Photo Credit: getty images
A few years ago, restaurant critic Gael Greene’s autobiography, Insatiable, left stomachs rumbling and mouths agape with its descriptions of the mind-blowing meals she’d eaten in her lifetime—not to mention her romantic dalliances with Elvis and Clint Eastwood. These days, the New York food legend, who has been reviewing restaurants for more than 40 years and continues to do so on her blog Insatiable-Critic.com, is reprising her role as a loved-and-feared judge on the second season of Top Chef Masters. Here, she talks about the rise of foodie culture, her favorite meals and her go-to aphrodisiac.
iVillage: What originally made you decide to do Top Chef Masters?
Gael Greene: I loved Top Chef, but I didn’t see it often because I’m usually out to dinner at that hour. When they called, I thought, I would love being a judge, and I would be good at it. The best part of doing the show was having the privilege to taste what really accomplished chefs could do. But I really felt their pain when they were told to pack their knives. I’m glad I didn’t have to be the one to say that.
iVillage: What challenge would you have come up with for the contestants if you could?
GG: As a restaurant critic, I ask chefs every night of my life to do something astonishingly delicious. But I don’t think I could come up with challenges that could top what I’ve seen on the show—cooking dessert for Girl Scouts, or putting together a three-course dinner in a dormitory room. I love seeing the chefs’ faces when they hear those challenges.
iVillage: Why do you think Top Chef in general has been so popular?
GG: Many people enjoy watching cooking on TV more than actually cooking. It’s like, "Well, I can watch this and it looks delicious, but I won’t eat it and get fat." And there are just more foodies these days. When I started writing about restaurants for New York in 1968, most people didn’t care about food—they just went out to dinner for a date or a business obligation. If their lamb chops were overcooked, they didn’t talk about it.
iVillage: What’s the best meal you’ve had in recent memory?
GG: Lunches at Jean Georges make me happy to be alive. He makes this intense pea soup … I’ve never been with anyone tasting that dish who was not moved make to some incredible moans that you wouldn’t normally hear in a restaurant.
iVillage: How much do you eat out versus cook at home?
GG: We [she and longtime love Steven Richter] eat out six nights a week. On Sunday we are sloths. He shops and brings home dinner, then he sits in front of his television and I read in my bedroom and have dinner in bed, on a tray, which I adore. Meanwhile, my pots are dusty, my staples are stale.
iVillage: What’s always in your fridge or pantry?
GG: Non-fat yogurt, Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt, and raspberries or plums when they’re good.
iVillage: Is there anything you refuse to eat?
GG: Cottage cheese. Why would you, when there are so many great cheeses to eat?
iVillage: When you used to cook more, what was your go-to dish for a quick, impressive dinner?
GG: Back in the day, I’d shake scallops in a bag with breadcrumbs; saute them in butter really fast, so they’re rare inside; and then sprinkle some bread crumbs into the butter. The last time I made that with pasta—with clam juice, lemon, shallots and a little garlic—it was incredible. I also used to always keep a jar of Chocolate Wickedness in the freezer. Late at night, take a spoonful of it, then tell the person you’re feeding it to that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.
iVillage: I have to ask you about your hats.
GG: I discovered as a teenager that hats were great for bad hair days. Then, when I needed a photo for the back of my first food book, Bite, I realized that I needed to hide my face to remain anonymous as a critic. So I took one of my favorite hats, and pulled it down, and that was the picture on the back of the book. Until Top Chef Masters, I never revealed my eyes on television or in photographs. But they convinced me that you could not be a judge if the viewers couldn’t see your eyes!