Mr Jay Rayner On The Business Of Eating Well
As he launches his new book, My Last Supper, London’s top restaurant critic talks Michelin stars, hidden gems and his favourite fellow writers
If you want to understand where and how to eat well, it’s often best to ask those who do it for a living, rather than consulting the Wild West of internet food forums. If you could handpick anyone for such a task, it may as well be Mr Jay Rayner. One of Britain’s best-known figures when it comes to eating out, he has 20 years’ experience writing restaurant reviews for The Observer (he is quick to remind us that he is a restaurant critic, not a food critic – more on that later). His reputation as a critic who inspires fear (unintentional, he insists) has made him instantly recognisable. His large frame, confident manner and mop of curly black hair are famous, as is his knack for crafting a shrewdly eviscerating sentence.
His reviews describing just what a terrible evening he has had, though few and far between, have cult followers among those who care about the serious business of eating. His review of the three-Michelin-starred Le Cinq in Paris, for example, might have inspired some readers to call the police to report a murder. Needless to say, he does not appreciate stools for handbags or the perplexing trend of “spherification” (Google it).
Mr Rayner is also an author (and a talented jazz musician, but that’s another feature for another time) and his latest title, My Last Supper, is out today. Inspired by a question he is frequently asked – what would you eat for your last supper? – this book attempts to answer it once and for all.
If you think this is a quest for the perfect meal, you’re mistaken. It is better described as a sequence of flawed pilgrimages to track down some of the world’s most amazing ingredients. He goes to San Francisco in search of oysters, Paddington for pig and Paris for snails. The resulting meal is impressive, but less than harmonious. “It’s not the perfect supper,” says Mr Rayner when we meet in The Ivy in London. “I’m very clear on that. People aren’t really asking what your last meal would be. Because all candidates for a last meal are not suited to eating it. It’s a true expression of who you are and of appetite. The meal I finally serve at the end of the book is bonkers. Some of the booze is horrible.”
Four Seasons in London’s Chinatown features heavily in the book. Where else do you like eating in London when you’re not reviewing?
You should go to Four Seasons and order the Cantonese duck. I spend a lot of my own money in Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill. The places I go to are quite repetitive. I go downstairs in The Ivy Club. The food there is comfort food mostly. I like Sartoria, Francesco Mazzei’s place, and Dumplings’ Legend. I’m still a big fan of Joe Allen because it was a really important restaurant. Jeremy King of [restaurant group] Corbin & King was the maître d’ there, Russell Norman of Polpo worked there, Rowley Leigh was a head chef there. There’s an argument that it’s the most important restaurant in the development of London restaurants. There’s a nice tapas place called Boqueria on Acre Lane in Brixton. And I love Mamalan, which is Beijing street food, also in Brixton.
How do you decide what to review?
I need a story, something that will maintain 1,100 words. An old reporters’ thing is you need to be able to write the piece before you’ve gone in. I teach a class occasionally on how to write about the same thing repeatedly. A column is still a work of journalism and you need to know what your story is. Otherwise, you find yourself wittering on about what you did on your holidays, as some critics might like to do.
What type of criticism do you dislike?
I live in fear of self-regarding aesthetes who bang on about this vintage whatever with that finely sourced poulet de Bresse. I mean, yeah, I can do a bit of that. But I can’t help wondering where their interest lies. Are they pinning these experiences to a board like butterflies or are they enjoying themselves? There is a blogger whose entire raison d’être is going around trying restaurants with Michelin stars. And it’s deathless prose. He gives everything a score out of 20. I mean, f*** off! You are the death of all joy. I call them napkin sniffers. The reason I like my job is because I love sitting in restaurants and talking to people over nice food.
What about Mr AA Gill? He often wrote very little about the restaurant.
If Adrian really cared, the whole review would be about the restaurant. He was an extremely gifted writer. I would say that pretty much without exception most of the big critics are very, very good writers. I tend to avoid reading their columns. I don’t want to read them when they’re better than mine. I don’t want to read Giles [Coren] being funnier than me. I don’t want to read Marina [O’Loughlin] being cleverer than me. I don’t want to read Grace [Dent] being wittier than me.
Michelin tends to split opinion. Do you think it’s a force for good?
Everybody likes prizes. I understand why chefs are interested in it. The greatest trick Michelin ever pulled off was making everyone else feel ownership over them. But I find their aesthetic tedious. One-star places are quite interesting. But once you get beyond that there’s always a teenager floating about to put a napkin on your lap. And you ask where the toilets are and they f***ing lead you there. Too much of the food isn’t delicious enough. They are completely blind to anything outside the very Eurocentric Franco-leaning culinary tradition. It’s remarkable the number of French restaurants in Tokyo and Shanghai they’ve given three stars. There was a time in the UK when it made a kind of sense. As time has passed, we’ve become less and less impressed by thick tablecloths and nice glasses.
What makes a good restaurant?
In one of my live shows I quote the old Tolstoy line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All good restaurants are good in the same way and all bad restaurants find different ways to f*** it up. Good restaurants? You walk through the door and someone smiles and says they are pleased to see you. They sit you down, they give you a menu and they ask you immediately if you would like a drink. Then you look down on the menu and it’s written in normal English. And that’s it. Obviously, cooking matters. It has to be good – and cooked by people with taste.
What’s good cooking, then?
Technique alone is not enough. Taste is really important. Jeremy Lee at Quo Vadis in London has got exquisite taste. He feeds you how he’d like to feed himself. There are some chefs who don’t eat out enough, don’t care enough. There is a very well-known, somewhat dysfunctional Michelin-starred chef who sketches out his new dishes. And then he tastes each element as it’s cooked, but not the cooked dish. Joyless. Rowley Leigh has good taste. Simon Hopkinson has it. Ravinder Bhogal. There are an awful lot of people who gad about town doing pop-ups, but they haven’t got the stamina or the interest in restaurants. Ravinder really does. She went and worked in kitchens and had a very rough time in some of them.
What makes good food?
I can’t answer that. I am not a food critic. I am a restaurant critic. I do criticise food, but the only place I do it out of context is on MasterChef. There are a lot of self-appointed gastronomes who bang on about the sautéing of fish. But that’s not really going to sum up my time in this restaurant. It’s got to be about everything, from walking through the door to the waiter to the bill. I’m really writing about how much pleasure your money can buy you.
Which meal has given you most pleasure?
In a previous book, The Man Who Ate The World, I did the high-end version of Super Size Me. I ate in a different three-Michelin-starred restaurant every day for a week. It was awful. Until day five, when I ended up in L’Astrance, Pascal Barbot’s restaurant. The cooking was gorgeous. But I can’t remember my companion’s name, so it doesn’t qualify. You need beautiful food, nice service and a reasonable bill. The Fat Duck in 2004 comes to mind. I was with my wife and another couple who are close friends. We went out to Bray and had a f***ing marvellous time. But then I’d also refer you to The Company Shed in Essex. A ramshackle place. I remember that with great fondness.
Who do you eat with when you review?
I’ve got friends. And the rules are very straightforward. 1) I will direct the ordering, so there are some things you can’t have. The Observer’s paying and you are my companion on this review. So no, you can’t have the steak and chips. 2) I’m going to try whatever’s on your plate. 3) When the waiter asks you how everything is you are only allowed to reply with “Fine”. I like the people I invite out for reviews, but I’m not interested in what they think. I have to come up with the opinion and own it. And I don’t want them being criminally polite to waiters and giving them a mixed message.
What are your dos and don’ts as a diner?
Don’t be a dick. Complain early and often. If there’s something wrong, don’t sit there stewing on it. Mention it early. Do not be overly cowed or bowled over. If you ask for a recommendation for a wine, set a price. It’s amazing the number of wine waiters who appear not to hear you. Do not regard a menu as an open negotiating position. If you don’t want to eat the food, don’t go there. Fair enough. Ask a few questions. But it’s a very classic American thing where they seem to see the menu as up for negotiation. Do not go to a steak restaurant and be appalled that there are no vegan options.
What are your views on the London restaurant scene?
Rates, rents and staff costs in the centre of town have become so high that the really interesting stuff is now on the city edges. If you really want to eat well, you should be looking at Dalston and Peckham. I’ve just reviewed Nandine, a Kurdish café in Peckham. It’s lovely. The other thing that’s gratifying is that chefs don’t need to work their way through grand brigades. You’ve got younger people setting up and doing their own thing and it doesn’t need to be in London. To survive financially, you need to be full Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – that’s where you make your money. It’s less intimidating than it once was because of our expanding food culture and reasonable affluence (until we fall off a cliff politically). The other thing is small-repertoire restaurants, which I think are a really good thing. As in, “We don’t do much, but we do Chinese buns, American barbecue or chicken wings – 10 flavours.” Work out something you’re good at and do that.
Are there any trends you’d rather see the back of?
I wonder if we’re getting rid of people plating up on stupid household items. Breakfast in a slipper, etc. One of the things I learn as I get older is that restaurants are a young person’s game. Which means they do not notice when the lighting is so low that an old bastard like me needs to spark up the torch to read the menu. Or when the music is so loud I can’t hear. It drives me nuts. And sometimes I wonder if enough chefs and restaurateurs sit in their own dining rooms and get served. You’re not running a kitchen or a team, you’re running a restaurant. Sit in it and have dinner.