Shallow dishes of a sweet, sticky delicacy — Swedish Fish — adorned the tables at Boulud Sud, a Mediterranean restaurant on the corner of Broadway and Lincoln Plaza on Jan. 9. Family, friends, colleagues and chefs gathered to celebrate the late critic Gael Greene, a devotee of the marine life-inspired candy.
Greene was known for reporting with “sass and sensuality” and for being a “born voluptuary” with “swaggering, fearless style,” as the New York Times put it, in her obituary. “I would also add devoted, compassionate and maybe a little bitchy,” said Robert Grimes, co-president of Citymeals on Wheels, the nonprofit Greene founded over 40 years ago.
In November, at the age of 88, Greene died of cancer, which her niece, Dana Stoddard, said she had battled privately. Her longtime partner, photographer Steven Richter, passed before her, but she is survived by family members including a brother and stepson.
Over her decades reviewing restaurants, most notably for New York Magazine and later for Crain’s New York Business, she shaped the culinary world. “The whole city of New York was better because of Gael,” said Marcia Stein, Citymeals’ founding director.
A Critic, Always
Readers grew to recognize Greene — who started her career writing for The Detroit Free Press and United Press International, later publishing multiple books — for her colorful criticism. Colleagues and family members knew her that way, too. Beth Shapiro, Citymeals’ executive director, described criticism as being in Greene’s “nature”; Stein recounted unsolicited remarks from Greene that permanently altered her wardrobe, steering her forever away from the color beige. “Of course she was a critic,” Stein said. “She criticized me every day.” (Greene herself frequently wore extravagant hats that covered her face, to secure a modicum of anonymity.)
She rarely held back. Jonathan Schuster, the son of Fran Schuster, one of Greene’s closest friends, recalled her insistence that his fish was always a minute overcooked and his meals too light on seasoning. “Ten nuggets of advice,” rattled off by Lauren Bloomberg, Greene’s former assistant and longtime friend, revealed the faux pas that ate away at her and the expectations she held of others: “look more pleasant,” “at a certain point, if you’re not skinny, it’s way too late,” “learn to talk while chewing, or wait until you’re done, but do not eat with your hands in front of your mouth” and “pass the knife with the plate, but keep your own fork” all made the cut.
In New York City’s restaurants, Greene’s taste — and honesty — inspired chefs. “For a chef to talk about a food critic is never easy,” said Daniel Boulud, the chef behind Boulud Sud and co-president of Citymeals. But “chefs need to learn,” another chimed in, “and she was a fabulous educator.”
For restaurant goers, she did something extraordinary. “Critics are our avatars and our proxies,” said David Rockwell, an architect and member of Citymeals’ board. “They go out into the world, they find new experiences and they report them back to us.” Attendees of Greene’s tribute reminisced to the backdrop of sizzling, clanking and the occasional timer sounding from the kitchen, which produced small plates with prosciutto, sliders and miniature pink cheesecakes, along with healthy glasses of wine.
An Appetite For All Of Life
In 1981, Greene learned that some of the city’s oldest and neediest residents weren’t receiving meal deliveries on weekends and holidays — and set about founding Citymeals on Wheels, a food delivery nonprofit started in partnership with the city’s Department for the Aging. The first year, Greene raised money to deliver 6,000 meals on Christmas — with all funds going directly into the meals, according to Stein. “Gael was a romantic,” she said. “She lived in fantasies and in dreams.”
Today, the organization has delivered over 65 million meals. Each time, “there was a knock at the door, there was a nutritious meal and there was something reliable an older person could depend on in their final moments,” Stein said. Grimes described participating in the deliveries as a life-altering experience.
Greene indulged in all that life had to offer — not stopping with food. Stories told of her voracious appetite for romance and sex drew knowing laughs from her confidants. Glimpses into her final days and reflections on life, shared by Greene’s niece, among others, elicited tears. “She wanted desperately to live and to love,” Stoddard said.
“The whole city of New York was better because of Gael.” Marcia Stein, Founding Director of Citymeals on Wheels