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Food
© Bella West

J. Rayner meets Jay Rayner

OX’s in-house foodie Jack Rayner talks Oxford’s restaurant scene, regrets and “things that squelch” with feared ‘Observer’ food critic Jay Rayner
© Levon Biss 2012

"I have written things in the past which were stupid and crass. You can’t get through 18 years of restaurant reviewing without making mistakes."

Feared by restaurateurs and loved by readers, Jay Rayner has written for ‘The Observer’ for over 20 years, and finds the time to not only pass judgment on the country’s best and worst eateries, but also to lead a jazz quartet, feature in ‘Masterchef ’ and perform a number of live shows.

 

Our own (unrelated) Jack Rayner, by contrast, is neither feared nor loved by many at all – but he does also love to write about food, counts Jay amongst his heroes, and shamelessly attempts to emulate his writing style in OX Magazine every month. Here, the pair speak about Oxford’s restaurant scene, regrets and “things that squelch”, ahead of Jay’s performance as part of ‘Raise the Roof for Children in Afghanistan!’ at the New Theatre on Wednesday 28 February.

Hi Jay. Is there a point in a ‘dining nightmare’ experience where you just know that your evening has become unsalvageable?

The truth is that it tends to dawn quite early on that all is not well, but it should be said that I don’t go looking for negative restaurant experiences. They’re like colds and car crashes: things that just happen to me.

© Bella West

 

They also make up only around a fifth of my restaurant reviews in any one year, and what’s more is that I tend to reserve my real ire for the big, spendy outfits. If it’s a small mom-and-pop operation, then it’s likely to be dying all by itself and it doesn’t need the weight of a national newspaper to help it along the way. In those circumstances, I’ll probably pay the bill myself and never write about it. Instead, it’s the ones that are very pleased with themselves and that are charging top prices, are just not value for money, producing crap cooking, at stupid prices, served in an irritating manner. But, those are the reviews that people remember.

Quite. It’s difficult to slate a small independent business.

I can think of a few occasions where I’ve written negative reviews about the smaller places, but I do tend to hold them back. When a restaurant starts charging a certain amount of money and doesn’t deliver the goods, that’s when you have to say it as it is. I have been writing my own books for 25-30 years, and they’ve all been reviewed in one way or another. Some of them have been negative, and I don’t argue with anyone’s right to say that. If you’re going to charge money for something, you have to allow yourself to be reviewed. I’ve been reviewed myself and taken it on the chin – whether I agree with it or not, I don’t argue with it.

On the other end of the spectrum, how easy is it to stay impartial when, as a man of your standing, you must be approached with numerous under-the-table requests from friends of friends who would like you to visit their place?

That’s really easy, actually. If you look at my Twitter profile you’ll see three words in there, which are “Doesn’t accept comps”. I don’t accept free meals. Unfortunately, a lot of PRs don’t do their research and email me saying “We’d love to book you in” – you can’t book me in because I book under a pseudonym and you don’t know I’m coming. Restaurants will also try to send me freebies, and I’ll send them back – most people’s problem with a bill in a restaurant is that you’ve been charged for something you didn’t have; my problem is that they’ve not charged me for something I did have. I regularly have to send restaurant bills back and say “Can you please put that bottle of wine on, you know we had it”, and they’ll say “We thought it would be a gift”. I mean, for Christ’s sake. So to answer your question, it’s not hard at all. A real friend of mine won’t make that kind of request.

I think I’ve raised a few eyebrows in the past just trying to book a regular dinner under my actual name when they ask for my initial.

I can imagine! The thing that should be a giveaway is that the one guarantee that I’m not reviewing is if I book under my own name.

Taking you back a few years, at which point did you know that food writing was to become your main focus?

I was on contract for ‘The Observer’ from 1996, and my position was totally insecure; they had me writing about anything and everything, as a general features writer. By the time it became clear that they needed a new restaurant critic, I was rather exhausted by the business of swapping subjects all the time. Having said that, to be blunt a lot of people say to me “Oh I’d love to be paid to eat lovely food”, but the point I make is that eating isn’t my job; I’m employed because I write a column and have to find a new way to write about food every week.

Where’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Oxfordshire?

It’s quite easy to answer, I’m afraid. It’s really, really predictable. Go on, you tell me.

Le Manoir.

Yep. A couple of years ago, we relaunched ‘The Observer Magazine’ in a new format which gave me an extended space, and I needed something to launch with. I said to my then-editor “I’ve never been to Le Manoir”. He said “Ok, you can do it, but you have to take me with you”.

Seems like a fair condition.

Well yes, he was signing the expenses and the bill was £470, which is probably the biggest bill I’ve ever had put through on expenses. It is very, very good.

Isn’t it just.

Precise, delightful, unforced, and everything you expect it to be. I’m sorry it’s such a predictable answer, but there you are.

I’d expect very little else. Obviously you’re quite renowned for your negative reviews – have you ever regretted something that you’ve said in a piece?

Not an entire review, but I have written things in the past which were stupid and crass. You can’t get through 18 years of restaurant reviewing without making mistakes. I can give you a terrible example: I reviewed a restaurant on the ground floor of The Oxo Tower, and I was there at low tide with a table by the window. I looked out across the shore of the Thames, and at low tide it’s quite a scuzzy bit of shoreline. I said in the review that it looked like “the kind of place where you’d expect to see a body washed up”. It’s not an intrinsically unfunny line, but then I received an email from someone whose son had killed himself and that is precisely what had happened.

Oh dear. That’s horrendous.

Awful, unforgivable and stupid. I did it just for a single laugh, and it really shouldn’t have taken much wit or intelligence to realise that what I was suggesting could quite possibly have been the case in real life. I regretted that, very much.

I’m sure. Moving swiftly on, which is the best city in the UK for food outside of London?

Bristol. No hesitation whatsoever. It’s got a very interesting independent restaurant sector, and when it comes down to it and you’re talking about whether or not a place is good for food, what you’re really asking is how much the local population will support those restaurants. Without a doubt, it’s clear that Bristol’s population will absolutely do that. Manchester is also coming up, finally, and there are a lot of other towns where really interesting things are happening. Oxford is an odd one.

I think Oxford city could be improved restaurant-wise but Oxfordshire as a county is fabulous.

Oxfordshire county has a really good range of pubs doing interesting stuff, but Oxford itself you’d expect more from, with all the tenured academics with research grants and so on. You’d think there’d be better independent restaurants. However, I love The Magdalen Arms, Oli’s Thai is fantastic, and My Sichuan is a wonderfully scruffy Chinese restaurant. Oxford is not graced in the way it should be, but I’d agree with you totally that Oxfordshire has a whole lot more going for it.

How about the best food city in the world?

On sheer volume, it has to be Tokyo. Tokyo is an extraordinary food city because everything is there, and the Japanese are willing to pay top dollar for almost anything. The Japanese restaurant culture itself is peculiar because they salami-slice down to very niche elements of their own cuisine. We’re used to a Japanese restaurant being one that covers all the bases, whereas in Tokyo, you’ll find places that do only grilled eel, for example. Because that’s all they do, they do it to a mind-blowing level. Then, they’ve also got brilliant French and Italian restaurants – I believe there are more Italian restaurants in Tokyo than there are in Rome.

Impressive. Obviously as a food journalist one shouldn’t have too many hangups about flavours or just “dislike” certain foods in a way that most people do. Despite your refined palette, are there any cuisines or styles of cooking that you find difficult to appreciate?

Anybody who does our job has to be very clear if there are things that they have a personal problem with. On the service side, for example, I hate having my wine poured for me. It feels like an up-selling technique, but other people don’t mind it. The one area which is quite challenging, which I don’t feel that I need to apologise for, is that certain Asian cuisines – China, Japan and Korea, for example – have an interest in texture that the Western palette finds uncomfortable; they’re interested in slippery things, slimy things and things that squelch. Westerners find a lot of that difficult to deal with, and I think it would be bravado and macho and silly to claim that you don’t have a problem with that when you do. And I do.

You’ve been in this game for two decades now. How has the role of the food critic changed in the world of TripAdvisor and instant online hatchet jobs?

It’s gone two ways: one, because nobody who puts reviews on Yelp or TripAdvisor can actually write with any grace or style, those of us who are doing the job professionally are required to be as entertaining as possible. There is the argument that traditional restaurant reviews are as much entertainment as they are information, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to say. I make the point that I’m not writing a guidebook, I’m writing a column about how much pleasure your money can buy. That’s a very different thing from Yelp and TripAdvisor. But, by the same token, the democracy of the web is all well and good until you can’t tell who it is that’s giving an opinion, and in those circumstances, the professional critic becomes useful because at least the reader knows what they stand for. We’re never anonymous, you know or can find out who we are – you can agree or disagree with us, but you know exactly who you’re dealing with.

There’s a far higher degree of accountability.

Absolutely.

Thanks a lot Jay.

 

Jay Rayner appears as part of ‘Raise the Roof for Children in Afghanistan!’ at New Theatre Oxford on Wednesday 28 February. He also appears as part of his jazz outfit the Jay Rayner Quartet at The White Hart in Wytham on Thursday 15 February.

jayrayner.co.uk