Over coffee at The Ivy Observer food critic and regular MasterChef judge Jay Rayner tells Lucy Holden about metaphorically sharpening his knives, a feature that landed him in a Dutch bath with a hooker and a gram of coke, and why you shouldn’t take him so seriously.
When a scruffy cab pulls up outside The Ivy on a drizzly day in the West End, we both agree that they sent the bad car. It is Rayner’s transport for the journey across London to the BBC studios where he is due to appear on The One Show in a few hours’ time, and he has agreed to take me with him. In the car he checks his emails and has to make an abrupt phone call. “Darling – I’ve finally arrived. I thought you’d like to know,” quips Rayner into his Blackberry from across the backseat. It is the last in a series of communications stemming from the producers of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here: they want to know if he’ll go on the show. Rayner has called his wife, Pat, to tell her the exciting news: sarcasm drips from the phone. “Of course it’s a no” he adds unnecessarily. Peals of laughter from the other end of the phone are brilliantly audible. He hangs up and looks slyly over at me: “She’s beside herself” he says with a smirk, “I promise that wasn’t set up”.
Despite his ability to be very charming, Rayner has an honest yet controversial habit of saying what others wouldn’t dare, and this wins him as many fans as it does enemies. He is also chief food critic for The Observer and dines at expensive restaurants for a living, leaving many green with envy. Then there is the small matter that Jay compares dinner-experiences to car-crashes and muggings and says that the celebration of British food in some establishments is similar to ‘the way a murderer might dance upon its victim’s grave”. It is fairly embarrassing how many people in this country do not understand sarcasm.
Surprisingly Rayner seems fairly shocked when I suggest everything he writes is controversial. “Is it?” Yes, of course it is. “Well – God save us from beige. I don’t do it on purpose,” he attempts angelically. However he stops and has to retract his innocence. “Actually- that’s not entirely true. In The Observer Food Monthly column I do sharpen my knives.” He maintains though that he is still staggered by how seriously people take him. “The abuse I got from saying that ordering your steak well-done was an act of childishness… God they hated me. I got real abuse- real.” He pauses quickly to check how I have my steak cooked. Is medium-rare acceptable? “Yep: fine.” We are allowed to continue.
Jay Rayner was born at 4pm, just in time for tea. Although he now wonders about the respectability of being a food critic, it was perhaps inevitable that a round young boy who snuck solitarily off to eat snails in a local Swiss restaurant on school ski-trips would eventually turn his attentions to critiquing a life-long love. Yet Rayner clings to a history of gritty, real-life coverage; murder cases, security service threats, race crime. He once ended up having a bath with a cocaine-snorting hooker in Amsterdam whilst writing a piece that attempted to recreate Luke Rhinehart’s cult novel The Dice Man. This feature writing was his entrance into journalism and solid proof that he is a reporter. He will not be considered anything else.
In fact, Rayner’s career in journalism started upstairs in the Leeds student union. But Rayner says he is only comfortable talking about the ulterior motives that stained his decision to choose Leeds now he is in his forties and his mother is dead. Realising he wanted to be a journalist by fifteen, Jay quite quickly formed the ‘grotesquely precocious’ idea that if became the editor of the Leeds Student (the then biggest student paper in the country) he would put to death any accusations that his intended career was built on nepotism. He describes it as a light-bulb moment of epiphany. Rayner’s mother, Claire, achieved celebrity-status when she became agony aunt to the nation in the 70s and Jay wanted to prove that he could make it as a journo on his own accord. “Students are cynical bastards and the last thing they’d have thought of doing was voting for me because of who my mother was.” It took Jay a term to pluck up the courage to walk into the intimidating newspaper office but by term two his smooth and shameless route to the top had begun to unfold.
It appears nepotism though, does have a couple of benefits. From a young age Rayner was taking first dates to one of London’s coolest restaurants, Joe Allen’s; side-stepping the brawl for reservations because his family were already regulars of this celebrity-frequented hang out. Surely this little taste of notoriety instilled a desire for more? Not according to Jay. “In the 70s and 80s my mother was about as famous in this country as it is possible to be. I’m not even a foot in it. So the idea that you could even begin to match that seemed very, very odd.” His mother’s ‘people-collecting’ meant that their house became a casual playground for the stars of London’s show business: Christopher Biggins, Miriam Margoyles and Ian McKellen were regular tea-time guests, as were many others besides. “You could never really be sure who would turn up at our house,” Rayner remembers: “It was never dull.”
His mother’s fascination with people is something Jay, too, has inherited, but blames on his career. “Journalists tend by nature to be gratuitously nosey,” he explains in a semi-apologetic tone. Perhaps this is a trait that would entice Jay back to the harder stories he refers to as “proper journalism”? No – because he doesn’t think he’s ever left, even if there are fewer murders and more dessert in his most recent work. He pulls a scruffy black notebook out of his back pocket and flicks through pages of big scrawly handwriting that leans across the page. “I still carry one of those around with me”, he says, throwing it down on the table. “I dislike doing anything that isn’t underpinned with journalism. I’m a writer first, second, third and ninth.”
In 2003 The New York Times’ announcement that food criticism in London had become a “blood sport” was accepted by Jay with pride. “I’m not selling restaurants – I’m selling newspapers. Nobody reads my column to find out whether the lamb was overcooked or the fish was raw. They’re reading for the pleasure of reading. We’re selling an experience.” So who is this destructive journo that says the makeover of the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain is like seeing Waynetta Slob in knock-off Gucci, and that the fish at Bloom’s is denser than Jade Goody? Jay admits his reviewer-side is a persona – but not a complete one. “You can’t fake it. I’m playing a role – but I’m still a greedy bastard”.
“Bad restaurants are like car crashes and colds; they’re things that happen to me,” Rayner insists. Yet his latest publication, My Dining Hell, a compilation of Rayner’s most bile-dripping reviews, confesses that he would be lying if he said he never went to a restaurant knowing it was going to be awful. He claims the mob-like excitement that surrounds slating reviews makes it tempting to fill every column with vitriol and to spray blood and guts across every page. But it is a temptation he tries to resist – despite the fact that he has got a psychologist to help him prove people adore bad reviews. Why then do we “feast upon [bad reviews] like starving vultures who have spotted fly-blown carrion out in the bush”? The answer is social-comparison theory; the reason: when we hear about bad things happening to other people, we feel better about ourselves.
The restaurant trade however is less amused and Rayner has been faced with several legal letters, a punch in the arm and hostility you could cut with a knife. His verdict in court? Not guilty. “All is fair in love and war…” he starts, but trails off when he realises the coffee he ordered is waiting at the bar. He sends the waiter over to get it. “I just knew it was there … And I knew you’d hate it if I went to get it myself; you’d have been gutted,” he convinces him with mocking-sweetness as his cheeks twitch into a grin. The waiter, who knows Jay well, walks the short distance to the bar and returns with an espresso and a satirical smirk. “Service with a smile my good sir,” he says jovially. Jay asks if it is going in his lap?
With tiny coffee cup in huge hands Rayner now restarts his defence. “The one thing I have before I arrive at a restaurant is a pseudonym” he explains. “When I walk through the door they realise immediately that I’ve booked under a false name and know I’m there to review. If even I can’t get a smooth experience what hope is there for anybody else?” The statement, despite seeming soaked in arrogance, is really fairly true. Restaurants go above and beyond to impress critics and bribe a seamless write-up, so if a critic has an awful experience it implies even the restaurant’s best efforts fall short.
Rayner says this is an issue he is constantly battling. He has become closely interwoven with the restaurant trade and some people clearly think this should influence how he reviews. But he won’t let it. “I’ve just got to do what I do and take no prisoners. If I stop writing honestly then I’m not doing my job anymore; I’m not worth employing; I’m not worth reading.” As a result, relationships with others in the trade are difficult and possible only if they understand that Rayner will drag their restaurant through the mud if he has to. But he is unapologetic. It’s business.
What Rayner calls the “human ability to fuck things up” is usually achieved through a sequence of startlingly frequent absurdities: menus called ‘concepts’; atmospheres where people go to be seen and not to eat; interiors that suggest they’ve been designed by fetishists; and, above all, gastronomic illiteracy – disgustingly distasteful dishes of cold smoked duck and chocolate torte; Marie-Rose ice cream. Rayner believes the latter is an offence, not a course, and he is right.
Yet despite it all, Rayner has a realistic and, dare I say it, modest, outlook on being a critic. He quotes the closing words of the animated critic Anton Ego in Disney’s Ratatouille: “In many ways, the work of the critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement”. Rayner says Disney made critics hang their heads in shameful recognition.
Although Rayner is adamant he will never get tired of restaurants, his concern now is with food security, and how we can possibly begin to feed a starving world. He’s taking on middle-class assumptions about food and arguing that ‘local’, ‘seasonal’ and ‘organic’ are lifestyle choices which do nothing for the world’s benighted poor. The new book, A Greedy Man In A Hungry World, seems the antithesis of the global food-trotting Rayner has enjoyed in previous publications, and is out next spring. But he’s equally as nervous about its reception. “This one could really piss people off. I’m shooting sacred cows left, right and centre.”
On the way out of The Ivy Jay asks if I’d like to see his shrine? It turns out he’s more of a permanent fixture than I had at first realised”. Tucked out of sight, amongst a fair few-hundreds-of-pounds-worth of coats in The Club cloakroom is a mosaic of glossy Rayner faces cut from magazines and stuck onto the wall with blu-tak. Jay looks at me with a smile. “Are you going to write that I was agonizing over not sounding like a complete tosser?”
My Dining Hell by Jay Rayner is available on Amazon now and is an e-book priced £1.99.
Many thanks to Daniel Krieger for the use of his wonderful photography, all details of his work can be found at www.nycfoodphotographer.com