Restaurateurs of Portsmouth can breathe a sigh of relief – the influential food critic Jay Rayner doesn’t think he will have time to review anywhere locally when he brings his show The Ten (Food) Commandments to town.
Earlier this year Jay marked 20 years as The Observer’s restaurant critic, he also hosts Radio 4 show The Kitchen Cabinet and is a regular fixture on our TV screens thanks to the likes of MasterChef and The One Show.
This show, appearing as part of the Portsmouth Festivities, came from a book of the same title, which he describes as dealing ‘with a whole bunch of universal questions around food – some more important than others.’
He gives an example: ‘One of the commandments is that thou shalt not mistake food for pharmaceuticals, in which I lay waste to the superfood movement and the pseudo-scientific cobblers around the idea that you could trundle around the supermarket eating yourself fitter.
‘Now obviously a balanced diet is important, but the idea that those fruits contain micronutrients in themselves which will heal you is troublesome in the extreme. That sort of thing makes half of the audience laugh, and the other half go: “Hang on, I’ve just spent half my salary on blueberries and now you’re telling me they’re not going to protect me from cancer?!”’
When compiling his commandments, the critic was conscious that they needed more to them than ‘just prejudice at the base of the opinion’, with the notable exception of the chapter on choosing your dining companions.
‘You know, I’m still a reporter at heart – I still have my notepad out on my desk – I needed questions that demanded I go out and dig into them and talk to people and report them properly, so although they look like flippant, throwaway lines, each one jumps off to 5,000 word essays in the book.
‘In the show it’s not all laugh-a-minute, there are some parts where you might think: “Oh, I didn’t know that, or: “I hadn’t thought of it like that”.
‘It draws on everything I’ve been thinking and doing in my work.’
Before taking up the mantle of restaurant critic, Jay was already a successful journalist, but with food writing, he found his niche.
‘The key thing about it for me is that it’s obviously very nice to go out for dinner and write smartarse things about it, but the thing that struck me very early on was the way that food as a subject is brilliant for any writer – it’s history, it’s politics, it’s who we are, it’s sex, it’s religion, and it’s a way into the world and it’s served me very nicely.
‘I think I would have gone out of my tiny little mind if all I was doing was telling you the lamb was overcooked or the fish was raw!
‘There’s greater depth there, there’s a lot more there – and that’s what led to this book, the idea that you can go if in many different directions – from light to dark, from heavy to... less-substantial.’
Obviously these days it’s impossible for Jay to be anonymous when going out to do his reviews.
But he says: ‘I book in advance under a pseudonym so they don’t know I’m coming. The first sign they’ve got that I’m coming is when I walk through the door.’
And if you are lucky enough to dine with Jay, pay heed to his single rule for you: ‘It’s in thou shalt choose thy dining companions carefully. If you come on a review with me, I will give you one instruction and one instruction only: when the waiters come around and ask, as they will, how everything is, you just say: “Fine”. One word.
‘It is passive-aggressive, but it’s simpler. Because you’re a lovely person you’ll want to say it’s gorgeous and it’s wonderful – unless it’s totally calamitous. And you may feel that, but I’m the one writing the review, and while I may love and adore you as a friend, I’m not interested in what you think. It’s my review, and it’s about ownership of the opinion as much as anything else.
‘I have been accused by some of my nearest and dearest of being stony-faced on the verge of rudeness, but I say far better that than giving the wrong impression.
‘If it makes me seem a bit chilly, the people who know and like me know I’m not a chilly person, but if I appear that way at the table, then that’s hardly the worst thing in the world.
‘I can’t be incognito, of course I’m not, but none of the others are either – let’s be clear. Even the saintly (Sunday Times critic) Marina O’Loughlin who makes a thing of her anonymity, there are a significant number of people in the London restaurant industry who know exactly what she looks like.’
So given his stony demeanour, surely that stands him on good stead for playing poker?
‘I’m terrible!’ he laughs. ‘I’ve always wanted to think I’m good, but I’m awful. I’ve had the misfortune over the years to know a couple of people, like Victoria Coren-Mitchell, who was a European champion twice over, and another friend of mine, the writer Jon Ronson. There used to be a game when we were all a lot less busy, involving Vicky, Jon, and Patrick Marber, the writer. I would sit there and would think first of all, Christ, am I successful enough to be in this group? But then they’d start playing and I’d realise, no, the real problem here is that I’m nowhere near good enough at poker!’
‘I lost my money very, very quickly and then sat back and watched them play.’
The day we speak Jay has just had the bound proofs of his next book – My Last Supper – land on his desk. It’s due out on September 5.
‘This book grew out of the previous tours – whenever I got to the Q&A part of the show people would ask: if you’re on death row, what would your last meal be?
‘And I’ve always said: “If I’m on death row, I would have lost my appetite.”
‘But it got me thinking about the people who are eligible for last meals – the terminally ill, the condemned – they are genuinely not in a position to eat that meal with any gusto. And at any rate, it’s not really the question you’re being asked. You’re being asked: if you didn’t have to think about the consequences, if you didn’t have to carve something out that looked civilised and tasteful, what would you have then?
‘If you could have a meal that expressed your story, what would it be? And that’s what the book is. It’s me going out in pursuit of the eight or nine items which we ended up serving at a raucous dinner that did take place last November.
‘Some of it I think will take people by surprise as it goes back to burning shoe leather as a reporter and being chased out of ghettos in hard corners of California, or searching down MI5 agents and things like that – but they’re all linked in to the food.
‘There are things in there that become very obvious – the chapter headings are things like Snails, Oysters, Pig, Chips. It gives it away, but I’ll be absolutely honest, if giving away those single words makes reading the book redundant then I will have failed.’
And will he be reviewing anywhere local on this trip?
‘Sometimes I try to join things up with reviews, but I don’t think it’s going to happen this time.
‘Quite rightly, there is a view that London-based critics don’t eat outside of London enough, but I think I can put my hand up and say “not guilty”, because of these touring shows, and The Kitchen Cabinet takes me out on the road a lot.
‘I don’t like to waste an opportunity, it just requires me to do good, proper research.
‘I would love to say that every part of the country is rich with hidden gems, but that’s not always the case.’
Among his other books – including four novels – are a brace of compilations of his somewhat less favourable reviews. But none of his five star reviews – why is that?
‘Because negative stories are far more compelling – you immediately put yourself in that environment.
‘If someone tells you they had a lovely meal, you might be pleased for them, but you’re not going to revel in the details for more than about 20 seconds.
‘But if someone says: “You won’t believe the appalling time I had last night...” It’s why we watch thrillers – it’s why we watch horrors – we are compelled by the darkness. The same applies to restaurant reviews, and when you read a negative review, I’m taking revenge on your behalf for all of the terrible experiences you’ve ever had. One of the things I make clear when writing about this is that I don’t go looking for them, they’re the smallest part of what I do. Fewer than a fifth of the reviews I do in any given year will be negative, but they are the ones people remember.
‘When you look at the online numbers, I’m almost shamed how well a negative review flies.
‘I recently did one which some people thought was a bit questionable where I was invited to review a Holiday Inn restaurant on the Cromwell Road (in Kensington). There’s a whole conversation I had with myself as to the justification for going, and it comes down to: the chef asked me, therefore they must think they’ve got something.
‘And it was terrible.
‘But it got double the number of page views for the week before because that’s what people are like.
‘I don’t necessarily think it’s that people want to revel in another’s misfortune, it’s the compelling nature of a negative story.
‘Working in journalism, how many times have we seen people complain that we don’t tell more good news stories? And we do a bit of that, but how often is it the front page story?
‘And the answer is because it’s not as compelling.’
Jay Rayner: The Ten (Food) Commandments is at Portsmouth Grammar School on Sunday, 7.30pm. Tickets £22.50. Go to portsmouthfestivities.co.uk.