IF it was intended to, the announcement on Friday by New York magazine’s Insatiable Critic at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan certainly achieved the maximum frisson. Gael Greene stood at the microphone during the annual Power Lunch for Women benefiting Citymeals-on-Wheels — the nonprofit she co-founded 27 years ago to feed the city’s homebound elderly — and lamented the economic meltdown.
“I’ve just been downsized myself,” she said, and indeed, two days before, Ms. Greene had been fired after 40 years at New York. There were gasps, tsk-tsks and not a few shaken heads among the 340 leading ladies, including Nora Ephron, Martha Stewart, Kathleen Turner and Diana Taylor.
Most were unaware that the day before, Ms. Greene had sent her own news release about the sacking, referring to herself as “the brand name of restaurant journalism” at New York. But even among those who might have seen it coming, many were taken aback at the expulsion of the sensualist who influenced the way a generation of New Yorkers ate, and who served as a lusty narrator of restaurant life in New York for decades.
“It’s as if they removed the lions from the library steps,” said Michael Batterberry, editor and publisher of Food Arts magazine.
The priestess of radicchio, beurre blanc and arugula, Ms. Greene, who said she is 74, had become an attenuating natural resource at New York since giving up her weekly chief reviewer’s role eight years ago to write the Insatiable Critic column and run her independent Web site, InsatiableCritic.com. Her last column appears in the Dec. 1 issue.
“I just wonder why the magazine had to handle it this way,” said Julian Niccolini, a partner at the Four Seasons restaurant. “Who else has had her longevity? And look what she’s done for Citymeals-on-Wheels.”
Indeed, the luncheon raised a record $1.5 million, Ms. Greene said.
Debate among the stomach-obsessed since then has veered from whether she was an arbiter of the evolution of American dining — a legend to whom respect must be paid — or a relict of a bygone era too cozy with chefs she reviewed.
She was so cozy, in fact, that she wrote a book, “Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess” (Warner Books, 2006), indexing her artisanal affairs with everyone from star chefs (like Jean Troisgros and Gilbert Le Coze) to jus
t plain stars (Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds).
Before she relinquished her chief-critic role, there had been editors at New York who were stung by her pronouncements on which restaurants should be accorded how much attention, and Ms. Greene is still resented by some she criticized through the decades, none of whom agreed to say so for publication.
But Robert Lape, restaurant critic for Crain’s New York Business, said that Ms. Greene’s “palate is one of the best in the business,” and that “she could always parse a meal quite brilliantly, and her skills have not diminished.”
Her hold on celebrity chefs and their cellphones has not diminished, either. When interviewed for this article, Ms. Greene called Jean-Georges Vongerichten to ask if she could be photographed in his Jean Georges restaurant because “I love the light there,” she said. Mr. Vongerichten agreed, and met her at the shoot.
She perseveres in her incognito fetish — wearing her trademark hats and averting her head near photographers because “I hope to be anonymous when I walk into a restaurant with my bare-naked face,” she said.
Ms. Greene, a University of Michigan graduate who studied at the Sorbonne, said she was raised in a cocoon of Velveeta in Detroit, where she bedded Elvis Presley in 1956 as a U.P.I. reporter, as she tells it. (On the way out, she ordered The King a fried-egg sandwich from room service.)
After she became a reporter for The New York Post and then a freelancer, the founding editor of the nascent New York, Clay Felker, made her his first restaurant reviewer only months after the magazine’s debut in 1968.
“It was as if New York magazine had found its own version of Colette when it came to food,” Mr. Batterberry said. “She created an entirely fresh new voice, one that has never staled.”
She also launched an assault on the rep-tie restaurant criticism of the 1960s. Ms. Greene trashed the sacrosanct “21” Club as boring and overpriced, and lobbed word grenades into Elaine’s when few would have dared. She celebrated not only Lutèce and Le Bernardin but also the snack bar in Paley Park on East 53d Street.
Ms. Greene — who once wrote that “the two greatest discoveries of the 20th century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris” — said she has written about food as she has about sex: “How does it feel, how does it taste, and what is it about. If you are a sensuous eater, these things are important.”
Some have thought of her at times as what celebrity-wranglers bemoan as “heavy furniture.” But in her reviews and books, “she laid bare her laying bare — the pure sensualist unleashed,” Mr. Lape said.
Though often seemingly desperate for male attention in her public persona as a sort of forerunner Carrie Bradshaw, Ms. Greene was rejected by the old-boys’ network. Early on, her feminism was annealed by criticism from men who labeled her with such words as “housewife.”