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One On 1: Food Columnist Gael Greene

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of a woman who has long reported on the restaurant scene in New York, Gael Greene.

Certain phrases are show stoppers. They demand additional explanation. Suffice it to say, "slept with Elvis" is one of them.

“I’ve often thought that if every woman who had sex with Elvis Presley bought my book I would have a best seller,” says Gael Greene, the long time food critic for New York magazine who includes herself in that group.

Her new book, “Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess,” opens with a 20-year-old Greene covering the King's concert in her hometown Detroit, and getting the invite back to the hotel, and finally into the bedroom.

"I could hear 22 stories below, the women standing outside the hotel screaming, ÎWe want Elvis! We want Elvis!" and thinking, ÎOh my god, look who's got him,” she says.

Afterwards, the King had one request; a fried egg sandwich from room service.

“People say, ÎHow was it? Was he a wonderful lover?’ And I don't actually remember,” she says. “I remember being thrilled, but I do remember the fried egg sandwich."

Probably not good news for Elvis, but a good anecdote for the book.

Greene's memoir is a love story: New York's love for food and restaurants; Greene's love of writing about it; and her love affairs with the famous, including, she says, Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, and the not so famous.

“I don't think any name person who's in my book will be upset. There are some people that are upset they're not in the book,” she says. “I got a call from this guy [who said], ÎWhat am I - chicken liver?”

When NY1 interviewed Ms. Greene, she was wearing a hat. A big hat. She's got a bunch of them.

Almost 40 years after she starting doing restaurant reviews for New York magazine, anonymity is still important. So when she's on camera or out at a public event being photographed, it's all about the hat.

"Four times within the last 10 days I have been in a restaurant and have not been recognized,” she says. “I can tell by how I was abused that they couldn't possibly have known it was me."

Long before chefs became rock stars on the Food Network, New Yorkers looked to Gael Greene's weekly column, “The Insatiable Critic,” for advice on where to eat. And she offered that advice with a rather sensual writing style.

“To me, eating a great meal was an extraordinary sensuous experience," she says.

The food experience may be sensual, but Greene says writing has always been hard work.

"You struggle to find new metaphors, new adjectives. So I would sit there with my thesaurus and try to find another way to say Îjuicy,’" she says.

The writing may have been the hard part. Inviting friends and family along to sample the city's restaurants? That was easy.

“When I'm working I find it much easier to eat less,” she says. “And when the food is great, I find it easier to eat less because it's so satisfying. [It may seem counterintuitive], but when the food isn't good, sometimes you have to taste it two or three times to be sure that it's that bad.”

Long before she was a tastemaker in New York, Gael Greene grew up in Detroit, in a middle class home where reading was king, perhaps contributing to her future writing style.

“I read books under the covers. I'm sure that's where it came from,” she says. “[What books?] ÎForever Amber.’ I used to go through my mother's library and look for the naughty parts. I guess I [found them].”

She went off to the University of Michigan to be an artist, but gravitated toward the campus newspaper. Greene came out of school looking for newspaper and magazine jobs in New York and Detroit, brimming with confidence.

“I had been a stringer for the Detroit Free Press on campus and for Time and Life magazine, and had many, many clippings from those days, but it didn't seem to matter. People weren't hiring me,” she says. “It never occurred to me that it was because I wasn't good enough. I just thought there was something wrong with them. I guess I always sort of thought that."

She came to New York, became a freelance writer, got married. She and her husband decided not to have children, and Greene wrote about it in The Saturday Evening Post in an article she called “The Joys of Not Having Children.” The magazine called it “A Vote Against Motherhood.”

“They said the only column that had gotten more mail than mine was one opposing dogs for pets. So the only thing that people care more about than children is pets," she says.

Greene was hired as a restaurant critic when New York magazine began publication in 1968. She gained prominence as the food and restaurant business was blossoming here.

It was also the height of the sexual revolution, and Greene says she was living "a life of sublime excess."

"People are begging me to taste great wines. Restaurateurs would notice you were in the restaurant and send out the best of whatever it is, and then some more,” she says. “People would invite you for dinner and get something like caviar, eight versions, so you could say what you liked the best. It was outrageous and wonderful."

But a life of sublime excess came in stark contrast to the difficult daily existence experienced by most New Yorkers.

"What does it mean that I'm spending $200 a night on a meal in the middle of all that? So I thought about it, and I did my job and I enjoyed my job and I enjoyed my life,” she says.

But in 1981, Greene responded to one issue where she could make a difference. She co-founded City Meals on Wheels, bringing meals to the homebound elderly.

“And I thought, ÎOK, anybody who said I was too frivolous, this takes care of it,’” she says. “And I do feel good about knowing that there are 17,000 people that are getting a meal every day of the year now thanks to what we did."

It was a life of restaurants and romances, seemingly glamorous. But there was a divorce and several love affairs unrequited.

“Every time my heart was broken I had a few days to think about what I was up to,” she says. ”When I would go home to visit Detroit I would be thrown back into another kind of reality.”

Greene still writes for New York magazine, even though she gave up the column six years ago. Her new memoir will no doubt be remembered for the descriptions of some of her romances, starting with her afternoon with Elvis some 50 years ago.

But for Gael Greene, the story has always begun and ended at her real home, the restaurant.

"It was fun,” she says. “I loved taking my friends to dinner, I loved being able to ask almost perfect strangers to come to dinner or lunch, and I loved knowing what's going on and having the last word. That is what I miss most - having the last word."

- Budd Mishkin

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