Tribute: Jim Hamilton, Garden State Culinary Visionary

Lambertville mourns death of iconic contributor to local restaurant scene.

It was 40 years ago, and Jim Hamilton was bouncing around the old Kooker Sausage Company factory on Coryell Street in Lambertville, waving his arms and trying to plant in the imagination of a young reporter for the Hunterdon County Democrat what this relic was going to become.

Food. Art. Community. A place to eat, to talk, to see things beautiful and things well designed. A place to dream and discover, to plot and plan, to celebrate and ruminate. He envisioned a restaurant and art galleries amid the bones and rubble of the old factory building along the Delaware & Raritan Canal. It would be reborn as the Porkyard and it would house not only the seminal Coryell Gallery, but one of the first contemporary restaurants in New Jersey, Gerard’s.

It all happened — exactly as Jim Hamilton said it would. As he helped to design the Porkyard, as well as myriad other properties that had fallen into disrepair in Lambertville, he brought not only aesthetics to the small city on the river, but culinary sensibilities gained at cooking school in France that both defined a community and a new generation of folks who fell in step with his appreciation of time at the table.

By the time he opened Hamilton’s Grill Room within the Porkyard complex in the late 1980s, and helped christen the adjacent Boathouse bar, the theatrical set designer who’d returned to his native Lambertville to raise a family, was cooking on all cylinders.

Jim Hamilton, a bon vivant who never seemed shy of bonhomie, died Friday at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood. Born in 1930, he often said he’d stopped tallying his age when he turned 75.

But that was perhaps the only thing he ever stopped doing.

Lauded in Lambertville as “the soul of the city,” an “icon,” a “luminary” and a consummate teacher, he pioneered farm-to-table dinners at Hamilton’s, taught cooking classes in his home, did time at the stoves in the Swan Hotel and never stopped mining local waters and lands for fish and produce that spoke New Jersey’s distinctive culinary language.

He brought to Hamilton’s Grill Room a lack of pretention that inspired chefs to follow suit throughout the Garden State. Before Hamilton’s, a restaurant required a certain formality to be deemed appropriate for celebrations; Hamilton freed the burgeoning industry of those confines and showed that simplicity and elegance weren’t mutually exclusive, that an open kitchen could be a fixture of romance, that doing basics in straightforward style was doing basics best.

Early on at Hamilton’s, the chef was his daughter Melissa Hamilton, who would become the test kitchen director and food editor of Saveur magazine, and now runs Canal House Cooking with partner Christopher Hirsheimer. Daughter Gabrielle Hamilton not only became the James Beard Award-winning chef of Prune restaurant in New York, but the author of a best-selling memoir, “Blood, Bones, and Butter.” Survivors also include his son Simon, who lives in California. Two other sons, Todd and Jeffrey, predeceased him.

In recent years, Hamilton lived in an apartment in Lambertville dominated by a kitchen, which in turn was dominated by a pot rack. He was devoted to Hamilton’s Grill Room, about which he liked to say, “Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else; it is the evening at Hamilton’s Grill Room.” He’d pop into the Boathouse to chat with regulars and to gallery exhibit openings to support local artists. He freely gave design advice to anyone thinking about restoring one of Lambertville’s historic buildings.

With a keen eye, an educated palate and a Pied Piper of a personality, Jim Hamilton lived life large.

And set one very big table.

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