order. Grilled octopus and squid with chili flakes; a celery salad with blue cheese toast; a special of shad roe with capers; succulent slices of a veal breast braised in milk; grilled quail with ricotta and hazelnuts; roasted half chicken with salsa verde; and luscious ice creams and 'pots au chocolat' as dessert. The wines were equally illuminating: an Assyrtiko from Santorini, Greece, and an Olga Raffault Chinon from the excellent 2005 vintage in the Loire.
There were only two complaints. The salsa verde had too much garlic in it, and we were very close to a door that led to an obviously cool storage area that the waiting staff frequently opened but never closed. The only occasion that the door opened and was then firmly closed was when Hamilton herself stepped out from what must double as her cramped office.
Elegantly dressed in white trousers and a black jacket, she clutched a couple of copies of her book and a sheaf of papers. Recognising two successful authors round our table, she stopped for a chat before asking for some advice. Numerous people, she said, wanted to buy a copy but she wasn't sure where best to direct them. As someone who has seen numerous chefs profit from selling their cookbooks by the reception desk, I told them to pile them high on the bar. Nobody, I assured her, would walk past them.
Having now finished Blood, Bones & Butter, I can clearly appreciate with what insouciance Hamilton has fallen into every distinct aspect of her career and at the same time quite how this increasingly rare trait has played such a crucial role in her, and Prune's, success.
She inherited a love of all things edible from her French mother, whose nickname for Gabrielle, the youngest of her five children, was Prune. Her parents' divorce at a very impressionable age led to drugs, travel and cooking professionally, eventually for a major events company in New York. Twenty years later she manages to express the joy of cooking with exceptional perspicacity. 'What I have loved about cooking my entire life, especially prep cooking, is the way that it keeps your hands occupied but your mind free to sort everything out. I have never once finished an eight-hour prep shift without something from my life – mundane or profound – sorted out.'
The 'Bones' section of the book deals with the accidental discovery of the location for Prune; how she struggled initially; the pleasures, and otherwise, of being a neighbourhood restaurant and the challenges of being and staying profitable when there are no real economies of scale. The restaurant's turnover is over US$2 million annually but she rarely reports a 10% net profit despite the fact that over the five hours that Prune is open for Sunday brunch they can serve over 300 customers. (Her account of working the eggs section in the kitchen on Sundays while heavily pregnant is very funny.)
Hamilton is tough on herself - and even tougher on her husband – but in one sentence manages to speak for many who have opened their own restaurant. 'Maybe some guys open restaurants because they think they're going to meet chicks or drink for free or make a lot of money, which are pleasures not to be underestimated, but there is a subtler gratification in that lovely exchange with the customers that is worth all of the profound anguish and worry and hours clocked in.'
Blood, Bones & Butter, Random House