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Theatre critic Gina Mallet ‘never gave up on a story’

Food was something that occupied Gina Mallet personally as well as professionally. Noisy restaurants and trendy wine labels were but a few of her pet peeves.

Peter Softly

Gina Mallet, influential theatre critic, food writer and restaurant reviewer, was a force majeure in both her chosen areas of writing. Talented, highly opinionated and known for her outspoken views, she was never concerned over ruffling the feathers of an on-stage ego or a renowned chef.

A positive Mallet review could ensure full houses for a theatre production. A negative review could damage box-office takings and reputations. Actor Peter Hutt recalls a review of George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance in which Ms. Mallet referred to him as "a useful prop."

"Many of her reviews were favourable," Mr. Hutt said, "but from time to time she could be incredibly sarcastic. She was clever with the pen. She had teeth as a writer. She was acerbic, astute and often personal. Not all my colleagues, however, held her in the highest esteem."

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During her later incarnation as a food writer for the National Post, Ms. Mallet had the power to close a restaurant, or pack it to the rafters. Her critical senses were constantly on high alert.

Even when confined to a hospital bed last fall, she couldn't resist taking a swipe in a National Post column at what she'd been served: "A sea of anemic scalloped potatoes, four times the amount of a regular side. Shouldn't hospitals be at the sharp end of the obesity problem? Shouldn't they be leading a Jamie Oliver crusade to slim down the population? This is a diabetes-inducing helping if I ever saw one."

Noisy restaurants and trendy wine labels were but a few of her pet peeves. After receiving a waiter's recommendation for a wine called Wildass, she wrote in her column: "I'm so tired of snickering wine labels. Imagine asking a guest, 'How about some Cat's Piss?'"

While raves were rare, when she liked something she could be effusive. "I put together a taste of the spicy lobster claw, the scallop, crab, pear, caviar and sop up a little of the buttery jus with the most delicate tinge of the mild espelette pepper. The mix is so good that I'm loath to swallow it, it's gone too quickly."

Ms. Mallet's writing garnered her a 2005 James Beard Award, the food-writing equivalent of a Giller Prize, for her book, Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World.

When the book was released, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, no slouch in the cuisine and food-writing departments, said Ms. Mallet was "right about everything."

Benjamin Errett, managing editor of features for the National Post, where Ms. Mallet ended her career, was recently quoted in that paper describing her as "serious about food but irreverent about most everything else, which made her a great restaurant critic.

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"She could be equally rapturous about a good onion ring or perfectly seared goose foie gras, and woe to those who would keep her from the latter, what she deemed the holy wafer of haute cuisine."

Before moving to Toronto's Kensington Hospice for her final days, Ms. Mallet requested a dozen oysters. "She downed them with gusto," said Pat Softly, a neighbour who was with her at the time. "I sometimes wonder if she knew it was her last meal." Ms. Mallet died July 18 of cancer, aged 75.

A friend and colleague from her Toronto Star theatre-reviewing days, James (Jim) Bawden, wrote on his blog that he was shocked to learn of Ms. Mallet's death because it was "so out of character. I thought she'd be shouting and fighting to the end but she finally just slipped away ever so peacefully."

The formidable and frequently volatile Ms. Mallet was born on April 5, 1938, in London, England. She was the second daughter of Arthur Mallet, a Royal Navy officer who went on to become company director of a chain of hotels that included London's swanky May Fair.

The Mallets were descended from Jacques Mallet du Pan, a Geneva-born French journalist who was a protégé of Voltaire and exiled writer on the French Revolution. Gina's grandmother, Lady Marie Mallet, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, wrote letters from court that were eventually published by Gina's uncle Sir Victor Mallet. Gina's mother, Isabelle Mallet (née McDonough) wrote radio plays and book reviews, as well as magazine articles about cooking.

Just after the Second World War was declared, Isabelle Mallet, an elegant American from Brooklyn, returned to New York with her two daughters, where they lived with the family of Whitelaw Reid, proprietors of the New York Herald Tribune. Lifelong family friends, the Reids are thought to have encouraged Gina's interest in journalism.

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Two years later, Arthur Mallet rejoined his family when he was posted to New York in 1942 as a British liaison officer. In 1945, the Mallets returned to the British town of Shillingford, Oxfordshire, while maintaining a London residence in the splendid flats that existed above the Harrods department store.

Gina attended Langford Grove, a boarding school with an eccentric headmistress who regularly sent students off to watch French films and opera rehearsals in the nearby town of Brighton. Inculcated in independent thinking, Ms. Mallet furthered her education with a two-year program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Her friends included actress Anna Massey and photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later the 1st Earl of Snowdon, who took her portrait. She came out as a debutante in 1958, one of the last to be presented to the Queen. The practice was thereafter discontinued, deemed as being elitist and out of step with the times.

In her mid-20s, Ms. Mallet moved to Los Angeles, then to New York. While in New York she found out she had uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy, thereby dashing any hopes of having her own children.

In 1964, with her good connections, theatre training and distinctive writing style, she was hired at Time magazine. She worked first on the People page, then as an assistant to the drama critic of the day, T.E. Kalem. Her byline appeared when he was unable to attend an opening.

Ms. Mallet's style was pithy and direct. She loved nothing more than getting a scoop. In the early days of her career, she took direction well and would rework stories until they shone. In later years, she was a bit of a terror who'd fight like hell with editors over placement of her stories. Screaming matches were not uncommon.

In 1976, the Toronto Star recruited her as the paper's theatre critic. Then-managing editor Ted Bolwell, who had been a senior editor at Time, remembered Ms. Mallet's writing as brilliant. He suggested to the entertainment editor that she take a look at Ms. Mallet's work. The deal was done.

Wanting to get up to speed on the Canadian scene, Ms. Mallet hung around Toronto's TheatreBooks gossiping and picking the brain of store co-founder Leonard McHardy. "She did a lot of sleuthing about who was who. Like a dog with a bone, she never gave up on a story," Mr. McHardy said.

Their relationship changed after he became the director of press and public relations at the Stratford Festival. "I had to be more discreet. She wanted answers faster than I could give them," he said. "Some people called her a hatchet lady but she was extremely knowledgeable. She was a great supporter of Stratford and the Shaw Festival. She liked actors in general, and particularly William Hutt." She was also extremely fond of British actress Dame Maggie Smith, who reportedly once said that a profile piece Ms. Mallet wrote on her was about the best she'd ever read.

Having covered theatre for more than 15 years in Toronto, Ms. Mallet left the Toronto Star to become a day trader with money she had both inherited and earned from the sale of her house. Although she loved the excitement of the stock market, she was not successful at investing. "I begged her not to do it," said Hilary Simpson, her oldest friend from boarding school days. "Computers had just become very popular and, like many others, she got taken to the cleaners."

Ms. Mallet returned to writing, this time about her other passion, food. She'd extended her knowledge of haute cuisine by taking a Cordon Bleu culinary course in Paris. She occasionally wrote about food for The Globe and Mail before joining the National Post in 2007. Food was something that occupied her personally as well as professionally. "She was a fabulous cook who could whip up something from nothing. She loved wine, and orchestrating lunches and dinners," said David McCaughna, a freelance writer and publicist friend of Ms. Mallet's for 40 years.

The two attended many theatre openings together and, in the latter part of Ms. Mallet's career, dined out at restaurants. She encouraged him to steal menus for reference, or simply stuck them in her purse.

He says her changeable nature kept friends on their toes. He recalled once being ejected from a New Year's Eve dinner party she threw because he made a comment she didn't like. "She was definitely to the right in her political views," said Mr. McCaughna. "I can't remember a conversation we had in the last five years that she didn't rail against Obama. I learned to just nod and say, 'Uh-huh.' But being highly opinionated was part of what made her interesting."

Ms. Mallet was an intensely private individual, so much so that a casual reference to once having bumped into her ex-husband in New York surprised her circle of friends. It also surprised her nephew, Mowbray Jackson. He conceded it was entirely within character that his aunt could have married and not told anyone. Ms. Simpson says it's highly unlikely her friend ever married, although she did have several serious relationships. Whether a marriage existed or not, Ms. Mallet lived the rest of her life amid a coterie of friends.

"If she liked you, she liked you, but she could turn on a dime," said Mr. McHardy. "Gina was deeply involved in life through the prism of culture. Whether it was food or theatre, she didn't hold back on anything."

As Mr. Jackson put it: "She loved a good debate, as long as you agreed with her."

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