The chef who said no to building a business empire

June 24, 2015, 7:05 PM UTC
Amex Pub. Aspen Food & Wine Classic,Meet the Masters Panel, June 19 , 2015
Amex Pub., Aspen Food & Wine Classic, Meet the Masters Panel, June 19, 2015
Photograph by Steve Mundinger for American Express Restaurant Trade Program at the FOOD & WINE Classic

In an era when celebrity chefs have cooking shows, multiple restaurants, branded products, and a big presence on social media, Gabrielle Hamilton has become one of the most respected figures in the industry by saying no to most of it.

She has a single restaurant—Prune, in Manhattan’s East Village—with some 30 seats. She has just one book (a memoir that is a New York Times best-seller) and a cookbook. And until signing on for Anthony Bourdain’s next season of Mind of a Chef, she had never really done TV.

Fellow chef Andrew Zimmern went so far as to call Hamilton the “queen of saying no” at a session he moderated at this weekend’s Food & Wine Classic, a multi-day festival in Aspen. “No is a big word for you,” Zimmern told her. “And I mean that as a compliment. It’s the reason there’s not 50 Prunes in Westin hotels.”

Hamilton’s fellow panelists were all men who all have multiple restaurants: Michael White (17 restaurants), Jose Garces (19 restaurants), and Marcus Samuelsson (11 restaurants).

“It’s interesting I’m the female here with one and the dudes with a lot,” she noted. “I don’t know why that is.” She added that she hesitates to do more because of her desire to write books and see her kids and run her restaurant. “That’s a full day,” she said. “That’s a full, low-paying day.”

Hamilton said that saying no has given her the perception of being a darling in the industry. “Yeah man, you go. Stay broke,” she joked. “I say no to any freakin’ money for sure. It’s funny but it’s also kind of like, wait, should I be putting more product on the market—is that the phrase?”

Part of Hamilton’s resistance to opening another restaurant stems from the fact that to her, Prune is not even a restaurant to begin with. “It’s a feeling,” she said. “It couldn’t be replicated.” She added that she didn’t believe she could give everything she gives into a single restaurant to several more.

Hamilton said this idea of growth was a new thing for chefs. “We make a difference, we feed people, we train people, we take care of our communities—not plow over the world and grow my empire.”

A rare recent yes for Hamilton is her appearance on Bourdain’s show. She said she got to be influential in the writing and driving where it went. She added, “It was a perfect extension of who I was.”

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