Jay Rayner: my 20 years as a restaurant critic | Food

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I am the accidental restaurant critic. It was never my plan, because what fool would nurture an ambition to have their dinner paid for and then be paid to write smartarse things about it? And yet, exactly 20 years ago this month, that’s what I started doing. Two decades later I am still doing it. I have measured out my life in contrived starters and sublime main courses; in hours spent trying to avoid overstrained adjectives and overthought similes, and not always succeeding. I have spent months in the gym attempting to mitigate the impact, and not always succeeding. My body is no longer quite my own.

Until March of 1999 I was a general news and feature writer. Then one day over lunch, with the Observer magazine’s then editor, I was told Kathryn Flett would be moving on from the restaurant column. The thought only occurred to me in that instant. I said: “That’s a job you can’t apply for … but I’d like to do it.”

I could claim that I wasn’t drawn to it by the prospect of meals on expenses, but why should you believe me? Still, foremost in my mind was something else: I was tired of being a generalist and wanted a specialism. This was one to which I felt ideally suited. I love restaurants, always have done since my late mother introduced me to the joys of oysters amid the velvet plush and polished mahogany of Rules in Covent Garden. Restaurants are theatre and spectator sport. They are the place for gossip, disclosure, and for all kinds of appetites sated.

I already spent a fair chunk of my money in them, and consumed restaurant reviews like they were remedies for an ill-defined ailment. I adored the effortless writing of Matthew Fort in the Guardian and Jonathan Meades in the Times who both made it clear that food is not just about taste and texture. It’s about politics and history, about love and sex, the environment, architecture and so much more. I wanted the chance to write about all of that. It took me six months to convince the paper I was the greedy man for the job.

It may all have been an accident but it was a happy one. For the past 18 months I have been mulling over my so-called career, while working on a deep-dive memoir, to be published later this year, about the pursuit of my last meal on Earth. As I looked back, it quickly became clear that 1999 was a uniquely blessed year in which to begin writing about what I had for my tea. For a start it was an optimistic time; one which made the unselfconscious enjoyment of eating out much more socially acceptable. New Labour was still all unsullied potential, the Twin Towers were still standing, and nobody had thought to invade Iraq on spurious grounds.

But it was also important gastronomically. 1999 was the year Marco Pierre-White retired from cooking. Although he had once looked like the shock of the new, others have observed that he was actually the last hurrah of the old. I think they are right. His food didn’t look forward. It referred back to nouvelle cuisine, all glossy surfaces and dotted sauces. 1999 was the year Jamie Oliver debuted on BBC2’s The Naked Chef, with a gob full of bantz and a pocket full of recipes prioritising taste over presentation. It was the year Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck won its first Michelin star for its modernist fancies and the first full year of trading for a joint in Chelsea called Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.

Ah yes, sweary Gordon. It’s hard to overstate just how huge a figure he was at the time; not just as a gossip-column celebrity, who made a name by insulting people on TV in lieu of career advice, but as proof that Britain could compete on the world gastronomic stage. One afternoon in 2001 a newsroom fax machine spewed out the announcement that he was to take over the dining room of Claridge’s. It felt like Big News. Until then hotel restaurants had been where hope went to die. Now he spread his encouraging brand of reinvigorated classicism across London’s hotel land from the Connaught to the Berkeley to the Savoy.

And now? The cult of Ramsay feels like a cringeworthy view of the self when young. What the hell was all that about? His latest announcement, that he was to open an “authentic Asian eating house” in London, was greeted by significant criticism. (Not that he’ll care; he is one of American TVs most bankable stars.) But it points to one profound shift over the past 20 years. In 1999 serious food had to come with bells, whistles and a stool for the laydee’s handbag. There’s still a lot of that. What my erstwhile Guardian colleague Marina O’Loughlin referred to as the “Mayfair Wankpit” – she’ll want you to know she nicked that from someone else – is still alive and well.

But across Britain, good food is more often allowed to speak for itself. Tablecloths do still happen, but there are fewer of them. In truth the drift away from crisp linen began with the rise of the gastropub, a movement that predated my arrival – I had my wedding reception in London’s original gastropub, the Eagle on Farringdon Road, in 1992 – but which has spread its aesthetic inexorably across the country. They have become to Britain what the small country bistro once was to France. Recently Stephen Harris’s Sportsman in Kent, the self-styled “grotty” old boozer by the sea, was once again named the best food pub in Britain. Quite right too.

Few food pubs are as interesting as the Sportsman which is why I don’t write about them much any more. There are perfectly nice ones but how would I get 1,100 words out of yet another menu of goat’s cheese and beetroot salad, sea bass fillets and a creme brulee? An entertaining review, like any other serviceable piece of journalism, needs at its heart a story. My job has never been about telling you if the fish was raw or the lamb was overcooked. It’s always been about seeking out something noteworthy. Though “noteworthy” is all relative.

For example, in late 2004, while making my predictions for the following year, I grandly announced that small plates were the coming thing. To my shame I used the term “Indian tapas” and without a hint of irony. In any case I was a little previous. The small plates invasion didn’t really begin until 2010 and the opening of Polpo, a self-styled small plates Italian.

Jay Rayner growing up. OFM March 2008



Jay, aged 10, cooking in the family kitchen. Photograph: Courtesy of Jay Rayner

In 2005, I found myself in Red Chilli in Manchester. It wasn’t the first Chinese place in Britain offering the gloriously fiery food of Sichuan, but its prominence made clear that a change was underway; that the opening up of China meant the generic British Chinese restaurant had competition from regionalism. There would soon be restaurants offering the food not just of Canton but also of Shanghai, Hunan and Xinjiang. Likewise, the generic curry house has endured, but alongside it we now have restaurants specialising in the cooking of Goa or the Gujarat, Sri Lanka or Pakistan.

But the year that sticks out is 2007. It feels like the moment “now” began. That year OFM gave Professor Tim Lang of City University its lifetime achievement award, for putting issues around food sustainability firmly on the agenda. On the other side of the Atlantic New York Magazine’s restaurant critic Adam Platt had recently coined a phrase that summed up the edible zeitgeist. The big thing now, he said, was “haute barnyard”. I quoted him admiringly because it was as true in London as in Manhattan. Chefs were being hugely influenced by Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant which pursued an avowedly regional agenda. Suddenly every thrusting young chef was all over localism, seasonality and the deathly phrase “farm to fork”, as if that wasn’t the journey that everything we eat takes. They foraged for Britain.

That was the year I first visited an entirely vegetarian restaurant called Vanilla Black, then in York, now transferred to London, which made a modern, non-doctrinal case for meat-free cooking. It was also the year that I gave up queueing for dinner at Barrafina, a tapas restaurant in London’s Soho about which I’d heard brilliant things. I concluded no dinner was worth waiting an hour for. No-reservation restaurants struck me as the stupidest of ideas. Obviously, it would go nowhere. I was so wrong. Barrafina got much better at managing the queue, and other places utilised technology so you can now leave your mobile number at the door and pop out elsewhere for a drink.

Leaving Barrafina that night, I headed to the first Hawksmoor on the Bethnal Green Road. It was a bijou steak house compared to the wood-panelled leviathans they would eventually launch. Still, it was enough for me to raise a cheer: real steaks had arrived in the UK and would keep arriving. Here comes Goodman and Cut and 34 Mayfair.

Some trends took longer to arrive than others. In 2009 I travelled to the Basque country to write about Bittor Arguinzoniz, the self-taught chef at Etxebarri where everything was cooked over live fire. Now, at places like St Leonards, Temper and Brat, if the cook doesn’t end up smelling like they have been tending a bonfire all night it doesn’t count as cooking.

There’s one startlingly obvious thing that so many of these places I have so far mentioned share: most are in London. At the start I didn’t have to make much of an excuse for a London bias. There were good restaurants elsewhere in the country but it took the skills I used as a crime reporter to find them. London still dominates and I can’t pretend otherwise just to soothe anti-metropolitan fury, but the situation has changed markedly. What’s more I have the train tickets to prove it. I have reviewed from Marazion and Porthleven at the tip of Cornwall to Stornoway and Drumbeg in Scotland’s furthest reaches; from Llandudno in the west of Wales to Cromer in the east of England. I have returned repeatedly to Belfast where feverish arguments about who serves the best burger are so much better than the things they used to argue about there.

Many excellent restaurants have come and gone in the time I’ve been reviewing. There’s Norse in Harrogate, The Old Spot in Wells, and Brasserie Chavot in London. All were loved. All are missed. Some have been there throughout: Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham was where I ate on my own dime as a young man, long before landing my job. I went back there during my first year as a critic and swooned, and it is still doing the thing, as is Tayyabs, a fabulous Pakistani grill house off Whitechapel Road, in London’s East End. The glorious Oslo Court in St John’s Wood, thunders onwards, with its menu of grilled grapefruit and duck à la orange. When it’s 7pm in London it’s still 1974 at Oslo Court.

Jay Rayner photographed exclusively for OFM at 34 Mayfair, London Observer Food Monthly Grooming: Juliana Sergot using Kiehl’s



How much? Jay at 34 Mayfair, London Photograph: Levon Biss/The Observer

Only it’s not at 1974 prices. A few months after I started, I complained that it seemed impossible to eat out for less than £70 for two. Now, too many flash metropolitan places seem to glide effortlessly past £140. Happily, it has led to a flight away from the centres. Many of the most interesting, affordable restaurants in the UK are now to be found in once unlikely places: in shipping containers in Bristol or covered markets in Doncaster or Brixton. Alongside that has come the rise of street food. Too often it risks the self-parody of something shoved inside a brioche bun and flogged out of a reconditioned ambulance for £9. Still, at its best it’s a genuinely accessible model for interesting food eaten outside the home.

Have I got anything wrong? Yes. I dismissed the brash Indian Dishoom too easily as all concept and no substance. What was I thinking? The food is great, the brand is strong and they serve a killer breakfast bacon naan. But otherwise, as arrogant as it sounds, I am comfortable with what I’ve said. However grand it sounds, a national newspaper column is a responsibility. I don’t treat it lightly.

Doubtless other people think I’m wrong all the time. Indeed, they tell me so. In 1999, if I heard from readers it was in the form of a letter, which rarely felt like it demanded a reply. Now it’s a digital conversation, which cannot be ignored. My inbox fills constantly with restaurant recommendations, gratefully received. And then there is the rancid abuse, complete with references to my “so-called” job. These are harder to take because, deep down, I am as suspicious of what I do for a living as those who appear to resent me for it. What would the young reporter, determined to hunt down the truth, think of the man I had become? The problem is the man I have become is having so much fun. I have long said that I do the eating for free; it’s the writing I get paid for. This is certainly the case, but I still get to do the eating. And I do still love restaurants. I still push open the door, with hope in my heart, a credit card in my wallet and a gap in my belly that needs filling. And if I find a few stinkers, well, so be it.

As I approached the 10th anniversary in the job, I told my wife I was considering handing in my knife and fork. She rolled her eyes and said I wouldn’t quit. She was right. And I’m not quitting now either. I get my dinner paid for and then get paid to write smartarse things about it. Who wouldn’t want to do that? You’ll have to prise my cold dead fingers from this gig. Now then, where’s my table?

Jay Rayner’s new book My Last Supper: One Meal a Lifetime in the Making, will be published by Guardian Faber in September


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