Longtime N&O restaurant critic Greg Cox shares his thoughts on home cooking, take-and-bake and Peruvian chicken.
by Addie Ladner
Greg Cox has an enviable job as the longstanding restaurant critic for The News & Observer—but his job looks a little different these days. Below, Cox shares the surprising story of how he came to be a restaurant critic, how he keeps himself anonymous and what his meals look like during COVID-19.
Was a restaurant critic always the goal? How did you get your start?
I wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy and got something published in the local paper. I loved the flattery that it brought me. I loved reading and words. I still can’t go anywhere without reading. I had no idea I would turn out to be a food writer though and never knew what a restaurant critic was. I grew up outside of Asheboro and we rarely ate at restaurants. And if we did, it meant a counter at a local drug store or a fish camp. 99% of our meals were at home.
So how did landing the restaurant critic for The News & Observer happen then?
I was a single stay-at-home dad and suddenly forced to come up with income. I had been homeschooling my daughter when my wife told me she wanted a divorce and, just as I had all my life when a crisis hit, I hit the books. I’d read everything I can so I was reading books on how divorce impacts children. Long story short, I remember reading that divorce is hugely jarring for children, much worse on the kids than it is for parents, and I wanted to keep things even-keel for her. Her mom traveled a lot so I wanted to find something job-wise that would allow me to still be a parent. I had been involved in the NC Writers Network and had friends in college who knew I was an avid foodie from going to college and traveling Europe together so I put out feelers hoping I could freelance from home. This was around 1994. While it wasn’t advertised, one of my friends told me the News & Observer needed a restaurant critic. At that time, there were two columns: Cheap Eats and Fine Dining. I had never written for any paid publication in my life, though I had published poems and articles in publications that paid in copies. I went to a tryout and there were a few people from local papers and me, the outsider. They sent us to do a review and said, go to this restaurant, take someone with you, we will pay for it, and write a review. I got called to do another one because I guess they wanted to see if I knew my stuff and I could write. They offered me the job and then the other person left. So 25 years now, I’ve been doing the weekly restaurant review.
And you’re still doing it, even now during COVID-19. What’s that been like?
The N&O has been wonderful. I’m not going into restaurants, so that’s shaking things up. Before the pandemic, my policy to do a full review was that I’d go at least twice, sit inside, get the entire experience. That’s different now, so my stories are more Greg Cox’s food journals during COVID and not really restaurant reviews. It’s entries of what I liked, where I went. I still try to make it interesting, as always, and write about the experience. Now that includes things like how it was delivered to my car. I’m still getting emails about people wanting to know about these things.
So you’re only eating at home and doing curbside pick-up and delivery then?
Half delivery and half curbside takeout. I live in Cary so I have to take into account what doesn’t travel well. Something that’s crispy fried obviously isn’t going to be crispy when I get home! We’ve done picnics on our deck and did a picnic in a sheltered area recently. It was a wonderful feeling of being out and away. I can’t wait until I can go back to restaurants. I love this job. I wouldn’t have lasted this long if I didn’t. People think that it’s cool and it is. There’s no job that you can’t get a little tired of sometimes—like the occasional night when I’d rather just stay at home and put a pizza in the oven.
Speaking of home, so are you cooking at home more?
Actually yes! I’ve been baking more. I was lucky enough to get flour and yeast before the shortage. I’ve been baking banana bread, and I also make this quasi-ice cream recipe with three smallish bananas and a spoonful of Nutella. It’s like banana soft service, very rich and I fold just a little milk in it to make it creamier. Early on, we ordered some tomato plants so we’ve been enjoying lots of tomatoes in different ways with a good rich olive oil. My wife and I are both high-risk, I should mention, so we’re hunkering down.
Go-to places to eat lately that travel well?
I’ve been finding these great take-and-bake meals. I like to encourage my readers to go ahead and get enough for lunch the next day. Why not? Centro has taco kits and enchilada platters. You don’t have to worry about it. I’ve had success with things like that. Sassool has been a go-to since before COVID. It’s inexpensive and healthy. Things like hummus, baba ganoush and tabouli keep for a few days. Peruvian rotisserie chicken, even in normal times, is a staple for me and especially good to utilize now. I stopped buying grocery store rotisserie chicken after I discovered the Peruvian options here. They’re not as overcooked and it feeds you multiple times. Alpaca, Mami Nora’s, Marco Pollo, all are good options for that.
A lot of people are reflecting now, spending more time at home, thinking about the things they miss. Any favorite dining experiences in the Triangle you’ve thought about lately that stand out in your mind?
Grateful as I am to still be able to continue writing about restaurants, I miss the total experience of dining in them — the ambience, the service, a cocktail made by a far more proficient bartender than I will ever be, food delivered hot (and, when it’s supposed to be, crispy) straight from the kitchen.
The most off-the-wall dish you’ve ever tried?
Gosh, I will try almost anything and I don’t think it’s off-the-wall! I really love all food. Long ago I used to work for an English pub, they had a steak and kidney pie I loved. I love kimchi too. Something that stands out is this Japanese fermented soybean dish that I didn’t like, it’s potent and the soybeans are in this slimy liquid, I couldn’t get into it. And I even like stinky cheese and anchovies but I couldn’t stomach it.
So what’s a typical day in meals in the life of Greg Cox?
Breakfast: During the week, it’s typically whole-wheat toast with almond butter or yogurt with granola and fruit. On the weekends we’ll do stone-ground grits cooked long and slow with a sunny side egg on top. My wife loves sweet breakfast, so I also make pancakes.
Lunch: Often it’s leftover Sassool, so something like a black bean salad or autumn root vegetables with baba ganoush and pita. I try to avoid cured deli meats, but I like roast turkey sandwiches or on a wholewheat tortilla wrap, sometimes. I’ll switch it up with curry mustard. When it’s cold, I’ll have a can of low sodium soup. It’s dirt simple.
Snack: I buy big tubs of hummus and I’ll drizzle olive oil on that, with vegetables for dipping.
Dinner: Usually a restaurant takeout or delivery or I’ll make something. I like to keep wild-caught shrimp or a lean cut of beef to grill if I’m not working on a restaurant story. Because I (fortunately) get to eat at so many restaurants, which can be heavier foods, when I’m cooking for myself I try to atone for all of that.
Drinks: I’ve become an amateur bartender this past year and will make simple syrups and typically most nights make myself a classic cocktail. I have a Nick & Nora glass that I’ll have my Martini or Manhattan from, they became so distinctive.
Dessert: I usually don’t do desserts but I’ll keep gingersnaps or Oreos for my wife. I save dessert for when I’m working.
Lastly, is Greg Cox your real name?
Believe it or not, it is! I’m very careful. I never use a credit card with my name, I don’t use my phone to make restaurant reservations. Somebody told me early on that you’re not allowed to write for a news publication and use your name and even back then, l was aware of pseudonyms in other publications like fiction and poetry, but it never occurred to me to do otherwise.
Alright, thanks Greg!