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words Chris Zacharia
“Eating is a visceral thing – it’s mentioned in the deadly sins for a reason” – A conversation with Jay Rayner
He’s the master of restaurant reviews. His appearances on The One Show make it almost bearable. And now he’s touring the country performing a live show recounting his worst dining experiences.
Jay Rayner is a man of many talents – he performs in a jazz band, has published both fiction and non-fiction, is a confident and bullish TV personality, and writes The Observer’s flagship food column.
Interviewing Rayner, then, is a somewhat imposing challenge. How do you review the man who delivers scathing restaurant tear-downs like no other? How do you talk about food with a man who’s eaten the lot?
I needn’t have concerned myself. Jay’s a friendly bloke. Much, much nicer than you’d assume of a beefy, no-holds-barred restaurant critic with a famously biting wit. Still, I start by simply asking why he chose to tour an entertainment show based around his worst restaurant experiences.
“If I’d called it ‘My Dining Heaven’, no one would’ve showed up” he quips. “People love a good skewering. Writing a positive review is much harder than writing a negative one, but people relish the horror stories far more”
Have people reacted in the way he expected?
One thing you realise as you’re talking to Rayner is that the easygoing clarity which illuminates his writing is not confined to the page. The familiar yet knowledgeable voice which he has cultivated so successfully in print animates his conversation, too. Within a few minutes, you feel as though you’ve known him for years.
So what does he think about the recent explosion in the popularity of food writing? Do you think have to have worked in a kitchen before starting a food blog?
“No, I don’t think so” Rayner muses. “The most important thing is to be able to write. I’m a writer first, second, third, and ninth. You have to be a good writer first. It’s not enough just to love food. People say to me all the time, saying ‘I love restaurants. I think I’ll be be a restaurant reviewer’ And I think, No! You must, must be able to write first”
It’s a message that Rayner clearly believes in. Aside from his columns and novels, he also published the widely-acclaimed Greedy Man in a Hungry World, an exploration of contemporary food culture, production and security which also managed to be highly readable. Given that he’s found so much success in publishing, how did a sidestep into live entertainment come about?
“Since the book spoke about food security, I realised that I was going to have to do panel discussions with experts and their entrenched opinions, and I hate that, absolutely hate it, so I decided that instead of those tedious panels I would do a live show instead. And it went really well: I performed the show around sixty times before it was retired. It taught me a lot about delivery. We had a PowerPoint presentation and a second hand on stage helping me”
Yet even the success of the Greedy Man tour couldn’t have fully prepared Rayner for his latest round of shows, many of which include jazz performances as well as the stand-up routine. Rayner is modest about his achievements as a musician.
“I knew My Dining Hell would work with audiences – it’s a subject I know well, and performing live doesn’t really phase me. But jazz – jazz is far less in my comfort zone”
During the ‘double-header’ shows, as Rayner calls them, the first half is comprised of his Dining Hell routine, while the second half features his jazz quartet, who play “agonies, blues songs”.
“We just did a show at Ronnie Scott’s, and the number of people who came over and told me at the end that they’d never been to Ronnie Scott’s before. They’d only come because – forgive me for saying – they recognised my name”
There can’t be too many restaurant critics whose live shows evolve into jazz performances. Rayner’s musical performances benefit from his showmanship – even if he’s not the greatest musician, as he himself admits.
“Music colleges are churning out amazing musicians, but they’re not producing very good performers. That’s a different skill…Jazz musicians haven’t helped themselves. People have this perception that they’ll have to sit through fifteen minute songs without a recognisable tune while the musician moodles on and on”
If a food stand-up plus live music show is unconventional, Rayner is at least perceptive when it comes to why his live shows have been so successful.
“In a digital age, where you can download anything, a live performance offers authenticity”
Doesn’t it help that Britain has undergone something of a food revolution in the last twenty years? I suggest that his show wouldn’t have had much of an audience back in the mid-90s.
“That’s true. Twenty years ago, if I’d said, “Right, I’m going to do a live show about restaurants’, then no, I don’t think it would have worked”
Have food writers helped this change to come about?
“I don’t think we’re as important as that” he remarks dryly.
It’s this refusal to be carried away which makes Rayner so trustworthy. He admits, though, that Tony Bourdain’s “muscular, direct, discursive” Kitchen Confidential changed the game for him.
“It took food away from the namby-pamby side, the ‘Oh my gosh, that mouthful was a transcendental experience, it took me to another place’ stuff. Eating is fundamentally a visceral thing – it’s mentioned in the deadly sins for a reason. Food writing should reflect this”
One of the reasons that Greedy Man was so successful was due to Rayner’s counter-intuitive argument that despite the assurances of food marketing, there never was a ‘golden age’ of British cooking (“We’re living in it now” is his exasperated riposte) and that idealised versions of national cuisines are usually founded in little more than myth.
“All these trendy developments in food – farmer’s markets and so on – appeal to this ideal that we have to somehow go back to our peasant roots, that there was this incredible food culture going on in the past. Ask any historian: there wasn’t. Most people’s diets were appalling”
Yet after a century of processed foods, where the production of food is so divorced from its consumption, surely we’ve lost some kind of connection with our food? Look at the French – their unselfconscious engagement with the food of their ancestors is something we should aspire to.
“In a sense, yes. During the Second World War, we lost a whole generation of cooks – the connection to peasant cooking, to the land, was lost. In France, that wasn’t the case, as after the German invasion, they returned to their homes and carried on as farmers”
Nonetheless, he’s bullish about the prospects for British cuisine.
“On this, I actually agree with Matthew Ford. While we may have started from a lower base, our food culture is on the up just as other places are on the way down”
Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that Britain has a less rigid sense of its national larder – we’ve always been happy to adopt ingredients, dishes and cuisines from all over the world, developing a versatile sense of taste along the way.
“Robust culinary cultures, like those you find in France and Italy, are actually more restrictive – they’re less likely to accept new ingredients. All these middle class people say they adore French food, or Italian food, or whatever, but a week into your holiday in Perpignan and you’re sick of eating the same old dishes. There a few places more exciting to eat than our cities right now”
What does that mean for authenticity?
“Authenticity is bullshit” Rayner declares, with his typical directness. “Recipes always evolve – there’s no such thing as ‘the real thing’. That’s why PDOs [Protected Designation of Origin] are so unhelpful. I don’t want to sound like a Tory, but surely a product should be able to stand for itself, on its own merit?”
Here, Rayner and I disagree. While imperfect, the PDO system (an EU-led scheme to ensure that culturally significant foods are made according to the right recipe, process and location) protects people from knock-off produce. It means that cheap imitations can’t piggyback on more trusted names. For instance, the PDO on Feta cheese means that it can only be called Feta if it has been made in Greece, using the milk of local sheep or goats. When you buy a product called Feta, you know you’re getting something that’s of a good quality. That can’t be bad, right?
“To a certain extent, yes, it does protect consumers”, Rayner concedes. “But there’s a much bigger danger that it stifles creativity. What if a better feta is made in Britain? It should be more like andouillette, which is given a rating by a panel of experts”
Given his penchant for puncturing beautiful lies and half-truths, how does he cope with being so prominent on Twitter, a platform full of posturing? Rayner laughs uproariously.
“Twitter is at it’s best when it’s acting as a crust, a thin layer of everybody’s opinion”
Finally, in a world where food is scarce, where our relationship with food is becoming increasingly warped, isn’t it important to eat mindfully? And, as a food writer, to encourage people to eat more consciously?
“I do think it’s important to be mindful while eating, but…No, I don’t think I could be dictatorial about getting your smartphone out over dinner, or reading the paper with lunch. There are certain foods which almost require the TV in front of them. Others will completely draw you into them”
So if food writers don’t bear this responsibility, what is their role?
“It is a massive, massive privilege to write for others” Rayner begins. “There’s so much out there to read. They don’t have to read what you’re writing. They don’t have to finish what you’re writing once they’ve started. That’s always my first goal: get ’em to the bottom of the page”
Jay Rayner’s next performance is on 29th April at Swansea Grand Theatre – tickets to this show and others on the tour can be found here