Sex and the City
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 Andrew who 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 York magazine 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 York on 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.
We'd met to talk about sex (at her agent's insistence). But still, we mostly talked about food. The book is the same way. Her quote (displayed prominently on the back cover and anywhere else the book is talked about) is, "For me, the two greatest discoveries of the twentieth century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris." But you'll note the Cuisinart comes first. That's important. As a brazen, no-holds-barred memoir, Insatiable will no doubt move because Gael talks about how Clint Eastwood was in bed and what it was like crouching with Jamie Gillis in a porn-store booth on Eighth Avenue, watching him watch himself on the screen as he fed in quarters to keep the movie playing. But for voyeuristic foodies, it is much more than that. It is a priceless, invaluable history lesson, a step-by-step accounting of how we (but New York in particular) went from a nation enamored of Velveeta cheese and mushroom soup in a can to one that now treats chefs like rock stars and eating as a sensualist indulgence on par with a sticky one-night stand with a beautiful stranger.
"Between the Pill and the plague," she said to me, leaning back in her chair with a Campari and O.J. in her hand, "it was the greatest time to be alive."
And then she frowned, held her drink up to the light, scrutinized it. "Should be darker," she mused. "The color richer, almost like neon." Once a critic, always a critic.
Famous for her expense account, for the unbelievable bills that New York editor Clay Felker always paid, she went to Italy, to France, to Paris alone probably more times than she could count. As detailed in the book, this was her escape, but also the foundation of her experience with food. "Clay Felker, keeper of the money bags at New York, understood that what I ate in France was a predictor of what we'd all be eating very soon in New York. The yearly swing through France was still essential, crucial research."
True, because Gael was never a cook. Never a professional cook, that is -- though she was a champion home cook and trained for that with the best, with Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey and James Beard and Julia Child. And she ate at "the best in the world," she said, rattling off more famous names and addresses (La Pyramide, Taillevent, Bocuse, Girardet, Guerard and La CÔte Basque) in one breath than most people could lay claim to in a lifetime. "And I brought the best back with me to New York. That's what I judged them against."
For Insatiable's entire span -- 368 pages and seventy-odd years -- Gael faces East. From the Midwest, where she was born and raised, she looked toward New York. From her table on top of the city at Windows on the World, she looked toward France. And only from France did she look further -- into India and China, as those cuisines were beginning to make their mark back in New York. Because of her training as an eater, a reader of great recipes and a cookbook home cook, I was struck by the fact that every food reference was for someone else's version of something (Pierre Franey's salad, Bocuse's duck). And because of her seeming inability to look over her shoulder, some of the culinary revolution (Southwestern cuisine, California cuisine, Asian fusion) sneaked up on her from behind. Denver's own Mel Master makes an appearance in the pages, but only for one line, as "the forever-boyish wine seller from Britain" who, along with Jonathan Waxman, opened Jams in New York. Alice Waters is briefly mentioned, the "mesclun revolution" dealt with in a half-dozen words.
Gael's universe was Manhattan, Paris and Rome, was white tablecloths and silk sheets and flutes of champagne tempered by visits to Show World and her partnership with James Beard on the Citymeals-on-Wheels program they founded to bring hot meals to New York's shut-ins. But within those boundaries, Insatiable delivers the goods on a life spent in pursuit of love and lust and foie gras. It's a war diary for those still on the front lines of the food revolution (or whatever revolution might come next), a proto-feminist confession that yeah, women like sex, too. And in person, Gael Greene, "The Insatiable Critic," was no less the passionate, exuberant, unabashed aficionado that she was for the 33 years she spent as one of the most powerful food writers ever. She just smiled when I told her that she invented the trade of restaurant criticism, that without her there would've been no me or anyone like me.
"That's why I chose to tell this story now," she said. "While I'm still here to tell it. Because I did see all these things and do all these things."
And after that, we mostly talked about porn (her collection and my collection, and how I thought I actually had a copy of the December '62 Nugget magazine in which she published a piece called "Are You Man Enough to Take a Mistress?") until it was time to walk down the hall for the James Beard Journalism Awards. While I paid the bill, she borrowed my cell phone to call her current fella, Steven Richter, to ask him to bring along a lipstick she'd forgotten at her desk and to remind him that they had reservations for dinner later that night. Walking away from our table, I quoted her book back to her: "Like Julia [Child] said, we must enjoy it now, because who knows how long it will last."
And she just laughed.
Blitzkrieg bop: Meanwhile, right down the hall, the crème de la crème of the food press (plus a few unusual hangers-on) were gathering for free pre-award cocktails and shoulder-rubbing courtesy of the folks from the Beard House. It was a good crowd -- lively, geekish, just a couple hundred journalists and their dates all bound up in jackets and ties and pantyhose and trying not to look uncomfortable while liquor purveyors pushed a selection of New Orleans-style drinks (all seemingly some combination of bourbon, rye and bitters) and angry, white-gloved waiters offered trays of passed apps. Gourmet's Ruth Reichl was mobbed everywhere she went, but Gael Greene slipped easily into the crowd to find old friends. Other serious literary heavy-hitters were sprinkled about, although it was hard to tell who was who because no one was wearing name tags. The most dangerous place in the room to stand was between Jay McInerney (nominated for an M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, a little like Candace Bushnell being nominated for a Pulitzer) and the champagne.
I bumped into Jonathan Kauffman from the East Bay Express (one of our company's papers) and we spent the early part of the evening trying to identify other alternative-newspaper writers by how badly dressed and poorly shaved they were. Frayed cuffs, goatees, crooked ties, old Fishbone tour T-shirts showing under pressed, white button-down Oxfords -- you know, the usual stuff. The standard method for finding alternative reporters is to hang out close to the bar and wait to see who's pouring free drinks into their pockets for later -- but we were in a room full of food writers, and that behavior could have described anyone.
Because I'm a full-circle kind of guy, I liked that I was seated next to Jon Gluck, the deputy editor at New York who wrangles all the food writers and was there as moral support for Marshall Sella. I wanted to ask whether the magazine's current restaurant critic, Adam Platt, could still get away with something like spending a month and a half in France with a porn star, staying in Paris and eating at La Tour D'Argent and expensing it all to the magazine when he got home -- but expense accounts never came up. Instead, we talked about fishing, and a little bit about Colorado, and how much bigger, better and tougher New York was than Denver in every respect (his opinion, not mine).
The theme of the night was "Cajun Country," and all the speeches and all the presenters had something to say about the rebuilding of New Orleans. As did dinner, which was four courses, plus apps, plus petit fours and dessert, and I'm pretty sure there was crawfish in everything. Across the table from me was Joel Warner, a Westword freelancer nominated for his story "Mr. Big" (November 3, 2005), about a McDonald's mogul who outsources drive-thru orders, and somewhere on the other side of the room was Kristen Browning-Blas from the Denver Post, nominated for her food section and up against editors from the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before they started reading off the awards, it was feeling like a good night for Denver.
And even though after it was all said and done, I lost (to Jonathan Gold from the LA Weekly, another Village Voice Media paper) and Joel lost and Marshall lost, Kris brought home the gold. So it wasn't a great night for Denver, but it was a pretty good one. And as everyone says, it's an honor just to be nominated. As for the Post win, I ran into Kris on the sidewalk after the event (she was on her way to dinner with Post critic Tucker Shaw), and she looked like she was having the time of her life.
Afterward, a bunch of us losers went and got liquored up on eight-dollar beers and eleven-dollar cocktails and badmouthed McInerney (who won the M.F.K. Fisher) while we watched Barry Bonds hit his 713th home run. Across town, Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson from Frasca were propping up the bar at Babbo (along with a few friends) in anticipation of the chef awards the next night (where Lachlan would lose the Rising Star Chef award to Corey Lee, current chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, where both Lachlan and Bobby once worked). But by last Tuesday, May 9, everyone was back in Denver, and everything was back to business as usual.
I talked to Bobby on the phone early the next day, and he said it was wild, just knowing that there were so many people from Denver in NYC that weekend. Would've been wilder had we all come home with medals, but what are you gonna do? "It's an honor to be nominated. That's what they say, right?" Bobby asked. "And it really was."
Yeah. Meanwhile, I'm booking a flight to Paris and a table at Taillevent. I may not have won the critic's award this year, but I'm damn sure going to start living like one. I just hope my boss is prepared to reimburse me.
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