Q & A with Gael Greene
40 years – Most queens don’t rule for that long. But that’s how long ago Gael Greene arrived on the NYC restaurant scene, changing the way we think about food. She reigned as a New York Magazine’s chief restaurant critic for thirty-four years and stayed on until just recently as the magazine’s Insatiable Critic for six years. Greene was notorious for her wide-brimmed hats, passion, and documented affairs with the likes of Clint Eastwood an a chef from Le Cirque chef. Greene created her very own brand of culinary sensuality, sharing every detail of her professional and personal life in her memoir Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess.
Two erotic novels, non-fiction guides, and one sexy memoir later, Gael Greene isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
Greene bends with the times, adapting to a new world order of food porn, bench dining and blogging. These days, she concentrates her efforts on her own site: The Insatiable Critic, where she continues to document her culinary escapades.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
At first I thought I’d be an artist. Then I wanted to be a novelist.
Did you ever imagine you’d end up in the world of food?
What was your first job in the food and what mistakes did you make?
When I realized that my then husband and I had become obsessed with great dining in the 60’s, I thought it would be best to get an assignment so I could charge the expenses to someone else…or at the least, deduct them from my income tax. I sold my first food story about a week in the kitchen of Le Pavillon to Ladies Home Journal…and the only mistake I made was thinking I could make quenelles de brochet at home after watching Clement Grangier do it. The house smelled fishy for a week.
Tell us about your first restaurant review…
My first restaurant review appeared in New York Magazine November 11, 1968 – a few months after the launch of NYM – Paley’s Preserve, a review of The Ground Floor and a short critique of Paley Park. No stars. I decided it was too difficult to decide the number of stars and perhaps I could get people to actually read my reviews if the stars weren’t there to sum it up. The article is posted on my web site in the Vintage department. See top navigator. I even chew a leaf of a plant that looked real to see if it was.
You arrived on the New York culinary scene when French restaurants like Lespinasse and Le Grenouille were just opening their doors. Could you sense the historical importance at the time or only in retrospect?
I was aware of the great French restaurants when I came to NY as a reporter for the NY Post. We couldn’t afford them and their reputation of chilling snobbery was forbidding. But we did save our money to go to Café Chauveron which we adored (see Vintage for Café Chauveron as Love Object)…The Pavillon assignment was supposed to soften the mercurial Henri Soule so he wouldn’t be snooty to us when we finally braved Le Pavillon.
How were you received by restaurants?
I was treated like any unknown parvenu in the snob restaurants when I began to review them – often after being humiliated on two or three visits, I would try to go with a regular to see what the place might be like when they wanted to please you. We came at 4 o’clock for dinner to get a table at The Palm.
No one knew me. Restaurants did not share photographs as they do now. I used other names and other credit cards…and for a long time I tried to write my reviews so the reader could not tell that my gender. I got many letters and press releases addressed to Mr. Gael Greene. Later in the 80’s places like the Four Seasons or “21” and others that became favorites after a review knew me and I did get treated as if I were the Queen of England…although after a re-review that might be critical there was a certain tension. No more cheek kisses from Paul Kovi for instance.
You had no qualms about integrating your sexuality and own escapades into your pieces. So much so, that you often compared food to sex and sex to food in your reviews.
A piece I wrote on breakfast in bed celebrated my husband’s charming presentations of Russian coffee cake on a tray with the Times was definitely about sensuality. And I think I did help people to look at a glorious meal or an exquisite dish as a great sensuous experience. In 1974 when I became single again, I did become interested in restaurants as stages for fork play that might lead to seduction…
In 1972, New York Magazine did a cover on a piece I wrote “The Kitchen As Erogenous Zone.” And I confessed to dating the chef when I wrote “I Love Le Cirque But Can I Be Trusted?” You are too young to remember the sensuous Seventies – it was everywhere in advertising, sex manuals, films, pornography for couples etc.
I never discussed my boudoir life in my reviews (except for that confessional caveat in the Le Cirque review) – but yes, I did describe a wonderfully adventurous decade or two in my memoir, Insatiable. Disco dancing and sexual adventure seemed to parallel the rising passion for great dining and for cooking. Je ne regret pas rien.
You’ve been writing for New York Magazine for 40 years. Now that you’ve left, what emotions and thoughts are going through your head?
Sadness and anger. And even a little doubt. I thought I was essential to New York magazine. What a shock to discover that I am not.
As for my being declared redundant by New York magazine, I had no
particular warning beyond the mass layoffs and buyouts at other media
that might have made me hope New York would not become economically
vulnerable. As I told the Times: in my narcissism, I never dreamed
anyone would want to downsize me. The magazine has been very generous
in their comments about my work over the year.
In your memoir Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess,
you write about affairs with Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Elvis.
I never intended, never expected, never perfumed and plotted to wind up in bed with Clint Eastwood, I am more of a responder than an initiator…and I wasn’t getting any vibrations of attraction from him. But then he fell asleep during a not-very-talkative interview and when I poked him to wake him up, he took my hand and led me to the bed. It occurred to me he would resort to anything rather than talk…but then after all, it was Clint Eastwood in his most beautiful years… suddenly I was definitely in the mood.
When I was asked by Cosmopolitan to do a profile of Burt Reynolds, I read the clips, found his sexual braggadaccio a big turnoff and promised myself I would not become one of the thousands of conquests…but then he turned out to be surprisingly charming, so self-mocking and funny, and yes, gorgeous and sexy. I sat there taking notes analyzing what he was saying and I imagined a certain insecurity, a vulnerability. My weakness. So when his leg touched mine I didn’t push it away. I never called it a courtship or a seduction…it was just heat.
None of this extracurricular pleasure became part of the Cosmo profiles I wrote or my restaurant writing but I agree that my sensual response to food colored my writing and encouraged people to think about great dining in a new way. Sexuality and sensuality are not the same thing. Decades ago, speaking at a conference of hospitality executives, I illustrated how one might use each sense in tasting a fig…looking at it, smelling it, feeling the textures of it, tasting it, rubbing it all over your mouth. The audience went crazy. A simple little exercise in tasting.
You always made a point of hiding your face for photos. How has this mystique affected your career?…
Photographers are always trying to catch my eyes under the brim. I
do still wear a hat for photographs or television appearances even on
stage at the “Y”…my hope has always been that no one will recognize my
bare naked face in restaurants where I never wear a hat. Often now I
get to be anonymous which is the best way for a critic to experience a
restaurant even though it more wonderful to be known and fussed over.
You co-founded City Meals on Wheels with James Beard. What gave you the inspiration to start the foundation?
I saw an article in the Times “Coty Skimps to Feed the Aged” and was appalled to discover government funds that delivered weekday meals to the city’s homebound elderly did not stretch to cover weekends or thirteen official holidays. I found it unbearable and unacceptable to live the life I lived while people – invisible shutins – possibly on my own block might go 48 hours or more without a meal. (Later I learned there were 13 homebound seniors on my block) Jim had read the same article. We decided to call friends in the Food World with the help of Barbara Kafka and by Monday we had raised $35,000. That went to provide a Christmas dinner for 6000 elderly New Yorkers who might have gone without. We were so pleased with what we had done that we organized, dreamed up a name, got help from the NYC Department for the Aging and have never stopped. That was 28 years ago. This year we are budgeted to raise $19 million fate willing. We have already suffered several Wall Street related setbacks but with the compassion and loving generosity of several thousand New Yorkers we hope to meet our commitments.
Do you prefer writing restaurant reviews, or fiction like Blue Skies, No Candy and Doctor Love?
Most writing is difficult for me. Reviews are shorter than novels. That helps.
Were you ever worried that you’d be viewed as promiscuous or lose credibility among peers?
I have always hoped people would read the work and decide.
What compelled you to write a book about sex and food in the first place?
I thought it was time to write my memoirs – I wanted to tell how New York and then America fell in love with food over 40 years of the dining revolution before the story got twisted by those who weren’t there…Then I wrote about what I ate and what I did between meals.
How did you manage to wrap your head around your Top Forty Most Important Restaurants. Do dishes stick out or whole evenings, or was it more a specific incident that happened somewhere.
Looking back over the forty years in which I witnessed New York and
America falling in love with food, as I do in my memoir Insatiable, I
find the extraordinary joy of discovery we experienced almost
impossible to explain to today’s 30, 40, even 50 year old’s. Daniel
Boulud was remarking about it recently…he was remembering when
everything was so new and so exciting…a truffle baked into a roll by
Michel Guérard, a fish poached in seaweed by a French chef, Fredy
Girardet deglazing foie gras with aged vinegar, the Troisgros salmon
cooked on just one side, Jean-Georges abandoning classic stocks for
broths and exotic vinaigrettes…the melting chocolate cake. All those
firsts. It was often quite thrilling.
Today because the food world is so much richer, new products, new
sources of wine, vegetables we couldn’t imagine, American star chefs we
could not have forseen, skill and creativity in remote corners of the
country and the world…we tend to be more blasé. We are spoiled by the
wonder of eating out today.
We also seem to be more desperate to be creative, to reinvent, to make
an egg out of anything but an egg. I am sad when food becomes too
intellectual and creating it with a trick of chemistry becomes more
important than whether it is delicious.
Tell us about one of the worst meals you’ve ever had and I’m sure you’ve had more than your share.
Impossible to recall. I try to forget.
What was the best meal you ever had?
Impossible to choose just one.
With the economy in such a slump, do you find yourself going for less expensive restaurants, or do you still embrace the luxuriousness embodied by The Palace?
I try to keep up with the restaurant scene in NYC.
What’s next on the horizon for the Insatiable Critic? Spill the beans…
I devote most of my time to InsatibleCritic.com and am, as they say, taking lunches…talking to editors about ideas. I want to find time to rewrite my children’s book, Juliette’s Noodle.