Gael Greene: She Brought Sass and Sensuality to Her Job as Restaurant Critic

From a New York Times obit by William Grimes headlined “Gael Greene, Who Shook Up Restaurant Reviewing, Dies at 88”:

Gael Greene, who reinvented the art of the restaurant review with sass and sensuality in four decades as New York magazine’s restaurant critic, died on Tuesday in Manhattan.

Until her death, Ms. Greene had continued to serve as chairwoman of Citymeals on Wheels, a New York charity she helped create in the early 1980s to provide food for the elderly.

Ms. Greene, a former reporter for The New York Post, brought little more than a keen appetite and boundless energy to the critic’s job in 1968, when the editor Clay Felker asked her to review restaurants for New York, a new magazine he had started with the graphic designer Milton Glaser, turning what had been a Sunday supplement of The New York Herald Tribune into a stand-alone glossy.

She embarked on her new assignment with trepidation. “I felt that I was an impostor, and how was I ever going to do this?” she said in 2008. “I definitely thought they were all going to figure me out very quickly. So that is why I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll just go into this like a reporter: who, what, why, where, when.’”

That she did, with great flair. A fan of the New Journalism, she put a premium on lively prose and colorful detail, throwing overboard the pompousness of the professional gourmets who dominated the profession. Close study of Women’s Wear Daily clued her in on the politics of fashion and social power in Manhattan, information she put to good use as she scrutinized the tables at renowned restaurants like La Grenouille and 21.

She cast a knowing, amused eye over her surroundings, and shared the pleasures on her plate with the enthusiasm of a born voluptuary. “After Gael Greene, the restaurant review would never be the same,” the critic Robert Sietsema wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2010.

At Lespinasse, Ms. Greene rhapsodized over “the layered perfumes of a jumbo sea scallop wearing a sesame tuile chapeau afloat in a curry-scented puddle”; at the Cafe Chauveron, she raved about “infant vegetables tasting as if they’d been grown in butter.”

As an avid chronicler of French nouvelle cuisine and its offshoots and of the rapid transformation of dining culture in New York, Ms. Greene soon set “the industry standard for sensuous, brilliant and bitchy food writing,” The Chicago Tribune wrote in 1982. In an interview with Bonjour Paris in 2008, she said, “I think I gave New Yorkers a new way to think about food.”

Gael Greene was born in Detroit. Her father, Nathaniel, owned Nate Greene’s, a well-known clothing store.

At the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1955, she wrote for the school newspaper and for The Detroit Free Press.

After graduation, she was hired by United Press International, which on one memorable occasion sent her to cover a show by Elvis Presley in Detroit. She wangled an invitation to the singer’s hotel room, where one thing led to another. As she left, Presley asked her to order him a fried egg sandwich from room service.

Later, she wrote in her 2006 memoir “Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess,” she could not remember much about the sex, but the sandwich stayed in her mind: “Yes, the totemic fried egg sandwich. At that moment, it might have been clear I was born to be a restaurant critic. I just didn’t know it yet.”

A one-week tryout in 1957 at The New York Post led to a full-time job as a general assignment reporter. In her three years at the newspaper, she specialized in undercover stories. She pretended to be pregnant to report on a baby-trafficking ring and exposed high-pressure sales tactics at Arthur Murray Dance Studios. Her experiences at The Post provided much of the material for her first book, “Don’t Come Back Without It,” published in 1960.

In 1961 she married one of her editors at the paper, Donald H. Forst, who would later edit New York Newsday and The Village Voice. They divorced 13 years later.

Ms. Greene was earning a good living as a freelance writer, contributing to McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Ladies’ Home Journal and other magazines, when Mr. Felker, remembering her fly-on-the-wall account in The Herald Tribune about the reopening of the celebrated French restaurant La Côte Basque, approached her about joining New York magazine. The proposed salary was poor, but the prospect of unlimited free dining enticed her.

“I invited a friend to join me for lunch and went off to teach myself how to be a restaurant critic,” she wrote in “Insatiable.”

In no time, her swaggering, fearless style made her one of the magazine’s star writers. She made short work of the Colony, an old society standby, and skewered the snobbery of Manhattan’s finer French restaurants.

“In a town where snob, snoot and snub flower in perpetual renaissance, Lafayette is the ‘most,’” she wrote in one review. “Here the spleen is infinitely more memorable than the sweetbreads.”

At the same time, she delivered lengthy “how-to” articles that steered readers through the complexities of New York dining. To avoid detection, she began favoring large hats pulled down low.

In 1981, Ms. Greene read an article in The New York Times about a city program that provided older homebound New Yorkers with weekly meals but that could not afford to stay open on weekends. Indignant, she joined with the cookbook writer and teacher James Beard to fill the gap, rounding up donors in the food and hospitality industry. Today, the charity they started, Citymeals on Wheels, pays for more than two million meals a year and provides a variety of other services to the elderly.

Ms. Greene was replaced as New York’s critic in 2008, a firing that left her in “narcissistic shock,” she told The Times.

“Moi? I thought I was a brand at New York magazine,” she said.

She went on to write restaurant reviews for Crain’s New York Business until being dismissed in 2012.

“Am I the oldest person in the world to be fired twice mid-forkful in less than four years?” she wrote on her blog, insatiable-critic.com. She also appeared as a judge on the first two seasons of the Bravo series “Top Chef Masters,” from 2009 to 2011.

In addition to her memoir, a jaw-dropper that detailed her affairs with Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, a famous porn star and several chefs, some of whose restaurants she reviewed, she wrote the guidebooks “Sex and the College Girl” (1964) and “Delicious Sex” (1986) and two erotic novels, “Blue Skies, No Candy” (1976) and “Dr. Love” (1982). Many of her early reviews and articles for New York were collected in “Bite: A New York Restaurant Strategy for Hedonists, Masochists, Selective Penny Pinchers and the Upwardly Mobile” (1971).

“I wake every day full of hope that I will discover some great new restaurant or a glorious new dish or even an enchanting new flavor,” Ms. Greene wrote in an autobiographical note for the reference work Contemporary Authors.

“I have dedicated myself to the wanton indulgence of my senses,” she added. “And I shall consider it fitting and divine if on my deathbed my last words echo those of Pierrette, the sister of Brillat-Savarin, who died at table shortly before her one-hundredth birthday: ‘Bring on the dessert. I think I’m about to die.’”

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