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Gael Greene, influential and colorful food critic, dead at 88

Gael Greene, the Big Apple’s most influential — and colorful — restaurant critic for three decades, died at age 88 in Manhattan on Tuesday. The worlds of dining, sensual excess, food philanthropy and great writing will never be the same.

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.

Greene at an event at Tavern on the Green in 1976.
Penske Media via Getty Images

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 once 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 Club while celebrating the city’s entire restaurant scene in all its fast-growing variety.

Gael Greene, an influential food critic, has died at 88.
Greene co-founded Citymeals on Wheels, which has fed millions of homebound elderly.
Monica Schipper
Greene, who co-founded Citymeals on Wheels in 1981, at an event for the nonprofit at Daniel in 2008.
Greene at an event for the nonprofit at Daniel in 2008.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

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 Périgord 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 10 years later as it ought to for anyone who reads it.

Insatiable, by Gael Greene.
Greene’s memoir, “Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess,” was published in 2006.
Tribune News Service via Getty Images

She somehow found time in her rich career to co-found Citymeals on Wheels with James Beard. The organization has delivered millions of 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 lack of 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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