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Sex and the City

New York State of Mind

I was completing my list as the plane banked over lower Manhattan for its final descent into LaGuardia. It went like this.

Fucked: Elvis; an Algerian in Paris; a future member of the British Parliament (unnamed); an architect and a poor artist; an Italian in Rome; an unkind college boy; several married men (all unnamed); Don Forst from the New York Post, exclusively for eight or nine years; Clint Eastwood (twice); Murray Fisher, who lent Playboy a bit of social and literary class during the 1970s; Burt Reynolds (twice); Jean Troisgros (!!!), one of the instrumental half-dozen chefs -- the "Young Turks" -- who invented nouvelle cuisine; Eric Rothschild of Lafite-Rothschild; an accountant called Andrewwho ended up with someone else; Jamie (or Jamey) Gillis, a well-known porn star in his day, most notable for his turn in The Opening of Misty Beethoven; Jean-Louis Todeschini, then chef de cuisine at Le Cirque, and Gilbert LeCoze from Le Bernardin.

It was impressive. It was daunting. It was a master's syllabus for sensuality in the heyday of the bacchanal -- those years between the end of the '60s and the middle of the '80s when sex and food and porn and caviar and disco were all crossing vectors of American excess, when the explosions of revolution came so close and so often that they were like one sustained artillery barrage that shook everything to the ground.

And Gael Greene saw it all, tasted it all, lived through it all. Queen of the hedonists, restaurant critic, columnist and essayist for New Yorkmagazine from 1968 to 2001 and, at her height, one of the most powerful, influential food writers in the country -- that list (which is really only a partial list) is hers. And I was flying into New York to sit with her, talk with her, ostensibly to interview her about her newest book, Insatiable, but really just to meet her. She more or less invented this job I do now, so for me having an hour to chat was like a would-be saint having a private audience with Mother Teresa.

Albeit a very naughty Mother Teresa who'd done it with Elvis.

Gael Greene wrote one of my favorite restaurant reviews ever. More to the point, she wrote the one on which I based my entire shtick and was the only writer (other than Anthony Bourdain) I was able to name when I was interviewing for this job and was asked, "What other food writers do you like?" The honest answer was "almost none." I hated (and, for the most part, still hate) critics in general and some of them highly specifically, but Gael had recently written a huge piece for New Yorkon Alain Ducasse and his restaurant that was opening in New York. It was beautiful, highly personal, funny, bitchy, alternately viciously critical and lavish with praise. It talked about the chef and the kitchen both, made sport of ridiculous intemperances like offering customers a choice of pens with which to sign their checks at the end of the night and -- in its entire expansive length -- dedicated maybe a tenth of its words to the food itself. She could dispose of entire courses in a sentence, three meals in a paragraph, and this piece stood as my proof-of-concept that the theater of fine dining and the visceral, vicarious thrill of the entire experience was just as important as what was on the plate. Arrogant little prick that I was (and am), I figured that if Gael Greene could do that, so could I. Stylistically, I was a child of Bourdain and M.F.K. Fisher, but Gael was my sword and my shield and I never looked back. For years, I had only her writing to look to, and her reputation.

Then came Insatiable (subtitled "Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess"), which was a memoir, a guilty-pleasure confessional, an exercise in bedpost-notching and an account of the revolution as seen from the heights of Manhattan and Paris, all at the same time. Now I was going to meet Gael Greene. I was going to buy her a drink. I couldn't wait.

In the lobby of the Grand Hyatt, she was instantly recognizable. Within my bizarre little cosmos of gastronauts and foodistas, Gael Greene is less a person than a conglomeration of trademarks -- at a distance, at least: the hat riding low over her eyes, the large sunglasses, the legs that go on forever and the witty barbs most recently (and sadly) showcased on that trend-humping abortion of a show, Cooking With Celebrities. And even up close, those things all coalesce into what is almost a caricature of the Big City Critic today. Were she a man, she'd have an ascot and a lisp. As a woman, she defined the model that today is the stereotype.

But she jokes that she could never wear the hat and the sunglasses while eating out because they would have given her away instantly. She'd done it once for a publicity shot early in her career and does it now (when she's no longer a working critic) because it's what's been expected of her ever since. (A generation of young, beautiful, leggy New York blondes were probably served the best meals of their lives in the '70s, all because they'd worn hats to dinner.) And not for nothing, but Gael still has an aura of passion that extends like a force-field around her. She's one of those people who, when you're in their close company, makes everything richer, finer and more sharply defined.

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