Jay Rayner, Food Critic
I’m a greedy man. I’m a man of appetite, let’s put it that way.
‘The dining room, deep in the hotel, is a broad space of high ceilings and coving, with thick carpets to muffle the screams’, wrote restaurant critic Jay Rayner, in his now famous take-down of luxury Parisian establishment, Le Cinq. Playing to the the British public’s appetite for sardonic commentary, Rayner’s acerbic wit and incisive prose is the public’s voice for every bad, overpriced dinner we have ever had to suffer. Amongst the handful of critics in the capital whose column inches have the power to engineer a restaurant’s success with the clatter of a few keyboard keys, Rayner’s writing stands almost as canon. ‘It’s a writing job not an eating job’, he declares, as he sits in a discreet corner of Soho’s Brasserie Zedel. With the worst and most incendiary reviews dominating the press, the job of a restaurant critic demands a thick skin and a strong stomach. We sit with the capital’s leading food critic to speak about dining disasters, the cardinal sins of the restaurant industry and his enduring relationship with music.
TBE – How has your role as a critic changed your approach to food?
I suppose the first thing is experience. I have an expense account, so I get to eat at restaurants I wouldn’t normally choose to eat in. I’m a greedy man. I’m man of appetite, let’s put it that way. So this is no great struggle for me but it does mean that I’ve ended up trying certain styles of cookery that would not necessarily be my thing and broadening my knowledge. In a way that’s what all journalism is.
I always say there’s no such thing as food writing, there’s just writing, and I’ve written about almost everything in my time. The brilliant thing about being a journalist, is it’s an entrée to every single aspect of life. So if someone says, ‘go to this prison and speak to this guy who’s been held on remand for murder’, how often do you get to meet a murderer? By the same token, when you get sent to a Michelin 3-star restaurant, it’s not the kind of thing I’d normally do. So it’s getting paid to experience more.
TBE – After years of reviewing restaurants, what do you think the greatest sin a restauranter can commit?
To forget the customer. To design an experience that they think is clever, and expect you to fit in with it. If the experience works, you don’t have to fit in with it because you just do. The greatest sin a chef can commit is to cook for themselves rather than for the customer.
TBE – Is that what you think happened with the Le Cinq situation?
Oh God. Well on the one hand it is about a chef who I think lost sight of the customer a very, very long time ago. It’s also about a luxury aesthetic that thinks ‘if we attach bells and whistles to everything, you won’t actually notice the real thing that’s going on in front of you’. That does go on in high-end restaurants, so you end up with battalions of waiters ferreting about at your lap to put a napkin down. Parades of them lifting plates and ‘would you like a stool for your handbag’ and all that kind of bollocks and what they fail to notice is the actual thing they’re doing. The food is crass.
Parades of them lifting plates and ‘would you like a stool for your handbag’ and all that kind of bollocks and what they fail to notice is the actual thing they’re doing.
TBE – Did you ever hear back from them?
No and I wouldn’t have expected to. They played that very, very well. They said it was ‘rich bashing’ which was hilarious. They said it was ‘Brexit mentality’, which, given I am an ardent remainder, is strange. They also ignored the fact that I’ve eaten in many three star Michelin restaurants, so this is not my first time. I wasn’t a virgin going “oooh look at the sights”, so this was nothing new for me at all. But no I wouldn’t have expected them to respond at all.
TBE- You said that greed was presented to you as a lifestyle choice. Do you think that greed is intrinsically tied up with the enjoyment of food?
I am more likely to be drawn to people of appetite. I think that you can learn almost everything you need to know about another person at the table, by watching them eat. The one who pulls the crisp skin off the roast chicken and pushes it aside is not going to be my friend. The one who eats asparagus with a knife and fork is not going to be my friend. I can tell an enthusiast who will suck the marrow from the thigh bone of life or not. I’m more likely to be drawn to people like that. I come from a noisy Jewish family for whom food was a major way of communicating. It’s who we were and it’s who I remain. So put me in a room with someone who doesn’t really care about food and I will despair.
TBE- Your 6th food commandment states, ‘choose thy dining companion carefully’. Who has been your worst to date?
Sometimes I auction my companionship for charity, and I was bought by a Russian Ice Queen who spent the entire dinner talking about herself, rolled her eyes at everything. She claimed that she spent £2,000 on me for the charity because she wanted tips on blogging and writing, but she asked me not a single question. I can’t imagine that she had any interest in anything I had to say. She was charmless, miserable. In the end I just started slagging off Vladimir Putin to see what her response would be. She was furious.
TBE – So how did that meal end?
Jay Rayner, Food Critic
I come from a noisy Jewish family for whom food was a major way of communicating. It’s who we were and it’s who I remain. So put me in a room with someone who doesn’t really care about food and I will despair.
“For great seafood, go to the seafood bar at Bentley’s. Don’t go upstairs, stay downstairs, watch the men shuck oysters, it’s a class act but it’s not cheap.”
TBE – Seeing as you’re surrounded by food all day, do any of the dishes make it to your own kitchen?
To a point. There are certain small ways in which if I really liked something, and I can see that it’s quite simple to achieve at home, I will give it a go. And then sometimes, I try something and think, that’s too much faff that’s why you do it in restaurants. You do pick up certain tricks and certain things. You can’t help it. One of the skills I have is an ability to eat a dish and roughly work out how it was done.
Jay Rayner, Food Critic
I once spent 2-days staring out of a window trying to work out how the simplest dish I had been served had been achieved.
The dish was a pot and in the bottom was some morels in a veal jus with a single perfectly cooked scallop on top, and it was under a dome of pastry. It was going to take 15 minutes, and a very hot oven to cook the pastry. So the question was, how do you do that without overcooking the scallop? It took me 2-days to work out how they’d done it but I cracked the code. It basically meant refrigerating every single element every single time until it was all stone cold when it went in the oven. But that’s a kind of nerdy thing to do.
TBE – What dishes do you enjoy cooking?
I love braising, it’s a very macho male thing, I love taking a large piece of meat and searing it off, making a good deglaze, putting it in the oven for 7-hours. That makes me very happy. But also the thing I love when you can get a complete meal together in 40-minutes and it looks kind of fancy. So things like racks of lamb, moules-frites and actually, clams. There’s a kind of Vietnamese inspired noodle soup you can do from top to bottom in 35-minutes
TBE – Anything you avoid making?
I’m not good at pastry. It’s chemistry, you can’t muck about with it. You better know what you’re doing. That’s why Bake Off is so compelling because it takes extreme talent and knowledge. So whilst I’m great at certain things: meat and fish, getting vegetables at the right point, getting various flavors, tell me to make pastry and I’ll cry.
TBE- You must have had some cooking disasters in your time?
So I once tried confit and pork belly, so confit is when you’re preserving under fat. You take the pork belly, cook it very very slowly for about 8-hours under goose-fat, and then you take it out and then you press it and on and on it goes, and it was great. It did take 10-hours and my kitchen was covered in fat so I thought ‘I’m never doing that again’.
(Left) “If you’re going to eat steak do it properly and go to Hawksmoore, Air Street.”
TBE – Speaking of food disasters, can you share a story of your worst meal?
I find the worst meal ever hard to define, but there is one I keep coming back to. There was an Indian chef that wrote to me and claimed he was the Indian Jamie Oliver (which I think was an interesting idea, because Indian food could possibly do with that revolutionary lightness, bish-bash-bosh approach). He nagged and he nagged and he nagged. He kept going at me and eventually I went. It was a place called the Rajput in Harrogate. The food was appalling, just overworked and overwrought and strained. But the thing that defined it was that the waiters were just dead behind the eyes. They were miserable, distracted, and when I wrote the review, I said that bad restaurant experiences are worst than car crashes because at least in a car crash the emergency services come to help you out.
I said that bad restaurant experiences are worst than car crashes because at least in a car crash the emergency services come to help you out.
Eventually the emergency services did come, because it turned out that the chef and his mother had been people trafficking. That these waiters who were miserable as hell, were miserable as hell for good reason, because they were held in pretty much servitude. They, the chef and his mother were arrested and sent to prison. I look back on that and think of the whole dysfunction of restaurant experience, that restaurant in Harrogate… really it was a terrible experience that left a bad taste in the mouth which only got worse.
TBE- Are there any restaurants you love but you want to avoid reviewing for fear of them becoming too popular?
No, I’m a journalist, we don’t keep secrets. I mean literally, we’re terrible at keeping secrets, and if it was really good, why would we? The only one that I kind of had a twinge about, was Sushi Tetsu, down in Farringdon Passage. Only nine seats (talk about sushi bars), but possibly the best sushi in London at the most reasonable price. I mean real proper, proper stuff. You know, I wrote that review and I think I even said ‘you’ll never get in’. But, I managed to get a table.
TBE – With everyone being a critic these days, how has that changed the way you write?
I am more conscious now than I think I would have been on certain issues. Price and value for money (not always the same thing), have always been something that I’ve been conscious of. It’s certainly the case that readers rant about that. So I always feel the need to comment and be guided by their responses. I try not to second guess the commenters, but it’s almost impossible not to. You can be told about your stupidity very, very quickly these days. More so than in the past.
When I started 20, 30 years ago, I was told that one letter represented the opinions of a thousand people. As in, a thousand people may think something but only one will be bothered to write the letter. Now, all thousand of them will bloody tell you.
You can be told about your stupidity very, very quickly these days.
TBE – I guess with the immediacy of online journalism you have to be more sensitive to a lot of things?
Or the opposite. You probably have to be less sensitive. I try to be anyway. But I also try to be pugnacious – ‘if you don’t like it fuck off’. Occasionally people send me really stroppy emails and then I reply, ‘it seems to me that the best way forward would be for you to never read my column again’. And they go “well…well…then, really?!’. It’s a choice, and it’s often a choice you make online actually – how many people are you going to piss off while also achieving your goals.
I do a lot of live shows and I have to pimp those shows on Twitter, I’m absolutely aware that each time I’m doing that, there’s somebody somewhere rolling their eyes. I have to pay attention to that and think ‘I’ve got 195-thousand followers, how many of them can I afford to lose?’
TBE – You’ve got 195-thousand followers for a reason.
Oh, because I just bollock around on Twitter yeah. Because I’m a show off who just likes people’s attention.
TBE – So let’s speak about the fact you are in a band. Do you find that your music is tied up in your creative expression as a writer?
No, they’re separate things, there is a similar process in arranging to writing. So I tend to play other people’s music. I don’t play or write originals, but I like to arrange them in a new way.
It requires me to ask the same questions I ask when writing an article. You need to know what the story is. For example, there’s a song Get me to the Church on Time, right at the beginning of the musical My Fair Lady. It’s a very upbeat tune with its lyrics ‘I’m getting married in the morning’. Then I got to thinking about life, and when set pieces of life aren’t as you’d wish them to be. One thing you discover as a parent when your kids are very small, is that the days you plan meticulously are often miserable, but the one’s that happen by accident are glorious. So, I then started thinking, what if you didn’t want to get married in the morning? What if you were miserable about it? So the version we play is a jazz/ blues version and it’s really damp, ‘I’m getting married in the morning, ding.dong’.
The other way, is performing songs about food and drink. Because I’m a critic, I can tell stories about my job whilst I play. So it makes sense that we take songs from the food and drink repertoire like Black Coffee, One for my Baby. The lyrics matter, so my dear wife who sings, she has to be with the project.
Jay Rayner on how best to enjoy his album ‘ A Night of Food & Agony’ :
I think you can work your way through actually. Start with a whiskey sour, move onto a glass of champagne and then finish with a red or white, but don’t mix the two.
TBE – So your latest album, can you tell me a little more about it?
Well the album was recorded in an amazing venue called the Crazy Coqs downstairs of Brasserie Zedel. We’ve played there many times, and to me it’s pretty much like home. It’s the perfect cabaret venue and seats only 80, so it was very clear that we should record a live album here. We recorded in march of this year, with two shows back to back, 7 ‘o’clock and 9.30. It was also taking a chance actually, because I knew that we had to set up all the equipment, pay for it, and know that if there wasn’t good enough stuff, they would not be willing not to release it. Happily there was.
TBE – What’s the best way to experience your album?
JR: The interesting thing with this album is that it’s the capturing of the full show. So it’s got all the patter in it, it’s got all the drama in it and it’s got all my stories. Ideally you’re gonna put your headphones in, get a glass of wine, sit back and listen to the whole thing from top to bottom. But you know, I don’t care how you listen to it as long as you enjoy it.
JAY RAYNER’S PLAYLIST
‘THE HAPPY KITCHEN’
An inquiry into the connection between what we eat and how we feel. Featuring author Rachel Kelly of ‘The Happy Kitchen’ and psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber.
Toulouse-born vegan and raw-food chef, Jean-Christian Jury speaks about his changing tastes, sharing recipes and cooking techniques.
James Duigan, founder of Clean and Lean and Bodyism, discusses the mind-body connection behind diets and encourages mindful contemplation of our ‘why’.
Jay Rayner is the Observer’s restaurant critic and a feature writer. To read an archive of all his journalism visit jayrayner.co.uk.