Tribute For Hillary Gregg, Line Cook at Top-Shelf Restaurants, Dies at 73

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Hillary Gregg signed on in 1979 as a line cook at the celebrated Quilted Giraffe, which was to restaurants what Studio 54 was to nightclubs — chock-a-block with celebrities and influential business, media and political figures.

It was quite a change for a cook who had started work in Caribbean hotels.

Barry Wine, the founder and owner of the Quilted Giraffe, which closed on New Year’s Eve in 1992 after winning four stars from The New York Times in 1984, called Mr. Gregg the restaurant’s “walking cookbook.”

Over his 11 years at the restaurant, on Second Avenue near 51st Street, many cooks learned their trade from his generous tutelage. “He was my grad school,” said Wayne Nish, who trained with Mr. Gregg and later employed him at his own celebrated Midtown East restaurant, March, where Mr. Gregg was a line cook for 14 years.

Mr. Gregg stood out as a calm presence in the rough-and-tumble kitchens of these two high-end restaurants and got along famously with most people, although he could be imperious — “kind of like a lion marking his territory,” as Mr. Nish put it.

Mr. Nish remembers the day when Mr. Gregg was at the end of a jostling line of cooks in March’s long, narrow kitchen, and Mr. Nish had to squeeze past him to reach the basement storage room. Mr. Gregg’s saucepan brushed Mr. Nish’s forearm and burned it a bit. It happened two more times.

“I said: ‘OK, first time’s an accident, second time’s a coincidence but the third time is enemy action,’” Mr. Nish recalled. “‘Do it once more and I’ll punch you in the face.’”

Instead of fighting they laughed it off.

“From that day on, we were the best of friends,” Mr. Nish said.

Mr. Gregg died of Covid-19 on May 3 at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, his daughter Ethel Gregg said. He was 73.

Hillary Gregg was born on April 4, 1947, in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to Empson Byrne, a carpenter, and Zilpha Gregg, a shopkeeper. He adopted his mother’s surname. He learned to cook at hotel restaurants in his homeland, a popular tourist and sailing destination.

Family lore has it that he worked as the private chef on board the yacht of Roy Cohn, the notorious McCarthy hearings lawyer and later an adviser to Donald Trump.

Hired by Mr. Wine, Mr. Gregg moved to the United States, was joined by his wife Yolanda and became a citizen. Along with his daughter Ethel, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Joanna; and a brother, Clarence.

At home Mr. Gregg recounted funny stories from work, often about the celebrities who frequented his restaurants. “Every story led back to the food — food was his passion,” Ms. Gregg said. “Food and politics — and the Mets.”

Mr. Gregg had an uncanny ability to size up a piece of cooked meat or poultry and tell the temperature just by looking at it, Mr. Nish said. After Mr. Gregg retired in 2008, his family found that going out together to restaurants was problematic. He would look at the food and tell the staff that it was the wrong temperature.

In retirement “he did let my mom control the kitchen,” Ms. Gregg said, “but on the table, he would always just dissect the food.”

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