A Love-Hate Letter to Prune's Gabrielle Hamilton Wins Taste of New York

Prune

Plenty of room at Prune!Shanna Ravindra

Entries came in by the bagful for our Taste of New York contest, but, sad to say, only one entry could win the tickets. Most of the pleas took a similar tack, berating us for not including either a well-known chef (David Chang and April Bloomfield being most frequently mentioned) or restaurant (DeNino’s, davidburke & donatella, even Ruby Foo’s!). What most entries lacked was a “why” — too often, we were just told that “his food is awesome!!” The winner stood out as much for its detailed reasoning as for the strangely masochistic impulse which lay behind it — one so purely New York that we felt compelled to grant it primacy. So congratulations to Jim “Don’t Call Me Captain” Kirk for his nomination of Prune’s Gabrielle Hamilton. Having always had an unhealthy appetite for backhanded compliments and ambivalent attachments, we felt Kirk’s entry stood apart.

When you find yourself with a big bowl of Tuscan kale with soft scrambled eggs, or a stewed pork shoulder, or "soupy rice," or even a lamb blade chop (if there’s a cheaper, tougher piece of muscle on the animal, I can’t think of it), you can only be at Prune. Okay. So far you’re with me, I know. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re saying. Prune’s great, we love it, no place like it, etc. etc. But none of this is the point. What takes this place to a completely other level is the combination of chutzpah and shrewd business acumen. Can you imagine the Eureka moment Gabrielle must have had? She was probably working in some other kitchen, gutting a fish, and I can imagine her saying, maybe joking at first, “Hey! I’ve got an idea! I could take this little piece of fish innards here, sear it, and serve it with some toast, and I bet people could come from all over and pay $15 to eat it!” … then the other line cooks join in saying “Yeah, rent that crappy little storefront on 1st Street, and pack the tables in so nobody can move. Bust the place out so that there’s no way a customer gets in or out of the place without having their foot crushed by at least two member of the service team! Make the tables so close that a private conversation is absolutely impossible. And no tablecloths … you could throw a bit of lobster into the soupy rice and charge $24 for it with a food cost of maybe $3. No atmosphere! No music! No candlelight! Make the service staff friendly but don’t train them too much … It’ll be the most uncomfortable dining room in town and we’ll make a fortune!” And that’s how it works — the most undignified ingredients, tarted up just a bit, served in a place that follows not one of the rules of how to make a restaurant a pleasant place to eat. And slap a 1,000 percent markup on everything. User-unfriendliness as an art form … So for all the shrines to molecular gastronomy, the regional Italian neighborhood places, the market-driven American bistros, and the uber-cocktail lounges, at an event that’s a tribute to New York dining, shouldn’t there be just one little place at the table for the chef who said fuck you to all of us, and made us love her more for it? Is there anything more New York than that?

No, Jim, there isn’t. Your missive, composed of equal parts self-loathing, irony, and crackpot sociology, captures the twisted mind of the New York diner like no one else’s. And that’s why you’re going to Taste of New York.

Taste of New York