Gael Greene, New York critic who made food ‘seductive,’ dies at 88


Gael Greene, an influential New York magazine food writer who shook up restaurant reviews with a cutting wit, vibrant passions and descriptions of dining as a feast of the senses, died Nov. 1 at an assisted-living facility in Manhattan. She was 88.

Ms. Greene had been receiving treatment for cancer, said Mariah Hurst, spokeswoman for Citymeals on Wheels, a New York group Ms. Greene helped found in 1981 to provide food for the elderly and homebound.

Ms. Greene was part of a group of writers in the 1960s exploring New York’s food scene, raising the profile of the city’s growing culinary reach beyond the old standbys and turning some of the critics into celebrities in their own right.

Ms. Greene quickly found a place in the spotlight. She brought a punchy style that treated restaurants as a full sensory experience beyond what’s on the plate: from the decor to the people watching to the backstories of the chefs and her own whimsical takes on the evening or life in general. Her New York magazine tagline from 1968 to 2008 played up the image: Insatiable Critic.

She once described giving a talk on tasting a fig that turned into a lesson a sensuality. “Looking at it, smelling it, feeling the textures of it, tasting it, rubbing it all over your mouth. The audience went crazy,” she said in 2009. “A simple little exercise in tasting.”

A 1969 review of La Caravelle opened with four-paragraph meditation on New Yorkers’ psyche and the city’s irresistible pull. “New York is a mecca for masochists,” she wrote. “It is the Atlantis of our masochist fantasies. How could we live anywhere else? We thrive on discomfort, frustration and scorn.”

A 1977 review, “I Love Le Cirque But Can I Be Trusted?” begins with Ms. Greene working in a quote from playwright George Bernard Shaw before finding her way — with various humorous asides and insightful digressions — to chef Jean Louis Todeschini and his inconsistencies.

“Here, when the kitchen is good, it is very, very good, but when it is mediocre, you are not entirely surprised,” she wrote. “Still, when it is brilliant you are dazzled. Todeschini’s spaghetti primavera is as crisp and beautiful as a Matisse.”

Village Voice restaurant reviewer Robert Sietsema, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2010, described Ms. Greene’s stamp on food writing as an inflection point in the genre. “After Gael Greene,” he wrote, “the restaurant review would never be the same.”

Her 2006 memoir, “Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess,” was a dish unto itself. She detailed trysts with Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, a porn actor and several chefs, including some whose restaurants she reviewed. And then there was that time with Elvis.

She was working for United Press just out of college, assigned to cover an Elvis Presley show in her native Detroit, she wrote. She managed an invitation to his hotel room, where they ended up in a steamy embrace, she said. Afterward, “he twitched a shoulder toward the phone. ‘Would you mind calling and ordering me a fried egg sandwich?’” she wrote.

“Yes, the totemic fried egg sandwich,” she wrote, saying she remembered the room service order more than the sex. “At that moment, it might have been clear I was born to be a restaurant critic. I just didn’t know it yet.”

As Ms. Greene’s fame grew in New York in the 1970s, she took to wearing floppy hats to keep restaurants from spotting her during her outings for reviews. (At the same time, Mimi Sheraton, a longtime New York Times critic, opted for wigs.) Ironically, Ms. Greene’s identity-hiding guise became a personal trademark that had restaurateurs on the lookout for big hats.

“Every now and then I would see a woman in a restaurant wearing a hat like that, and she always had the best table,” she told the Boston Globe in 2006.

After Ms. Greene was laid off from New York magazine in 2008, she wrote restaurant reviews for Crain’s New York Business until 2012.

“I give hats, not stars in Crain’s,” she wrote. “Three hats: Can’t wait to go back. Two hats: I’ll go back. One hat: Let them simmer. No hats: Never again.”

Ruth Reichl, a food writer and memoirist who was the longtime editor of Gourmet magazine, said Ms. Greene was an innovator, not just by sexing up her restaurant reviews but by humanizing the genre.

“She made the medium her own in a way I don’t think anyone had done. She feminized it and made it seductive — restaurant reviews had been so dry,” Reichl said. “When you think about who was a restaurant critic back then, it was a fat White man — it was James Beard or Craig Claiborne — who more or less invented the form. They tried to make it impersonal, like the voice of God telling you whether something was good or not. Gael kept reminding you that she was a person.”

Greene ultimately became a powerful critic. “You always read her with great anticipation — and chills,” said Daniel Boulud, the chef and restaurateur whose empire includes restaurants from Dubai to Toronto. “It was always sweet and spicy with Gael — her reviews were never bland.”

Boulud recalled that it was Greene who gave him his first review — and ding — at the since-shuttered Le Regence at the Plaza Athenee Hotel in the early 1980s. It was well known among New York chefs that Greene preferred her fish quite rare, he said, but one afternoon she arrived late and was served from the restaurant’s fish cart what he thought must have been a piece from the tail that was more well-done. “She really spiced it up for me with that review,” said Boulud, who said that as a critic, Greene was “feared” but fair. “But she had the right argument to complain.”

Later, Boulud would get involved with Citymeals, eventually serving as the board’s co-president, where he admired Greene’s ability to get donors to write big checks — and gets chefs to sign on to help. “She was the link between the restaurants and the community,” he said.

Gael Greene was born Dec. 22, 1933, in Detroit, where her father owned Nate Greene’s, a clothing store. At the University of Michigan, she got her first taste of journalism with the school paper before graduating in 1955. She later said a semester abroad in Paris at the Sorbonne as an undergraduate helped pique her interest in food.

She landed a reporting job at the New York Post in 1957, making her mark with investigative projects such as posing as pregnant for a story on a baby-trafficking ring and writing exposes on New York fortunetellers and spiritual healers. Her first book, “Don’t Come Back Without It” (1960), recounts her three-year stint at the paper as “playing guinea pig in a series of first-person exposes.”

Ms. Greene left to freelance and, in 1968, received a call from Clay Felker, editor of the newly independent New York magazine, which been a supplement to the New York Herald Tribune. Felker recalled a piece Ms. Greene had done on the restaurant La Côte Basque. He offered her the job as restaurant critic.

“I felt that I was an impostor, and how was I ever going to do this?” she told Restaurant Insider 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.’”

It became her home for four decades. She stepped away from her full-time review gig in 2000 and continued as a columnist until 2008. Then the magazine let her go, saying it had three food writers and couldn’t afford her as another.

“I’ve just been downsized,” Ms. Green announced to a crowd in Manhattan’s Rainbow Room that included Martha Stewart and Nora Ephron, gathered to raise money for Ms. Greene’s Citymeals.

Ms. Greene wrote in an autobiographical note for the reference work Contemporary Authors that she “dedicated myself to the wanton indulgence of my senses.” Her literary endeavors followed the same path: hedonistic guidebooks “Sex and the College Girl” (1964) and “Delicious Sex” (1986) and two sex-heavy novels, “Blue Skies, No Candy” (1976) about the wife’s affairs and fantasies, and “Doctor Love” (1982), a plot built around the fictional lover Don Juan.

The books, particularly “Blue Skies,” sold well but were sometimes savaged by critics. “What’s objectionable about her work is not that she writes so obsessively about sex, but that she does it so badly,” wrote Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post in 1982.

In 1961, Ms. Greene married a New York Post editor, Donald Forst, who would later edit the Boston Herald, New York Newsday and the Village Voice. They divorced 13 years later. Mr. Forst died in 2014. Ms. Greene is survived by a brother, James.

Among her awards was 1992 recognition as Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for her work with Citymeals on Wheels, which provides more than 2 million meals a year. She appeared as a judge on the Bravo series “Top Chef Masters” from 2009 to 2011.

Ms. Greene also is sometimes credited with a linguistic feat: possibly the first to use the term “foodie” in a published piece — a 1980 column in New York magazine.

In 2012, she noted to the culinary website Eater that the word was “on everybody’s list of toxic words in food writing.”

“When I said it,” she added, “it was a wonderful thing to be.”

Emily Heil contributed to this report.