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10 questions for the 'world's most feared' restaurant critic Jay Rayner

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Lucy Clark
Jay Rayner: ‘Mine is a writing job not an eating job.’ © John Arandhara Blackwell Jay Rayner: ‘Mine is a writing job not an eating job.’

1. In light of your blistering review of Le Cinq in Paris, you have been called the “world’s most feared” restaurant critic. What do restaurateurs and chefs really have to fear about Jay Rayner?

If they are confident in what they’re doing and have a robust clientele, they have absolutely nothing to fear. I am not some assassin, lying in wait with the sharpened stiletto. The problems kick in when what they are offering could be perceived as poor value. Then I get very cross, not least because it gives the joys of eating out a bad name.

2. What did the French say (if anything) about an Englishman reviewing one of their allegedly finest restaurants and tearing it to shreds?

Related: Le Cinq, Paris: restaurant review

The response was bizarrely antiquated. I was apparently the representative of a nation that knew nothing about food beyond fish and chips and gravy. I was genuinely startled that the French people who were angered by the review could hold such old-fashioned views. Happily not everyone viewed it this way.

3. The US Vogue food writer Jeffery Steingarten once said there was no scientific basis for disliking any sort of food and with continued exposure one can overcome displeasure (while declaring himself that he hated Indian yoghurt drinks) – is there any food you hate or refuse to eat and do you think you could ever get over it?

I hate Heinz baked beans and cheap supermarket equivalents thereof. Always have, always will. It’s the texture and the cloying sweetness and I cannot imagine a circumstance which will enable me to get over it. Recently I had to taste-test cheap baked beans against each other. It was utter hell.

4. You’ve written a book called The Ten (Food) Commandments. What’s the most important one?

Each has their virtues but I keep coming back to No 6: thou shalt choose thy dining companions bloody carefully. I am constantly asked to name my favourite dining experience but the truth is that it all depends on the company. Get the choice of dining companion wrong and even the most sublime cooking can taste only of ashes.

5. In keeping with the biblical tone, what is the greatest sin a restaurateur can commit? What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in a restaurant?

The greatest sin a restaurateur (or chef) can commit is to think that what matters is their cleverness, not the pleasure being experienced by the diner. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is being served 26 admittedly small courses by an over-weeningly ambitious American chef who knew I was in the restaurant. At the end he came out and said, “Did I win?” It was utter hell, one long succession of overly mannered dishes, which came together to form a terrifying hell. He was eventually awarded three stars by Michelin.

6. Why do you think people love to read excoriating reviews of bad restaurants?

It’s vicarious displeasure. Everybody has had a terrible experience in a restaurant and when I cut up rough it’s as if I’m taking revenge on their behalf for every lousy dinner they’ve ever had.

7. On reflection, have you ever gone too far? Does the responsibility that your words could potentially ruin someone’s livelihood weigh on you?

No, I don’t believe I have gone too far. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and in that time I have written about almost everything apart from sport. I’ve covered murders and politics, science and health and the arts and so much more. All the way through I’ve been aware of the responsibility of a journalist to the people they are writing about. The same applies to the restaurant critic. I am never casual about what I do. I think very carefully about it. Regularly, if it’s a small, independent restaurant which is failing, I don’t write about it and pay the bill myself. I save my anger for the grossly overfunded corporate behemoths charging big bucks but not delivering.

8. Do you cook much?

Yes I do. My book, upon which the show I am touring Australia with is based, contains a couple of dozen of my own recipes. I neither can nor want to eat out every night so I have to be able to cook. And while a restaurant critic does not need to be a chef to do the job, they do need to know their subject. Cooking is a part of that.

9. What do you do to guard against people recognising you and giving you special service or delivering an atypically good meal?

Related: Death threats and angry chefs – when restaurant reviews go wrong

The basic answer is that I book under a pseudonym and they don’t know I’m coming. The vast majority of what matters in restaurant cooking lies in the preparation. There is very little they can change to make the experience better. Or as another critic once said, there is very little a bad restaurant can do to become a good one just because I walk through the door. In any case I watch the way I am being treated to make sure it is not at odds with what is going on around me. But the key thing is this: mine is a writing job not an eating job. I am there to sell newspapers or the digital equivalent thereof. If, as a result of my lack of anonymity fewer and fewer people believe what I write, I will lose my job. It is up to me to write in as convincing a manner as possible so that never happens.

10. Everyone thinks restaurant reviewing is the ultimate dream job. Is it really?

People mistake the job. They say “Ooh, I’d love to be paid to go out and eat all that lovely food.” I’m not paid to eat. I’m paid to write. Writing a column essentially about the same thing for 18 years is tricky but I’m not complaining. It’s a fine and very jolly way by which to make a living.

Jay Rayner is performing The Ten Food Commandments at the Brisbane Powerhouse on 21 May and at Northcote town hall in Melbourne for the Wheeler Centre on 24 May. Visit jayrayner.co.uk/live-shows for more details. His restaurant reviews appear on Sundays

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