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Gael Greene, New York’s Insatiable Critic, talks about Citymeals and her 40+ years critiquing fine dining

by Matt DeLucia

June 2008

    photo of: Gael Greene

The lunch reservation at Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s new bistro, had been made in my name to protect my guest’s anonymity. When Gael Green arrived she was dressed colorfully but without one of her signature hats, and as were escorted down a busy aisle to our table I could tell that the entire staff had already recognized her. I sensed apprehension in the eyes of our young male waiter. The insatiable critic’s early review had just been published, and she had been critical of the service, slightly less so of the food, so I asked Ms. Greene if I could tag along on her return visit. After 40 years as one of the most influential restaurant critics in New York, I was curious to see how far Benoit’s sea would part for Ms. Green. I was also interested in experiencing her restaurant critiquing process firsthand, to see how she goes about judging some of the best restaurants in the world, a job that seems simple enough, yet mysteriously is done well by very few of its practitioners.

Judging other people’s work should, in most cases, be left up to God. But since he is often busy, we have critics. Restaurants critics by their nature seem to expend most of their breath criticizing, and less of it eulogizing. Recognition, that holy grail of the soul and the mighty preserver of new restaurants, often comes only to those who have suffered not one but several assaults on their offerings, yet consequently manage to bravely propel themselves forward in spite of it. A chef or restaurateur’s desire for praise from a critic is not unlike a student watching with a racing heart as their teacher grades their term paper; days of hard work being whittled down to a single person’s appraisal. So much of our time seems to be spent seeking recognition, yet other than a few wondrous days of long-awaited flattery, our heart’s desire goes mostly unfulfilled.

Our waiter brought out the first course, and Ms. Greene seemed pleased with her elbow pasta with ham and gruyère cheese – “I could eat this for breakfast every day” she said, as I nibbled my own warm asparagus, whcih was delicious. We enjoyed our food, chatting amicably about wonderful things like our vacation homes in Vermont, which both of us had respectably sold for lack of use. But suddenly, our tranquility was interrupted by a maitre’d who poked his head between us to innocently ask if everything was all right. It had been, but sadly, now it was not.

“That is one thing I hate more than anything,” Ms. Greene said, her voice stern and angry but her face joyous at finding a flaw - an interesting concurrence. “How dare they interrupt us; we were talking! I do not want to be asked how I’m doing.” At first I wondered if perhaps the Insatiable One was being a little harsh, but then I remembered all the times that a waiter had blurted out “Hi, how are things going here?”, invariably in the middle of chewing something large. I always felt inclined to answer immediately, but I usually managed only a saliva-laced “phft-fine, thanks” accompanied by small chunks of food leaving my mouth with the effort. Ms. Greene was vocalizing what most of us felt, but perhaps were afraid to say. But isn’t that exactly what a critic should do?

Perhaps sensing her displeasure, the next course came quickly. Ms. Greene had quenelles de brochet with nantua sauce, and I was served lobster ravioli with a shellfish emulsion. Her dish was fabulous, and after sharing bites we decided that mine was much less so.

During the several lunches I shared with Ms. Greene, she seemed most in her element at French restaurants like Jean-Georges and Benoit, and for good reason. She began her career in the late 60’s, writing for New York Magazine, and became very well-known for taking on New York’s French restaurants and their tendency to be snobby and pretentious. While most restaurant critics have tended to base their judgments on their own perception of some royalty-defined standard of perfection, Ms. Greene defined herself by writing for the rest of us, for the people who in all likelihood would not dare attempt the masochistic endeavor of actually going to the restaurants she reviewed for her magazine. “I tried to write the column so it was of interest to people who could not afford to go to those restaurants. Certainly I could not afford to go to those restaurants; lunch was 7.95, dinner could be 35 dollars or more, and that was a lot of money. But many people who read New York Magazine would not be going to those restaurants, they would not be going to France, so it had to be amusing at some level in addition to informational.”

At the time, restaurant reviewing was not meant to be amusing. Although she initially did not think many people would pay much attention to her writing in the just-launched magazine, she soon found that her humorous takes on some of the most influential restaurants of the day – mostly French, mostly pretentious – began to ruffle feathers. While Craig Claiborne of the New York Times, a veritable God to the food media of the day, would describe La Caravelle just after its opening as “…an establishment of such caliber, there is an inclination to use such expressions as ‘first rank’ and ‘ne plus ultra”, Ms. Greene’s review a few years later remarked that the “food and fine wines alone are not enough to banish the pangs of neglect or unknot the acid-sodden duodenum.” Wow. Were her reviews victories for the common folk, or was she just being cranky? Her readers thought the former, and kept reading. The keepers of the powerful restaurants which Ms. Greene was so elegantly and humorously wagging her finger at thought it was the latter, and they would occasionally let her know – once in the form of a somewhat threatening and anonymous phone call just after the La Caravelle column was published. “It was a French voice and I assumed it was the father,” she remembers. “He said ‘Who are you, and what do you think you know about food?’ I had made many of the French restaurants unhappy, because it was a period when they were the most important restaurants in town, and their sole mission seemed to be to humiliate you in order to have the privilege of eating there. The menus were only in French, and the captains spent a lot of their time translating for those who didn’t necessarily read French. When you went to order your wine the sommelier would correct your pronunciation.”

Ruffling feathers is a time-honored method of attaining attention, and Ms. Greene’s reviews were attention-getting, entertaining, and well-written. Although she knew less about food than she did about reporting in 1968 – she had been a trained newspaper reporter for five years - she felt a general overtone of doubt that she deserved to join the ranks of restaurant critics like Mr. Claiborne.

“People were saying ‘who is this amateur?’ I felt that I was an impostor, and how was I ever going to do this? On the other hand, everyone was interested in New York Magazine; everyone read it every week and I was in the middle of it. 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.’”

Her first published review was on the Ground Floor, a swanky and exclusive restaurant run by CBS executives. She sharpened her pencil in that first review, stating that the restaurant was the perfect place to end an affair, and that while there was talent in the kitchen, “whoever has the talent has only two hands and the esthetic soul is somewhat nearsighted.” It was an early sign of her witty, biting reviews to come; crisp prose, humorous society side stories, and tough yet not overtly unfair assessments of food and service. They also showed everyone that she was no slouch in her knowledge of food and wine.

“In the beginning, I used to look in my Escoffier. I have an encyclopedia in English and I would look things up to see how they were supposed to be just to be sure, because I didn’t want to say anything stupid. I had also eaten for many years in France. I had eaten some of the greatest food in the world, so my mouth was primed for certain expectations.”

Her reviews continued to differentiate her from the other writers of the day. While her provocative writing style brought her many male fans, her populist humor with a slight feminist touch made her popular with women, giving them a female voice to write about high-society’s inequities. If you think that the restaurant industry is a male dominated world today, in the 60’s and 70’s it was even more so.

“For many years they had outlawed women in pants. They would make a woman take off her pants and put a paper skirt on in the coat room. It was so silly. A woman would come in gorgeous evening pajamas and they would not let her in because she was wearing pants. Those were funny times; it was a wonderful time to write about it.”

Over the years, her reviews have remained as much a reflection of the sociology of fine dining in America as they were criticisms of shabby service or disappointing food. Her negative views were not restrained, yet nor was her delight when she found a hidden gem, or unearthed a chef worthy of acclaim. Especially if he were handsome. But in all her writing on her restaurant adventures, her dining mates always seems to have a role, and unlike many of the other reviewers of the day, she loved sharing the dining spotlight with her companions in her pieces.

“One of the things that has happened since I started writing is that women go out, you will see a table full of women on a Saturday night all dressed up in little bits of dresses with little skinny straps, six women looking gorgeous. In the old days, if we didn’t have a date on Saturday night, we would not be seen. So this is a wonderful new thing, that women go out and they have a wonderful time and they look great.”

One thing that amazes Ms. Greene today is the influence that the web has had on the restaurant industry. While she does run her own web site,, she doesn’t see why restaurants and PR companies care so much about the majority of the blogger sites.

“Who are these bloggers that people care what they have to say? When I read somebody saying, ‘oh, the tiramisu is so fluffy and wonderful’ - a tiramisu is not fluffy! Have they ever had a great tiramisu? But as a result, people are going to be looking for a fluffy tiramisu.”

Ms. Greene seemed to be having great fun whenever she found anything unflattering while dining at Benoit, and after the second course was cleared, she began writing furiously into a small notepad that she kept hidden just under the tablecloth. It reminded me of my daughter, who often plays with her Nintendo when we go to restaurants, keeping the plastic game just out of sight of waiters and parents. While I had my tape recorder in front of me at all times, she was content to chat, nibble, and write. It’s worked well for her for forty years, so why change now. I asked her what basic advice she would give to someone who was thinking of getting into the business of restaurant reviewing.

“First of all, always be anonymous,” she said. “Don’t shoot a camera in the restaurant; you’re trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. You need to taste many things - you need at least three meals. You shouldn’t come the first week. Ideally, it should be open for three to four weeks before you come. Nobody follows that rule anymore, including me. But that was one of Craig Claiborne’s rules. It could be a year before the restaurant gets shaken down.”

She explains what most restaurateurs and chefs already know; that with bloggers and web sites and traditional media all fighting to get their reviews out first, this puts even more pressure on new restaurants to be 100% ready on day one. But while many bloggers tend to concentrate on the food, her advice is to pay more attention to the service, which should be invisible.

“I think it’s important to train the staff before you open. Ideally, you should have a concept of style of service and I would hope it would be not quite so informal and aggressive and intimate - in a casual restaurant, informal intimate is fine. I would read the critics who write about service because I cannot believe that after all the things I have written about service that people are still coming up to me and saying, ‘how do you like your food so far?’”

It’s never been easy to make a living as a writer, and even though today there are more opportunities than ever to express your opinion in print and on web sites, earning a paycheck for it is still considerably difficult. Ms. Greene’s success can be attributed to more than just her work as a critic, and her advice to young writers who want to be restaurant critics? Start cooking.

“I think there is definitely a future if you want to be a food writer,” she said, “but I’ve been very lucky. Between the books and the magazine and the newspaper writing I made a very good living, and I had a brilliant broker who bought AOL shares when they were two cents. But it’s very hard to make a living as an actor or a writer. Think about what it is about a reviewer whose work you admire and learn everything you can about food. Work in a restaurant, in a kitchen, cook and take cooking classes. But then, how do you sell those articles? It’s very hard.”

On November 22, 1981, Gael Greene was having breakfast in bed on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. She was reading the New York Times, and found an article by Dorothy J. Gaiter titled “Meals on Wheels Scrimps to Feed the Aged.” The article was about how New York’s Department of Aging was unable to feed thousands of homebound elderly residents due to the recession and budget cuts by the Reagan Administration. Many needy people were being brought meals during the week, but on the weekends and holidays when the agencies that deliver are closed, they would go hungry, many of them saving a piece of bread to hold them over until their next meal came. “I read the article and I said this is outrageous, how can that be,” said Ms. Greene. “So I called James Beard and he had seen the same article. So I said to Jim, ‘Let’s fill Christmas baskets,’ and he said, ‘Okay, but what about weekend meals?’ So I said, ‘Of course we’ll do that too!’ I had no idea, I was so naïve. But he called Barbara Kafka who got on the phone and called Joe Baum and PR people in the food world. I called Roger Yasin and someone called Donald Tober from Sugar Foods. Everybody pledged about $430.00. By Monday, we had $35,000.”

Ms. Greene negotiated with the city’s Department of Aging and it was agreed that their money would be spent 100% on meals. They agreed, and that year with the funds Greene and her friends helped to raise, 6,000 people who would not have had a Christmas dinner had one. “Everybody who was involved felt so great!” she said. “We were just thrilled!”

They decided to organize their efforts and create a non-profit organization so they could continue raising money to deliver weekend meals to the city’s elderly. These days it only seems natural to turn to the restaurant industry for help, but in 1982 those relationships were not as common as they are today. “It was the food world and the restaurant and spirits community who we turned to because I thought people who were in the food business would care the most about someone not having food.”

Today, Citymeals on Wheels continues to keep their commitment that every dollar that a sponsor gives at an event or spends at an auction goes only to prepare and deliver meals. They are providing 40% of the meals delivered in New York City for the home bound elderly. “People in their 80’s and 90’s are the fastest growing population in New York,” Greene reminds us.

Personally meeting the people who are being helped by your charity is perhaps the most rewarding, and at the same time most difficult experience Ms. Greene can remember. Years ago a social worker took her around her neighborhood, which was filled with people who she never dreamed lived so close to her on the Upper West Side.

“She took me to a single room occupancy hotel and we went upstairs. We saw a woman in a small room where her bed took up the total space of the room. She was a very pretty southern woman with white hair, and she was blind and confined to her bed. Then the social worked said ‘Now I am going to show you somebody who will really break your heart.’ And I said, ‘Oh I do not think that is necessary, I think my heart is officially broken.’ So we went up to the 15th floor of the Ansonia building, which are the servant’s rooms when they were huge apartments for opera singers and very wealthy people. I know famous people that lived there and they had apartments set up as private ballrooms and they put their servants in those rooms on the 15th and 16th floors. So we went up and this woman’s door was open and we went in and she was this tiny 82-year-old woman curled up in bed. She was very pretty and she had white hair very close to her head and blue eyes. They introduced me and she did not have any awareness of Citymeals or Meals-on-Wheels but she knew she was dying of cancer. A woman was there from the Department for the Aging, feeding her with plastic gloves. That was so upsetting to me. The woman had a book on the bed covers and I picked it up and it was a huge paperback with the smallest letters. I said, ‘my goodness, you can read these? These letters are so small.’ She said “Yes, I love to read.” She grabbed my hand and she said I had a wonderful ring. She had a ring held up with a rubber band, and she showed me her ring and I said ‘You know, I live just down the street and I am going to bring you some books. I love to read too and I have so many paperbacks.’ She said, ‘what a lovely thought, I hope it turns into a lovely deed.’ And I said to myself, I am not going to forget to bring those books. I did come back with a paper bag filled with books and the caretaker was not there but the door was open and she was asleep, so I left the books. I remember exactly what she looks like, and that was 26 years ago.”

To this day as she walks in through her Upper West neighborhood, she thinks of how many people that may be hidden away behind the vast rows of windows, not getting meals because they are immobile or because they live in poverty among one of the richest neighborhoods in the country. Her own mother in Michigan was proud of her work before she passed away, but at one point she remarked to Ms. Greene, “I think it is wonderful what you are doing for all old people but how about coming home and seeing a few old people in Detroit?” A classic mother’s plea for a visit from a child, and shortly thereafter Ms. Greene was able to fly her into town when she was honored at a charity dinner.

Over the years, 40 years and counting since she entered the limelight and began writing reviews for New York Magazine, her hidden passion for writing her own novel became a reality, and her first novel became a success. But her obsession for the pleasures of her job kept her there for the first 20 years, and her obsession to help people in need has kept her there during the last 20. “I should have left New York Magazine and immediately done the second novel,” she says, thinking back, “but I was addicted to the instant response of a restaurant critic and I just could not get that out.”

Back at Benoit, Ms. Greene’s final thought on Ducasse’s new restaurant was a positive one. “I think this restaurant has a real chance of making it because I believe people miss the old-fashioned French restaurant that has pretty much disappeared,” she said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I could never be a critic, I realized. All I could think of were positive things during my lunch. My reviews would be sadly boring.

After Ms. Green left Benoit, the waiter came up to me and admitted he had never been under so much pressure in his life. He asked me if I also wrote for New York Magazine. I said I didn’t, that I write for Restaurant Insider Magazine. He nodded politely, making it obvious that he had never heard of my magazine. I now knew how Ms. Greene may have felt back in those glorious days in 1968 when her magazine was first founded. I wondered if I should start wearing hats, perhaps something in an Indiana Jones model.

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