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Is It Easy Being Greene?

Restaurant critic Gael Greene tells all in her new memoir
From copyright Conde Nast 2006 used by permission

Foodies are buzzing about Insatiable, a memoir by New York Magazine's longtime restaurant reviewer, Gael Greene. A lot of the chatter is about her love life (She slept with Elvis! And plenty of others!), the subject that justifies the book's subtitle: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess.

But that's only part of it. The book is also about reviewing restaurants in the years when someone's status could rest on scoring the right table at the right new place. We talked to Greene about what it was like for a kid reporter from Detroit to be a powerful critic during the height of restaurant madness: to eat lobster navarin at Chanterelle, drink Château Lafitte with a Rothschild and Dom Perignon with Craig Claiborne, and be snubbed or coddled by restaurateurs depending on what she wrote about them in the pages of New York Magazine.

Epicurious: When New York's editor Clay Felker asked you to be the restaurant reviewer for his new magazine, in 1968, you didn't have any experience. Were you nervous?

Gael Greene: Oh, yes. At first I turned him down because I didn't consider myself a food person. But I loved to eat and was seduced by the chance to eat at so many great places. I used my taste memory and skills as a reporter while I learned about the beat.

Epi: Your book is about equally divided between sex and food. Do you think there's a connection?

GG: Obviously, the same senses transmit the pleasure of both food and sex: the taste buds, the mouth that registers texture, the eyes, the nose that responds to the scent of apple pie or sun on skin, the ears that hear crunch and kisses and moans.
Many of the celebrated foodies I knew were as Rabelaisian in bed as at the table. I haven't told all I know in my memoir, but I tell enough to suggest I was not alone in my zest for sensuous pleasure.

Epi: You write about having love affairs with chefs while you were a reviewer. How did that affect your impartiality as a critic?

GG: I was concerned enough about my trysts with Le Cirque's chef de cuisine, Jean-Louis Todeschini, in the '70s to entitle my review "I Love Le Cirque, But Can I Be Trusted?"
In fact, considering that I was single and lusty in that wonderful moment between the pill and the plague, I actually have been amorously involved with very few chefs and restaurateurs. Jean Troisgros and I discovered each other long after I had waxed poetic over the Troisgros restaurant in Roanne.

I also pride myself on accidentally falling for very good cooks. As for Gilbert LeCoze, what can I say? Fortunately, he was a brilliant innovator, and while I did worry that my affection for him might color my prose, Le Bernardin was so remarkable from the week it opened that my integrity was never tested.

Epi: With all that delicious excess, didn't you worry about gaining weight?

A: Never publicly. Never in print. I wanted the reader to feel the joy of eating well as a great sensuous experience. I was learning to be a critic in the late '60s and '70s, when cholesterol didn't exist. Of course we knew about calories, and would alternate fat and thin dinners. And in those days I was dancing after dinner every night. It was exercise for nonathletes.

Sometimes I would persuade the magazine to send me to a spa, and I'd write about it. I was one of the first to sample Michel Guérard's cuisine minceur. It was miraculous the way he could create an apple tart with one thin layer of pastry and apples in a Teflon pan. I lost weight at his place, but stopped at Roger Vergé's Moulin de Mougins on the way home and gained half of it back.

Epi: There are so many reviewers these days. How do we know whom to trust?

GG: You have to pick your critic the way you pick your movie reviewer. Go to a few places he or she liked and, if you agree that they're good, assume you can trust him in the future.

Epi: In general, are things better or worse than when you started to be interested in food?

GG: Some things are much better. These days every supermarket has baby greens, good olive oil, wild mushrooms, and a variety of hot peppers. When I began to cook this was unheard of. To my mother, cheese was just Velveeta.
What's worse is that so many people have stopped cooking. They're buying takeout and missing the joy that comes from doing it themselves. One thing I learned from chefs is how quickly you can make a meal. You sauté scallops or a little piece of meat, deglaze the pan, and add a bit of butter at the last minute. It's done.

Epi: And in restaurants? Better or worse?

GG: Once again, some things are much better. When I started, there was no such thing as an American chef. The Four Seasons, the greatest American restaurant in New York, had a Swiss cook, and nobody knew who was cooking at The Coach House. Then people like Larry Forgione and Brendan Walsh began cooking what I call "credentialed food": free-range chickens from this farmer, heirloom vegetables from that one, cheese from someone else. We take it for granted now, but all that didn't exist in the early '70s.
On the other hand, I'm afraid that the restaurant of the future will have a virtual chef who is always on the road promoting his book, opening a place in Las Vegas, or taping a TV show. We used to take it for granted that when we went to Lutèce, André Soltner would be at the stove.

Epi: You've seen so many restaurants come and go. Are there some that you miss?
GG: I really miss the Palace. When it opened in 1975, it shocked everyone by charging $50 for a meal. I thought it was a hoot. I miss Dodin-Bouffant. And the Quilted Giraffe, which hasn't gotten enough credit for all the chefs who came through that kitchen and for being the first to do so many things. I love today's Italian and Asian influences, but I do miss all the great French temples of cuisine where you could really indulge in excess.

©Conde Nast 2006 used by permission

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