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Food writer Jay Rayner is hungry for a story

Jay Rayner, who is taking part in Jewish Book Week on Sunday, talks to Dan Carrier about the key ingredients for his job as a critic

08 March, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Jay Rayner. Photo: Levon Biss

JAY Rayner has spent 20 years eating food for our entertainment. He has regaled readers with his adventures in the catering industry, writing a column for The Observer that celebrates – and criticises – restaurants across Britain and beyond. A tough job, he admits, but someone has to do it – and now, at this year’s Jewish Book Week, he is set to reveal some of the secrets behind not only scoffing copious amounts of food delicately prepared by nervous chefs but also the art of taking food from the plate to the page.

“I need a story,” he says of what he looks for when tucking a napkin in and taking up the cutlery.

Jay was a reporter before landing the job as a food critic and the newshound’s nose for a yarn has not been deadened by the aromas coming from kitchens.

“Wherever I go, I need to know what I am going to write about,” he adds, but also says he isn’t on the lookout for some­thing unpleasant to give him a hook, a top line.

“It is the same as any journalism. I go to find out what the story is. It can, of course, change while I am there – and terrible experiences immediately present their own stories, as do good ones, but I do not go looking for them. Why would you do that?”

He reveals he is contacted regularly by people who say they have been somewhere that is just awful and ask him if he can review it – a fairly malicious-sounding thing for people to do – “but I wouldn’t go somewhere just because I had heard it was s**t,” he says. “No one reads me to hear that somewhere the lamb is undercooked. No – they come on a journey with me and therefore I want to make it interesting.”

Having cast a professional eye over many a table, he knows clearly what his pet hate is. “The worst trait I have seen is just so obvious,” he says. “It is this: the trend to serve food on anything that is not a plate.

It is an act of complete desperation. It isn’t clever, it isn’t a wow factor. If it isn’t coming on a plate and is coming on a dustbin lid, then something is just seriously wrong. For example, who wants to eat off a piece of slate? It is cold and horrible and you see the poor waiters struggling with them. We want our food on plates and it is something we have said for years – it is bonkers to do anything otherwise, and that for me is the worst trend I have seen.”

As for good trends in an industry that is notoriously hard to be a success in, he believes there is now a healthy approach to restaurants thriving in what might have previously been seen as unlikely spots.

“One of the things that is brilliant is the different places we can eat now,” he says. “There are so many chefs out there – young chefs, chefs with ambition who know they do not have to be running somewhere, working somewhere that is a swanky marble-clad joint in SW1.

“They can thrive in a covered market in Brixton, they can run somewhere from a shipping container in Tooting. They can cook great food and do it on a smaller scale. They do not need a menu with 400 dishes but just do half a dozen, really well.”

He says this is a “reaction to a deformed economic model” within the catering industry and offers an abundance of choice and innovation.

The life of a professional eater might sound a mixture of heaven and hell – lots of sensual experiences, but also a battle to keep the waistline in check. Jay says the way he approaches this is to disentangle any sense of something being “naughty” or “forbidden”.

“I have absolutely no guilty pleasures,” he says. “I have never felt guilty about any food I have eaten. I do have to go to the gym. After all, I am a 52-year-old man who eats – but I am not a big fan of guilt in general, and certainly not around food.”

He also believes the idea that certain diets are “faddist”, and that the criticism aimed at vegans and vegetarians is out of order. “If you want to be a vegan, be a vegan,” he says.

“It simply means someone interested in a non-meat meal. It isn’t a fad and we do need to eat less meat. And in some ways if you make that choice you are more conscious of what you are eating than before and therefore it could be argued that you are as much, if not more, into food than any one else. It is easy to sneer and dismiss this – but I would never do it. I am impressed by non-meat cookery. It might not be a choice I would make but it does make me cross when people are sniffy about it.”

As Jay is appearing at King’s Place, it would be churlish not to ask him for a sneaky tip as to where in the area he would slip off to fill a growling belly.

“If I could eat anywhere for lunch today in the area, it would have to be Kaki on the Cally Road,” he reveals. It is round the corner form King’s Cross station. It is Chinese food and delivers a real smack in the teeth – it is very, very good.”

Jay Rayner’s latest book is Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights: A Journey Deeper into Dining Hell, Guardian Faber Publishing.
Jewish Book Week continues at Kings Place, 90 York Way, N1 9AG. until March 10. On Sunday (12.30pm), Jay Rayner and fellow food writers Jeremy King and Tanya Gold talk about Truth, Love, Jews and Food, chaired by Matthew Stadlen.
Jay Rayner is also appearing alongside Nicholas Hytner, Janet Suzman, Zoe Wanamaker, Philippe Sands and others at Jewish Voices, the finale of the festival, in partnership with World Jewish Relief, and focusing on the power of words, on Sunday March 10 at 8.15pm.
Full details of events at http://jewishbookweek.com

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