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July 12, 2006

The Insatiable Critic To Speak On East End


While some may regard the 70s as a time of political revolution, others may consider it the sexual revolution, artistic revolution or social revolution.

According to New York Magazine's renowned food critic Gael Greene, however, the 70s and 80s marked, among many things, the food revolution. Equipped with her sauciest secret (recipes), tales of innocent flirting, not-so-innocent men-wooing and whimsical globe-trotting, Greene's recently released memoirs entitled Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess tells the autobiographical tale of her development as a journalist, food critic, and icon of both sex and culture.

And it was this multi-faceted societal figure that I was fortunate not only to speak with, but also to dine with. And not only to dine with, but to feast with, on the fabulously affordable $24 prix-fixe lunch offered by Gael's personal friend Jean Georges, one of Manhattan's only four-star chefs. It was somewhere between the raw sashimi, perfectly cooked salmon, red and yellow beets and hand-crafted truffles, that Greene was able to share with me one of her most impressive credentials of all: pursuing a career that speaks to her true passion.

"I am doing what I always wanted to do," says Greene about her career in critiquing restaurants. After leaving the reporting staff of the New York Post, Greene focused on her freelance work, which she did for a number of women's magazines including Women's Day and Cosmopolitan. She was then offered a position as a restaurant reviewer in 1968 for the then-new, but prestigious New York Magazine. She has since sculpted her career out of edible art, traveling the world to find the perfect lamb, taste the richest cheese and drink the most flavorful wine.

It was in the 70s and 80s that some of Greene's most wild culinary adventures took place.

"It was a time between the pill and the plague, where everything was free," she says. "The sexual revolution of the 70s was in sync with the food revolution, and Americans were first starting to discover the food world." Describing a world that explored the fusion of meat and dairy, fruits and vegetables, desserts and espresso. "It wasn't until the late 70s when restaurants of American self-taught chefs began to open up," said Greene, "and everything at the time was influenced by the French."

But as fascinating as this change in the food world was to Greene, approaching it as a woman was, at times, difficult to unbearable. In a world where fine food and wine were areas of expertise only for men, Greene had to face an additional challenge in her line of work: not letting her gender interfere with her opinion of the food.

"I described what I saw, and I disguised that I was a woman," she said. "I felt there was a prejudice against women, and for a long time there were only male restaurant critics. I didn't reveal in my comments and descriptions about what happened to me as a woman critic."

But since then, the food world has changed. Not only do women have a prominent role in the preparation and critique of foods, but the foods worthy of critique are no longer those influenced only by France. Ethnic foods such as Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Indian are occupying larger roles within the restaurant world, and Greene is eager to grasp all of them.

"When former New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne quit, he said he quit because he was bored. There's no way you can be bored today if you love food and live in New York City," she said.

And love is something Greene is not short of. She loves food, and she loves it enough to ensure that as many fellow New Yorkers as possible can have it. Her 1981 establishment of City Meals on Wheels, which she co-founded with the American food legend James Beard, has delivered 2.3 millions meals on holidays, weekends and weekdays to Manhattan's homebound elderly who are no longer capable of cooking for themselves.

"We are trying to find ways to reach people who haven't applied for the meals because they don't know how or are too proud," she said. "We started raising money over the course of a weekend and didn't know how big the program was going to be, and we look forward to reaching more people in the future" said Greene.

Greene, as passionate as she is about food as an item of gastronomic excellence and art, claims she will never find herself as a restaurateur. "You would never catch me opening a restaurant. To do it well, you pretty much need to give your whole life," she aid as she described chefs who live in the kitchen and see their families for brief intervals.

Her love for food and cooking, however, will never escape her, and this deep-seated passion jumps off the pages of Insatiable. "I should be doing what I want to do. And that, to me, is what the book is really about," she said. "It is about knowing your fantasies and doing what you want to do. I always went with what I wanted to do. It wasn't necessarily the most sensible, or the most profitable, but I would just go with the urge, whatever it was."

Gael Greene will be speaking about Insatiable at Bookhampton in East Hampton, on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.

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