Gael Greene wears many hats – and not just the ones she’s famous for placing atop her blond pate. Her resume includes New York Magazine food critic, Insatiable Critic columnist, author of the bestsellers Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Ice Cream But Were Too Fat To Ask, The Mafia Guide to Dining Out and Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, and co-founder of Citymeals-on-Wheels.
On Wednesday night, she will add television personality to that impressive list when she steps up to the plate as a judge Bravo’s new Top Chef spinoff, Top Chef Masters. In an interview with Greene, she dished on the new season, her possible blossoming career on TV, and for dessert: twenty questions.
How did you come to be involved in the show? I haven’t got a clue. Other than the fact that people may know that I’ve been a restaurant critic for over 40 years and I had just celebrated the 40th year at New York Magazine, so there was a lot of publicity about that. Basically they wanted someone who would know everything about the backgrounds of some of these master chefs, had eaten their food, and knew where they had trained. So that could have been it. But who put the idea into someone’s head? I don’t know. I just got a phone call, rearranged my schedule, and went out to do it.
Do you feel like your existing relationships with any of those chefs gave you any kind of personal bias? I was aware of my personal feelings. I happen to adore Jonathan Waxman. He was one of the founding chefs of the big outdoor cookout that we do every year at Rockefellar Center for Meals on Wheels. And I thought ‘oh dear, how am I not going to be prejudiced in his favor?’ But I think when you get right down to it and you taste the food, you look at the plate, and you hear what the challenge is, it’s quite clear that it has to be the guiding factor.
Was it fun? It was very hard work [laughs]. Some of the challenges were very surprising and took a while to pull together. We spent a lot of time debating. I had never done a full week or two weeks of TV before. This was a great chance to learn how to be a judge and how to do TV.
Could you have a budding career as a TV personality now? Oh definitely. I could do my own show.
What’s happening with the TV show being made about your memoir, Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess? Well I was excited to hear that Serendipity Point, the company that took an option on my book, had hired Julia Sweeney to write a pilot. At this point all I know is that a pilot is being written. There are many steps between that and international fame [laughs]. Who knows. You have no idea. You hand over your memoir, put everything into it, and then someone else has a vision. I’m sure it will be funny. She has that wonderful experience with Sex and the City and Saturday Night Live.
It’s been said you want Uma Thurman to play you? Oh yes [laughs]. I knew from the beginning that only Uma could play me. I hope Uma gets the same idea. She’s tall and strong-looking, and she is just an extraordinary actress. She’s not cutesy. She’s a real woman.
Your bio says you’ve gone to ‘great lengths’ to conceal your identity. Are we talking dramatic costumes? Wigs? No I never did that. A lot of those things are so uncomfortable to have on for three hours. Wigs are very tight and confining. I never wanted to be distracted from the pleasure of eating a meal. The most I’ve done is to always wear a hat over my eyes for photographers and television appearances, and to always make a reservation in another name, and constantly change the names since the restaurants are now pretty smart about this. After 40 years of reviewing restaurants it is likely that there’ll be someone there who will recognize me. But I don’t want them to know I’m coming, because if the chef is having a day off, boom, they’ll call him up and he’ll be there. I think you owe it to your reader to try and be anonymous.
Do you go to restaurants in hats? I always go bare-faced to restaurants. People may be looking for the hat, but it isn’t going to be me under that hat! If they see a blonde woman – let’s face it, I’m a blonde – in a hat, it won’t be me!
You ever send in decoys? I try to have my guests arrive first so they get a table anywhere in the room. When I come in and people recognize me I’m more likely to get a better table, or a table with a better waiter. We could be seated in Siberia. It helps you get a better impression of what the restaurant is like.
Guilty Pleasure Food: Macaroni and cheese. You have to feel pretty guilty every time you eat it. Restaurants are making it everywhere these days. I never eat it from the box. Although that is how my mother made it. I’m from the Velveeta cocoon.
Mounds or Almond Joys: Neither one. Baby Ruth and Jujyfruits.
Breakfast Philosophy: Kibbles and bits. All-Bran. No fat yogurt. Fruit. Two mugs of espresso coffee. And no more coffee for the rest of the day or they’d be peeling me off the ceiling.
Rise And Shine Time: At the moment I’m getting up at 6:30 AM to read the New York Times before working out. I usually work out from 8-8:15 AM. Then I start my day.
Exercise Routine: 5 days a week. I have a trainer who comes to the office. We’ve been together 17 years. If I had a gym membership I’d probably never get there.
Favorite Condiment: Sriracha.
Always In Fridge: Hellman’s Mayonnaise.
Favorite Food City: New York City. Paris is essential to refresh your palate.
Biggest Restaurant Pet Peeve: 1,000 people saying ‘enjoy,’ waiters introducing themselves by name and telling you their favorite dish when you didn’t ask. Too much intimacy from waiters. I prefer to not be aware of the waiter.
Worst Reaction From A Review: Paul Kovi at the Four Seasons. He used to kiss my hand and call me Madame Princess. The day after a critical review, when I put out my hand he held me two feet away. That was very shocking. Of course the worst reaction is when a restaurant closes. You do feel a certain regret. I don’t know that I’ve ever closed a restaurant. I think The Times can close a restaurant.
Best New Chef Discovery: My all time great chef discovery was Gilbert Lacoste in his early 20s, shy, and didn’t even come out of the kitchen with his sister Maggie in his first restaurant, Le Bernardin.
Nights A Week Spent Eating Out: At the moment we’re eating out six nights a week. It used to be eight [laughs], but we decided to stay home on Sunday. I’m ashamed to say we order in on Sunday.
Favorite Take-Out Spot: Don’t really have one. We often go to The Fairway Cafe, or Salumeria Rosi, which is a block from our door. It was one of my great discoveries of a restaurant this year. It’s very rare that a restaurant I love that much is a block from my door.
Favorite Food Holiday: Thanksgiving. I don’t care if there’s a turkey or not. I just want the stuffing.
Best Sandwich: There are two: Anne Rosensweig’s lobser club, and a sandwich of fresh black truffles and butter on country bread at Michel Rostang in Paris.
Brunch: Sweet or Savory: I’m asleep. I never eat brunch. I think it’s a meal that sends you back to bed. But if you brought me brunch in bed with the Sunday Times, I would be quite thrilled and hope it would be savory.
Travel Must-Have: The last six or seven issues of The New Yorker and my Italian coffee from Fairway. Italian Blend, and I have it ground to espresso grind. I use it in the machine in the room, and I bring filters just in case. I can make it in a toothbrush glass. You get used to a certain taste of coffee and this is very rich and dark.
Number Of Restaurants Reviewed: I tried to figure it out, all the days over the years. I came up with 18,814.
Most Memorable Dining Experience: The first time I went to Girardet in Switzerland. Everyone was talking about Freddy Girardet outside of Lausanne. It was extraordinary and I went back many times. There was a dinner and a lunch at Troisgros where I had escaped with the man I had an affair with. I called it a gourmaniacal detour. I have never forgotten about how wonderful and delicious that meal was.
How Many Hats Owned: Maybe 30 are currently in good condition. Hats are fragile; they get soiled and they can’t be cleaned, or they get crushed and they can’t be fixed up again. You have to send them to the thrift shop. There are 20 or so captain’s hats in different fabrics with different jeweling, and those are small and stuffed in a big box. Then I have the large hats with their own boxes. They’re in closets. You could fall over them if you went into my closet.
Top Chef Masters premieres Wednesday, June 10th at 10 PM on Bravo.