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So What Do You Do, Gael Greene, New York Food Critic/Author?

Tips from her start at the Post and time in Felker's New York to a memoir on all her appetites and a new blog

By Rachel Kramer Bussel - May 23, 2007
Known for her saucy language and pioneering role in turning the average diner into a well-versed foodie, Gael Greene has been covering all things edible since she became New York magazine's "Insatiable Critic" in 1968. She wrote the column through 2000, before she relinquished the weekly deadline to have more time to travel. Her current commitment to New York has her writing a weekly column in the food pages, where she offers up-to-minute critiques. Along the way, she also wrote two bestselling erotic novels, Blue Skies, No Candy and Dr. Love, as well as the nonfiction guide Delicious Sex. Her latest book, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess (Warner Books), chronicles her own culinary, erotic (she bedded Elvis, Clint Eastwood, and Burt Reynolds, to name a few), and travel exploits, was recently released in paperback. Greene also just launched, which promises to feature behind-the-scenes info, "golden oldie" columns and articles and dining secrets from Greene and her peers.

Name: Gael Greene
Position: Contributing editor, New York magazine
Education: University of Michigan, BA in Literature, Science and the Arts
Hometown: Detroit
First job: "In college, I worked for my father in his dress shop. I made the tags for the dresses."
Birthdate: "I can't remember; I guess it wasn't memorable."
Marital status: Single
Favorite TV show: Weeds
Last book read: "Marco Pierre White's memoir The Devil in the Kitchen. He's one of the original bad boy chefs of England."
Most interesting media story right now: "The eminent global crisis is fascinating and terrifying."
Guilty pleasure: "I suppose juje fruits."
First section you read in the Sunday Times: "I'm so shallow -- the Style section."

How did you get started doing food writing? Had you done any previous journalism?
I was a newspaper reporter. I worked for UPI in Detroit and came to The New York Post for a one-week tryout.

Did you apply for that?
I came to New York every three-day weekend, and I only took [the UPI job] because I couldn't get a job in New York. I was stunned to discover nobody wanted me since I had been the stringer in Ann Arbor, Mich. for Time and Life and the Detroit Free Press. I thought it would be a cinch. Finally, somebody offered me a one-week tryout at the Post -- a very different Post from today's. I got a second week, then they gave me a month, then they wanted to give me three months, and I said, "Hire me, or I'm going to Italy, where the men are so wonderful," so they said, "Okay, you're hired."

What were you doing at the Post?
I was a general assignment reporter. I did a lot of features, but I also covered murders. I actually covered Elvis when he passed through in a train on the way to Germany.

How long were you at the Post?
I was there three years.

What did you do after that?
I freelanced. I started a novel that was totally impenetrable -- not even I could understand it. I freelanced for Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and McCall's.

How did you transition from freelancing to becoming a food critic?
One day I got a phone call from [original New York editor] Clay Felker asking if I'd be the restaurant critic for New York magazine. I was shocked; I don't know where he got the idea except that I had written one piece on the re-opening of La Cote Basque.

I said to Clay, "I can't afford to work for you, I hear you're not paying very much until the magazine starts making money, and I'm making so much money writing." He said, "People are begging for this job so they can charge all their meals to us." Before he could change his mind, I said yes.

Did you get to pick the places you covered?
Mostly I decided what I wanted to cover. Once in a while, Clay would come up with an idea such as an article on how to beat the menu rap. He'd say, "Why don't you go to the most expensive, great restaurants and see what happens when you order a soup for lunch, or a salad?"

Did you continue to freelance?
Yes, I did.

"It seemed like everyone [who] read New York magazine turned first to the food page and loved my writing. It was very heady stuff."

Was there a point when that became your primary job?
At some point my then-husband [Don Forst] said, "Why don't you stop doing all this freelance stuff. Write for New York and write your book." I'd been talking about writing a novel since I was 18. I started working on Blue Skies, No Candy and pretty much stopped doing a lot of the freelancing, and just worked for New York magazine.

Is food writing your true love?
I always felt I was just earning pocket money until the point when I would write my bestselling novels [laughs]. I was so sure that if I ever sat down and wrote a novel, that would be it. But there's no question that there's so much instant gratification in writing the restaurant reviews -- especially in the beginning when most people were just learning about food and beginning to fall in love with eating out, and the whole restaurant revolution was in its infancy. There I was in the major spotlight of New York magazine. The timing was great; every day brought some incredibly new discovery, and people really looked to me to tell them where to go.

Today, everyone's a critic and so much has happened, people take it for granted. I remember when the first great bread came to New York; today, we have 100 great breads. Back then there was just cotton fluff. There was one sorbet: cassis sorbet at Lutece. People think sorbet came with the pilgrims, but it didn't. That was intensely gratifying. It seemed like everyone [who] read New York magazine turned first to the food page and loved my writing. It was very heady stuff.

Do you still feel that excitement about it?
I do always expect something wonderful to happen every time I sit down at a table. I'm always hoping and expecting to discover some really talented new chef or have a dish that is just beyond anything I've ever tasted like it before. I think everyone expects at some point that a restaurant critic is going to become jaded because it's [eating out] every single night, but in fact, I can't say I'm jaded. I did get tired of that Monday morning deadline and reaching a point where editors were telling me what to do. There were some editors along the way who were extraordinarily brilliant and made everything smarter and funnier, but one or two of them were killers, and that was horrible too. One, especially, was so mean -- that's when I decided I should stop being the weekly critic.

Interestingly, most of my travel pieces are focused on food, partly because that's what people expect of me.

Do you have a weekly schedule? How often do you eat out?
I go out to eat, as my guy says, "eight nights a week." We eat out six to seven nights a week, and if I have some business to do, there might be a lunch or two. I don't need to do that for the columns that I'm writing, but I love it and it's a chance to see my friends, to get out after a day at the computer, and just be social. There are lot of New Yorkers going out at least five to six nights a week just to be social, to see their friends, or for romantic reasons. Not a lot of people I know are still cooking.

I can go to dinners at people's homes now. I have to let people know I'm available; all those years, I turned down all these dinner invitations because I had to work.

Do you expense all your meals?
Not anymore. Some of them are New York magazine meals, but mostly they're not.

Where do you look to stay current about food and restaurants?
Besides the press releases -- which often talk about restaurants that aren't opening for months -- columns in New York magazine and The New York Times, which cover what's happening and what's about to happen. I have a couple of folders in my computer that are nothing but [lists of] restaurants that are opening or have opened to remind me. Then when I want to go someplace in a particular neighborhood, I can see what's new and exciting.

I have other lists, too. We go to a lot of places that are affordable for people who are going out seven nights a week, who are paying for their own meals. I have a list in my head, for my Web site. There'll be lists of my favorite places in the neighborhood; favorites when you're pinching pennies; favorite places worth a major splurge where I don't mind paying $150 for dinner for two. Maybe I will ask some of the chefs or restaurateurs I know, "Where do you eat out when you're just the two of you [out] in your neighborhood? Somewhere reliable when you're not catching up with what's new and hot?"

Do you have any particular favorite columns?
The column on my visit to the Troisgras, "The Gourmaniacal Detour." The nice thing about New York magazine is they let me make up words like that. I think that is so hilarious and wonderful, and it really helped my memory to have all those old articles in my files and all the old magazines on the shelf. It helped me remember specific meals that I ate, and it brought back the thrill of discovery. It reminded me about times that we cried because it was so beautiful that we could hardly stand it. That's one of the articles that I love.

How did you decide the time was right to write a memoir?
I'd thought about it for a while, and in fact it was suggested by Michael Korda: "Why don't you tell the story of the revolution in dining and tie it into your own story?" Which is what I did: What happened in the four decades when America was falling in love with restaurants. I love the title: Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess. The actual writing took four years and a year of the editing process -- going back and forth, cutting, changing, adding and copy-editing, un-copy-editing the copy editor who didn't quite understand some of my style.

How was that process different from the other writing you've done?
I found that writing the memoir was the least painful writing that I have ever done, and I think part of that was remembering in some cases terrible sadness, and in other cases, remembering incredible love and lovemaking. So for a while, I was just wallowing in some mostly wonderful memories, and it seemed to flow onto the page in a way that the daily stuff doesn't. The daily stuff really has to be shaped, especially now that it's short. When you're writing 1,200 words on one restaurant, it's easier than when you're writing 246 [words].

You said earlier that now everyone's a critic...
It's amazing. That was Zagat's brilliance -- to figure out that people would like to be a critic and were ready to be critics. And people do eat out a lot now and they've been exposed in travel and in the sophistication of restaurants that are available... Everybody has an opinion.

Do you think that's a good thing?
It's not a bad thing. Of course, some people have no taste, but they have a lot of opinions. And certainly in some of the blogs, people don't have a lot of knowledge, but they maybe have good taste and an opinion.

One of the things that's not too good -- and I'm guilty of being a really naughty critic along with the rest of them -- is the big rush to be first. It doesn't give restaurants a chance to find out what they're doing. Craig Claiborne, the great critic at The New York Times, had a rule: He'd never go to a restaurant [until after it had been open] three to six weeks, and he would taste their food a minimum of three to four times before he'd finally write the piece. I was always first because he took his time.

As a weekly critic for 30 years, I made it a policy never to go into a restaurant until it had been open three weeks. Now for my column, "Insatiable Critic," I may go very early to do a "First Tasting," or I may even attend a "Friends and Family" tasting to report on what a new spot will be like when it opens. The final judgment comes from New York magazine's critic, Adam Platt, although with my new journal "Bite" on, I will have a few last words myself again.

If someone wanted to become a food critic, what advice would you give them?
I would say if you've got a restaurant dining column in your high school or college paper, that'd be a great way to start. And also cooking: I think it's important to cook. I was definitely a foodie for many, many years before I became a restaurant critic. I took cooking classes, and my friends and I who were early foodies were competitive cooks. I would read a lot of what's been written, and some of the old collections of the earlier critics, so you have some sense of history. Probably much of it is online now. One of the most important things, certainly for New York magazine, is writing. I think they spent two and a half or three years looking for someone to take my place after I said I wanted to stop being the weekly critic. They read dozens of columns and stories submitted by people who were dying for the job, and they chose Adam Platt, who was a writer who really loved food and had written enough food and travel pieces.

Eat, cook, read, travel. If there are too many things you don't like, I can't imagine that you could really be a restaurant critic. There was one New York Times critic who didn't eat dessert, and he'd say, "and my wife thought dessert was wonderful."

What do you read to stay current?
I couldn't miss the Times and I've started reading the blogs. I thought I didn't have time, but I wanted to see what everyone was doing on their Web sites. I read Gourmet and Food and Wine and Bon Appétit. I read Food Arts, a magazine for professionals basically aimed at chefs and restaurateurs. It's full of inside industry things that are good to know. I read nation's Restaurant News, not for reviews but for trends and business stories. I read the dining section of The New York Times. It's fabulous, it's like a magazine every week. I read the business section of The New York Times because I'm always looking for who's doing well and might become a donor to Citymeals-on-Wheels. I used to just throw it away with the sports section.

How did your novel Blue Skies, No Candy come about?
A man that I was mad about challenged me to write the novel. He said, "You're 40 years old, you can't be a childhood wonder anymore, so if you're not gonna write it, why don't you stop talking about it?" And so I thought, "Oh my God, he's right." I took some time off and started working on the novel. I went to The MacDowell Colony, wrote the first hundred pages and sold it to William Morrow. I should've just taken a leave of absence and written the book, but I was having too much fun, going dancing every night after dinner and having the gratification of being in the middle of so much happening in the food world. I took summers off and finished the novel mostly in the Hamptons in different little houses that I rented.

How did the novel-writing compare to what you expected?
First of all, I was very lucky. I had a contract with William Morrow to do a biography and was way behind, and then I didn't like the guy I was writing about. It wasn't going anywhere, so I asked if they'd take the novel instead. They read the first hundred pages and changed the contract. A lot of people at that time were curious about what kind of a novel Gael Greene, that restaurant critic, would write. It was pretty shocking to them that it was very erotic, very graphic. I thought it was erotic, they thought it was over-the-top sexy; some people thought it was obscene. I was really shocked. I thought it was just wonderfully revealing, and if it would let you know what a woman felt sexually in bed, a lot of women would be excited to read it. The very negative reviews very quickly got everybody rushing to the stores to buy it. It was on the bestseller lists.

It took me four years to do the first novel and five years to do the second [Dr. Love], which was briefly a bestseller in hardcover, and then also a bestseller in paperback. I got a lot of money for it based on the success of Blue Skies, so I was pretty spoiled. Then I immediately started on the third novel, which I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote, and nobody liked it, so that was a shock.

Do you have a favorite out of the various kinds of writing you've done?
I'm proud of Blue Skies, No Candy. It's not as well-written as Dr. Love, but it's more compelling. I read it myself and I enjoy it as if I hadn't written it. Sometimes I wonder, "Did I write that?" Once in a while, I think the reason it was so hard for me to write the column was me thinking, "How I am I going to be as good as I was last week or last year?"

Probably the best thing I've done is Citymeals-on-Wheels, which does take advantage of my being a writer. It began from feeling that I couldn't live the way I live and spend so much time and money eating when people on my block might not have anything to eat on the weekends. At that time [1981], it was clear that the government funds were not adequate to bring weekend or holiday meals to the homebound elderly. I called James Beard, he called a few friends, and we started raising money. It just felt wonderful to be able to do something like that, and what our money bought was a Christmas meal for several thousand people who would not have one otherwise. It's been 25 years now, we've raised a couple hundred million dollars, and Citymeals delivered its 32nd millionth meal last Christmas Day. That's really a very worthwhile thing.

Maybe I changed the way people talk about food or write about food. People never used to say, "Oh I can't believe what I have in my mouth," when they're sitting at a sushi bar and they taste some extraordinary texture or contrast of texture. We didn't talk like that in the 70's, we didn't think like that in the early 70's. It wasn't considered proper to carry on about food in many homes, so I think that the sensuality of food was really something that I was among the first to talk about; James Beard expressed it, as well, in his columns. But maybe I used the words of the bedroom more. People said I confused sex and food, but in fact, I have never confused sex and food. I like keeping them separate; they're just two great pleasures.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a writer, editor and blogger.

[NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

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