Jay Rayner on food, fame, family and final meals

Jay Rayner, Author, Food Critic

Jay Rayner - Credit: Levon Biss 2012

Restaurant critic Jay Rayner is constantly asked, ‘What would be your death-row dinner?’ by people who think they’re the first to pose the question. In reply, he’s written a book. Katie Jarvis asked him some more very, very obvious questions

Stroud Festival of Food and Drink: May 20-22

Is this cheating? 

(Probably.) (I prefer to call it ‘setting the scene’.) 

I’m interviewing Jay Rayner, journalist; Observer restaurant critic. The man who can stand neither Heinz baked beans (‘I just don’t like the taste’) nor Michael Gove (similar). 

I’ve just read Jay Rayner’s book, My Last Supper. And I want to give a quick flavour of a few delicacies therein that surprised me. 

So why not call the following a tasting menu. (Pretentious? ἐγώ?) 

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Here goes: 

  • He’s 10 years old, on a school skiing trip to Switzerland, with weak ankles and fat thighs (Jay’s description) that make him lousy at skiing. But he is outstanding at eating. Returning one evening from a fruitless day on the slopes, he notices an old wooden hotel with a pinned-up menu offering ‘escargots’. Courtesy of a gilded, privileged, overfed (his description) childhood, this culinary offering (which would make most UK children gag) makes him salivate. NB: Surprisingly, this is not the thrust of the story. For three nights on a trot, he bemuses the waiter by turning up alone and ordering snails served on a ‘fearsome’ burner. Jay manages the whole gastronomic operation with aplomb: extracting snails and their garlic-butter moat from shells; frying toast to a crisp on the burner. On night three, he cranks up the burner with such confident enthusiasm, it sends playful orange flames licking a good foot above the table of this all-wooden building. Fortunately, the quick-acting waiter flings open the window and ejects the fireball into the snow. This does not give Jay Rayner PTSD (though we cannot definitively comment on the waiter). On the contrary, he writes, ‘It drew me [to snails], not least because the fried garlic toast had been spectacular in the moments before ignition…’ 
  • It’s 1990, and Jay Rayner is in Palm Springs, California, reporting for the Observer on an attempt by an actor to win a seat in Congress. He knows down the road from the v posh bit is Indio, a dirt-poor town populated by souls who do jobs the rich just don’t fancy. Jay is working with photographer Catherine Leroy, whose shrapnel scars were earned covering the Vietnam War for Life magazine. Jay stops to interview Marvin selling watermelons from a supermarket trolley with ghetto-blaster accompaniment. Marvin takes exception to being photographed without cash profferings. There’s a flash of knife – Marvin is proper annoyed – and Jay runs. Marvin follows. Quick-thinking Leroy appears in a car, door swung open, for Jay to dive into. 
  • (‘Quick-acting people who saved Jay Rayner’ is an accidental theme. I didn’t notice until I reread this.) 
  • It’s 2011, and Jay Rayner is invited to take part in 5 x 15, an event where five people talk for 15 minutes about a personal passion. Jay speaks of his love for the piano. As a finale, he and double-bassist Robert Rickenberg play All of Me. Afterwards, a woman from Jewish Book Week asks Jay if he will do an hour’s performance at the festival. He frowns in consternation: This is simply his hobby! The woman shrugs: ‘Well, how about we give you a year to get ready?’ 
Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments - Credit: Levon Biss, www.levonbiss.com

JAY RAYNER is such a nice man. True to form, he says, ‘Yes’, the minute I ask for an interview. 

‘You’re also a nightmare,’ I tell him. 

‘Why am I a nightmare?’ 

‘Because’ every time I read one of his books and cleverly think, ‘Ah, yes, Jay, but…’, I turn a page and find him writing, ‘Ah, yes, but…’ 

Trounces my list of questions. 

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments - Credit: Levon Biss

‘It’s a function of the Age of Social Media,’ he says. ‘I’m old enough to remember when you used to get letters. And there weren’t very many of them. My old mum [the much-missed journalist and agony aunt Claire Rayner] said that, if you got a letter about a piece, it represented 1,000 people who had the same view who just couldn’t be bothered to write. Now they all bloody write. 

‘You have to think through the response to what you’re saying.’ 

Still trounces my list of questions. 

So, this latest book, My Last Supper. It’s a great-fun conceit. Pretty much every time Jay does a performance/talk/broadcast inviting audience questions, somebody asks, ‘What would be your last meal?’, the look on their face acknowledging this must be the first time anyone has come up with such a witty poser. 

(They have my sympathy.) 

Which set him seriously thinking about his death-dinner. 

Ah, yes, but! I think to myself. Surely the last thing on anyone’s mind, when they’re about To Meet their Maker, is what to have for tea? 

The thing is, he writes, the last thing on anyone’s mind, when they’re about To Meet their Maker, is what to have for tea. For instance, when he was 17, doing 55mph on a greasy bend, he spun his Volvo 180 degrees before making brutal contact with a lamp post. He thought a lot of things as he waited to see if he was going to die. [Spoiler; he didn’t.] As he points out, not one of those thoughts was, ‘If only I’d eaten properly last night.’ 

Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner - Credit: Bella West

There are people who buck that trend: indeed, he briefly begins his book with some real-life (sounds odd) death-row dinners, which occasionally featured exquisite attention to detail. Murderer and rapist Victor Feguer asked for just one olive, stone in. Three wanted Diet Coke (‘It’s never too late to lose weight,’ new study confirms). While brain-injured Ricky Ray Rector was taken for execution having left his pecan pie ‘for later’. (If that’s not grounds for a stay of execution – I mean that genuinely – I don’t know what is.) 

But death-row dinners are not where this book is at. This book is very much about life; about telling a story; about meeting someone through their dishes. 

What do Jay’s dishes describe? 

‘Someone with an enthusiasm for life. Who wants to get the most out of it.’ 

I’m not going to reveal his final meal-choice – read the book/go to one of his shows. You’ll love the meal (probably); you’ll love the journey, definitely. 

As compensation, here are other meaty things. 

Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner: The last thing on anyone’s mind, when they’re about To Meet their Maker, is what to have for tea - Credit: John Arandhara-Blackwell

COVID, FOR INSTANCE. When it first struck, we were simply worried about survival. Then I went to a famed Cotswold restaurant, where the front-of-house partner discussed her chef-husband’s fear of anosmia and ageusia. 

Then I lost my own sense of taste and smell. Did that possibility strike terror into the heart of Jay Rayner? 

‘Have you regained any of it yet?’ 

‘Umm, some. Can’t remember exactly what it used to be like.’ 

‘Look, Covid is horrendous. And the alternative, which is being dead, is much worse. I suspect I would try to be Pollyanna-ish in the face of it. Professionally – and people will find this weird – it’s less challenging than you might think. You can tell an enormous amount about the dish by all the things that happen before you even put it in your mouth.’ 

Even a menu description is titillation. 

‘I always thought Heston Blumenthal was really clever about this – he clocked early on that, for people coming to his restaurant, it would start from the moment they booked. You imagine yourself in the restaurant; you imagine yourself with certain dishes in front of you. The whole process isn’t simply about sitting at a table with knife and fork and eating food.’ 

OK – so now let’s visit the other end of the current food-problem scale. 

Jay Rayner at the piano

Jay Rayner encourages any aspiring musician to jump in the deep end - Credit: Shawn Pearce

He writes about seeing his mum – as he was growing up – opening heartrending letters from destitute parents who didn’t know how on earth they were going to feed their families. How would Claire feel about that desperation returning with a vengeance? 

‘She’d be horrified. Absolutely horrified. She’d be amazed and angry as everybody should be. The government responsible for it has been the government responsible for it for 12 years. And we seem to be accepting of that. It’s just a bloody mess.’ 

His own overflowing cup of anger is garnished with despair at Brexit. He relates a conversation in Last Supper that he had with colleagues from The Kitchen Cabinet, his Radio 4 culinary panel show. As they tucked into slices of pig’s trotter, jellyfish strands and chilli beef sirloin, Zoe Laughlin declared that eating meat was immoral. But, they unanimously agreed, an immorality they could handle. 

What Jay Rayner finds harder to do is defend carnivorous-ness against a background dearth of vets, a lack of access to slaughter houses, a lack of labour. 

‘When the food supply-chain just collapses like that, what are you defending when animals are merely being bred and killed? When they’re not going anywhere; it’s appalling. 

‘But I was shouting about Brexit from the very bloody beginning.’ 

In 2013, he wrote the entertaining-but-deadly-serious polemic Greedy Man in a Hungry World, discussing misconceptions around which food policy had been built. One of the points he made was that Britain was susceptible to external shocks, which could cut off its access and cause rises in food prices. 

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments - Credit: Levon Biss

What he didn’t anticipate was that the external shock ‘would be of our own making’. 

He repeated many of those arguments in 2017 to Michael Gove – in letter-form ‘because I didn’t want to sit in a room with him’. (Which you can read – along with his well-reasoned Govoid antipathy – on jayrayner.co.uk

‘There’s something very specific today, which is worth pointing out. Ukraine is the world’s greatest producer of wheat, and that wheat goes significantly – because of the volume produced and the cost it’s produced at – to Africa. There are countries in Africa terrified right now of being cut off from an economically viable supply of a basic food stuff. An indication of how global food pressures work.’ 

Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner - Credit: Bella West

HE’S BEEN GENEROUS, chatting. But I know his day is full. Tonight, he and the Jay Rayner (jazz) Quartet – his wife, Pat, is their talented vocalist – are playing a 10th anniversary gig. A decade since he was given a year to prepare for their first public performance. 

‘We’re launching a whole new pile of material we’ve never played to anyone before.’ 

Wasn’t it madness, to branch out into full-glare musicianship? When you’re brilliant at one medium, to put yourself up potentially to be knocked down in another? 

Jay Rayner performs with wife Pat Gordon-Smith

Jay Rayner performs with wife Pat Gordon-Smith - Credit: Shawn Pearce

‘There was an enormous amount of ‘What am I doing this for?’. BUT I love doing it.’ 

He didn’t take any payments for himself for a number of years – though he made sure his fellow musicians got paid: ‘which felt like an excuse (while this may be deluded on my part) if someone wanted to criticise me.’ 

He’d encourage any aspiring musician to jump in the deep end. ‘Remember you only have to be good over a narrow bandwidth. You don’t have to be generally brilliant: just good for the time that people are listening to you.’ 

But the quartet does have brilliance. Especially the combination of Jay and Pat. ‘At the risk of sounding desperately uxorious, she’s very, very good; but what makes the act – in the old vaudeville sense – are a chemistry and a rapport you cannot invent.’ 

Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner - Credit: Shawn Pearce

BACK TO FOOD. What’s his madeleine moment? 

‘The frying of gefilte fish,’ he says, without hesitation. Classic Ashkenazi white fish, with a bit of ground almonds; maybe a little sugar; onions. (Can’t be described better than Claudia Roden’s recipe.) ‘It was the vestigial stump of Jewish food-culture for my mother. The smell of frying gefilte fish takes me right back to her kitchen.’  

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments

Jay Rayner's 10 Food Commandments - Credit: Levon Biss

Jay Rayner and his one-man show, My Last Supper, will be at Stroud Festival of Food and Drink, 7pm, May 20, followed by the Jay Rayner Quartet at 9.15pm; stroudfoodanddrink.com; jayrayner.co.uk

My Last Supper, by Jay Rayner

My Last Supper, by Jay Rayner - Credit: Guardian Faber Publishing