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BooksMay 10, 2017

Auckland Writers Festival: Simon Wilson interviews food writer Jay Rayner

JR pic 1 Bella West

The very best coverage of the Auckland Writers Festival – the most expansive, the most intelligent – is right here, as the Spinoff Review of Books devotes the entire week to encounters with guest writers. Today: Simon Wilson talks with Jay Rayner, a man who can demolish the reputation of the poshest restaurant with a single review, but is rather more interested in saving the world.

Read more Auckland Writers Festival coverage from the Spinoff here

His mum was a writer. “Agony aunt”, as they say in the euphemisms. Informal sex therapist on the Sunday Mirror and the Sun more like. And she wrote 100 books.

“Yeah,” said Jay Rayner on the phone from London. “I realised a while back, I told myself just give up, you’ll never win.”

Never win? He’s a famous writer, but Observer famous, and is that as big as Sunday Mirror & Sun famous? One hundred books famous? Did that really worry him? She’s dead now, and it came up because I asked him if she was sitting on his shoulder. If there had been any competition between them.

Maybe in his 20s, he said. And 30s. He’s 50 now, well over it. He’s written 10 books, if you’re asking.

What she gave him was an appetite. A sex writer who engaged open-heartedly with the world, whose children learned far more about the fears and desires and activities of adults than most of us ever think about. Well, until adolescence. So he became a man of appetites too. A large man, as he regularly reminds his readers, with “ridiculous hair”, which he also writes quite often. A “greedy man”, as he likes to call himself.

It’s his job to be flamboyant. Publicity shots feature knives and blood; in his one-man stage show The Ten (Food) Commandments, which he’s bringing to the Auckland Writers Festival, he appears in a Moses robe, ready to declaim, bearing not tablets but pizza boxes.

If he’s greedy for food, though, and for ideas about food, which he talks about with enthusiasm for as long as you let him, is he also greedy for everything else? I couldn’t get an answer to that. Lost in translation, or something.

Besides, he’s not really the assassin with the kitchen knives, the bombast come to blow everything up. That’s a persona. On the phone he’s polite, friendly, relaxed. He has a lot to say but he’s the well-bred Englishman saying it.

“I’m not a bloke,” he said. “When I got married I didn’t have a stag night, nothing like that. And when I was young I was appalling at pulling the – getting girlfriends.”

He quite likes what James Oseland, editor-in-chief at Saveur magazine in New York, said about him: he’s a “male lesbian”. It means you might think he was gay except for his really obvious attraction to women.

I asked him how being a male lesbian squared with being an alpha male.

“Am I an alpha male?”

Aren’t you? The writing style, the TV shows: you’re that in-your-face judge on Masterchef UK.

“Well, the women I know say I’m an alpha male. But I don’t know, I never thought I was.”

Jay Rayner (Image: Bella West)

“There is only one thing worse,” Jay Rayner began a recent Observer review, “than being served a terrible meal: being served a terrible meal by earnest waiters who have no idea just how awful the things they are doing to you are. And so, to the flagship Michelin three-star restaurant of the George V Hotel in Paris, or the scene of the crime as I now like to call it.”

When he was 26 Rayner was named the British Press Awards’ “Young Journalist of the Year”. He reported on everything and that’s still how he sees himself: “I’ve always been a reporter, and I do miss the buzz of real investigating.” But food became his calling and, with an entertaining, knowledgeable, populist style he became famous.

Also from that Parisian review: the dining room had “thick carpets to muffle the screams”; the décor was done in “various shades of taupe, biscuit and fuck you”. A canape looked like “a Barbie-sized silicone breast implant” and had the mouthfeel – he quoted his dining partner at this point– of “a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s”. Though how either of them would know …

Body parts were writ large: one dish had an “elastic flap of milk skin … like something that’s fallen off a burns victim”; at the taste of another his lips pursed, “like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles”. The obnoxiousness of the experience matched only by the glee in the telling.

I asked him how it was possible for an acclaimed restaurant to be so bad and he said he never let anyone else make his mind up for him. Besides, he didn’t buy into the Michelin aesthetic.

“It’s my job to sell newspapers, not restaurant bookings.”

So what about the chefs and restaurateurs who say – as they often do – you can’t be a critic, you’re not a chef, you don’t know what we do?

“I have a standard answer to that. I tell them I know how to eat. I know how to assess the quality of the dining experience. That’s my job.” Good answer, I thought.

Rayner clearly loves what he does but he doesn’t do it just for the lols. He’s on a mission. Two missions. The easy one is to make food better.

Britain, he said, didn’t used to be a culinary desert, “at least not for the upper classes”. In Edwardian times they ate all manner of delicious things. But then the war, which was a war of national survival, and puritanism – restraint, the disdain for fine things – became a valuable trait. Britain lost a generation of cooks and the idea of spending more than strictly necessary on a meal or eating beyond a narrow, rations-inspired range burrowed deep into the national psyche.

We had quite a lot of that here, I said, even without the rationing. Though it’s better now, in both places. So what changed? In a word, he said, supermarkets.

Rayner credits supermarkets with the explosion of food ingredients and the rise in quality we experience today. It’s what they’re good at.

He also credits them, in Britain at least, with endangering the nation’s food security, driving food producers to the wall, creating enormous levels of waste and cynically manipulating public concern about the ethics of food production.

All of which points to that other, bigger, harder mission: to save the world.

“We need to get real,” he wrote in A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, his 2013 book with the subtitle “Why almost everything you thought you knew about food is wrong”. It’s still one of the best books on food politics you’ll find anywhere.

He warned of “a combination of world population growth, climate change [and] appallingly misguided policies on biofuels”, all of which is largely uncontroversial, but he also complained of “an ingrained Luddite response in parts of the West to biotechnology risks”. Just to be clear, the world according to Jay Rayner is at risk from the woolly thinking of warm-hearted liberals.

He added, with a typical flourish, that the coming catastrophe would “make the sight of young chefs on the telly talking about their passion for cooking and their commitment to local and seasonal ingredients sound like the screeching of fiddles while Rome burns”.

One of Rayner’s ten food commandments

We care but too often we care about the wrong things. “According to the United Nations, by 2030 we will need to be producing 50 percent more food, and a system built around that holy trinity of local, seasonal and organic simply won’t cut it.” Instead, we need an “entirely different conversation”: one that focuses on sustainable intensification.

It’s not about how people who can afford it spend their food money ethically. “Farmers’ markets can never solve our food supply problems – indeed are part of the problem.” It’s about how to feed everyone whose food buying is driven by price.

Rayner lost faith in the local and seasonal movement after reading the work of New Zealand scientists Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber and Greg Taylor. They’re the ones who first showed that grass-fed and efficiently managed New Zealand meat in British supermarkets had a smaller carbon footprint than the locally produced meat. Food miles are not the issue.

Besides, Rayner likes to say, if you want to argue that food miles are important, are you going to do it before or after you throw away your Chinese-made mobile phone?

Far better, he believes, to cut down on the meat wherever it comes from. Not altogether, mind: he likes Paul McCartney’s suggestion of “meatless Mondays”, only we should have meatless Tuesdays and meatless Wednesdays too.

But, I said, you’re the meat guy. “I love meat. But I eat it three days a week.” He’s persuaded that if we cut our meat consumption in half, feed our sheep and cattle on grass and our pigs on “residues and waste”, that will be enough.

Not a vegetarian, not keen on organics either, and not even much impressed with the free-range movement. If all the chickens in Britain were running free, he has said, “the landscape would be nothing but chickens as far as the eye could see”.

It’s about being practical, finding solutions to address the food needs of everyone. On what happens in an abattoir, which he has experienced first-hand, working the line, albeit only for a few hours: “Genuine cruelty should never be acceptable. But perfect practice should never get in the way of acceptable practice, if it means the meat costs too much.”

Carbon neutral at an industrial scale. In Greedy Man he wrote about a hydroponic greenhouse complex as big as 80 football pitches that was producing 15 percent of Britain’s salad vegetables and generating power for the national grid. An executive told him: “The closer we get to carbon neutral the better our bottom line is.”

Even dairy? Done right, yes, bring it on. In the same book he described an industrial dairy plant with thousands of cows that was “anaerobically digesting” 400,000 litres of effluent a day to produce energy, also selling what it didn’t use to the national grid.

The opposition to such enterprises, he says, has been “to do with what it looked like, and what it sounded like, rather than what it was”.

And, oh yes, even if all of us meat eaters in the developed world cut our meat eating in half the world is still going to need a new source of animal protein. How? “We will finally have to embrace biotechnology.” That’s how we’re going to be able to feed the world.

GE food is what we call it here, mostly as we set about banning it.

(Image: Levon Biss Medres)

Did he know AA Gill, who died this year aged only 62? He did, and he liked him, thought he was “brilliant”, but they weren’t friends. He hadn’t read Gill’s last book, a collection of recent journalism published after his death. I told him it’s shot through with a terrible wistfulness. Gill died after a short and unexpected illness, having written repeatedly in his last few years of his hopes for the next couple of decades, spending time with grandchildren, slowing down, revisiting favourite places.

I asked Rayner, because he’s 50 now, how old he felt he was.

“I suppose I used to think 35 to 45, that was the grownups. I’m heading into senior now.”

You feel senior at 50?

“I feel it a lot more at 50 than I did at 40.”

He works out three days a week, does The Kitchen Cabinet on BBC Radio 4 and plays jazz piano: there’s a Jay Rayner Quartet and they have a show with food-related music, whatever that is. Ever thought about being a chef?

“No, it’s a young man’s game.”

Would you have been good at it?

“Mmm. I’m good at sitting in restaurants.”

The man of appetites, with a Russian Jewish heritage. “I am a man built to survive a pogrom, only without a pogrom to survive.” Secular Jewish, mind: he loves his pork and he loves to cook, too.

Although: “Men do not cook because they – or even anybody else – are hungry, like women do. We cook because we are greedy, not just for the end result but for the congratulations the finished article brings.”

The one-man show he’s bringing to the Writers Festival is about all of this, the greed and the politics, all shovelled together in gourmand’s tales of horror and delight. He’s also taking part in a kind of late-night (well, 9.30pm) chat show with comedians Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury and other festival guests on how to write a book; and guest starring at a sold-out lunch at Masu, with his “old friend”, chef Nic Masu.

But no panel discussions. “No. They bore the tits off me.”

It was his mum, by the way, who not only raised him into those appetites but introduced him to the idea that food could have exotic potential. The day McDonald’s opened in Britain she went to a party at the American Embassy and brought home a pile of hamburgers.

Rayner had “a sugar-fat-protein party in my mouth”. And with that, the meaning of America was fixed: it was “food with a certain shamelessness; lunch with its knickers round its ankles”.

It was time to finish the interview. I asked him, did he miss her now, his mum?

He said, “We used to talk every day. We’d be sitting at our writing desks in the morning, and we’d talk on the phone. We called it sharpening our pencils.”

Jay Rayner will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on Friday, May 19 at 8.45pm, presenting his show The Ten (Food) Commandments; on Wednesday, May 17 at 9.30pm, in a session with comedians Chris Parker and Tom Sainsbury on how to write a book; and in a sold-out lunch at Masu restaurant on Thursday, May 20 at 12pm.

His books The Ten (Food) Commandments and A Greedy Man in a Hungry World are available at Unity Books.

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