Gael Greene, the Big Apple’s most influential — and colorful — restaurant critic for three decades, died at 88 in Manhattan on Tuesday. The worlds of dining, sensual excess, food philanthropy and great writing will never be the same.
Detroit-born Greene’s journalism career took off as a reporter for the New York Post from 1957 to 1960, when she sometimes worked undercover. She worked for several magazines after that but didn’t truly hit her stride until 1968 when she became restaurant critic for newly founded New York Magazine, where her reviews ran until 2002 and where she continued to write until 2008.
At a time when reviewing was mainly the purview of tradition-craving men who worshipped French cuisine, Greene pioneered a new, more personal voice to bring restaurants of all kinds to life. Sometimes it was not only personal, but intimate. She acknowledged she might not be entirely impartial in reviewing Le Cirque in 1977 because she once had an affair with the chef.
Her prose style cheerfully mingled her tastes in food and in men. The latter included several famous chefs as well as Elvis Presley, with whom she had a one-night fling she described in her 2006 book, “Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess.”
An Italian chef Greene harshly criticized opined, “She mixes up too much the food with the bed.” But there was nothing careless about her approach to gastronomy. For my money, she knew more about world cuisine — from local hot dogs to Vietnamese delicacies — than any of her peers.
She challenged established takes on “legendary” restaurants. She ridiculed snooty old establishments such as ‘21’ while celebrating the city’s entire restaurant scene in all its fast-growing variety.
She had no patience with places surviving on their reputations. The old Colony’s “infamous sauce maison — a wildly assertive blend of bottled elixirs — was poured on anything that didn’t move.”
She wrote of Le Perigord in 1982, “Knowing mouths long ago abandoned this stodgy bourgeois perch to a loyal hanging-on of diplomats and styleless affluents, the eating-is-a-habit crowd, and a few softies” who were devoted to the restaurant’s owner.
She later returned to praise a new chef, Antoine Bouterin, “who swept Le Périgord with the force of the mistral.” Greene’s praise and criticism helped nurture the careers of younger New York toques such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Pino Luongo and Jonathan Waxman. Completely unpretentious, she once raved about a goofy ice cream dessert when I enjoyed a laughter-filled night with her at a random bistro.
Greene was one of her generation’s finest writers. Jokes about her lusty memoirs fell silent when she eulogized the love of her life and her partner of 22 years, photographer Steven Richter, in a 2012 essay titled “Letting Go.” It brings me to tears ten years later as it ought to anyone who reads it.
She somehow found time in her rich career to co-found Citymeals-on-Wheels with James Beard. The organization continues to deliver more than two million meals to the city’s homebound elderly.
Friends loved going out on culinary escapades to new restaurants with Gael, when she wore large hats pulled down low over her face and everyone was obliged to call her “Donna.” It was a joke on her non-anonymity, a tactic used by other critics who falsely believed they weren’t recognized.
Her legacy will long endure. And some nights, I swear I can still see her red beret drift through the dining room, trailing laughter and joy.
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