Theatreblogger | Jay Rayner, My Dining Hell
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Jay Rayner, My Dining Hell

Interviewing doesn’t get tougher than this. At least, that’s how it feels as the appointed time looms to call Jay Rayner: restaurant critic, broadcaster, Masterchef judge, journalist and general raconteur, writes Lizz Brain. And when that distinctive voice is on the other end of the phone, I tell him so: that in 20 years of conducting interviews with performers, creatives and celebs, he’s only the second to make me nervous.

“Which begs two questions: who was the first, and why do I make you nervous?” he responds instantly. I tell him a) Steven Berkoff and b) because he’s a journalist. An award-winning one. And his job is essentially to judge things.

“Well Berkoff is scary, and yes, journalists are the worst people to interview,” he agrees. “I never gave it much thought until I started doing these live shows and now I end up being interviewed in the way that I still interview people, and it’s hell. But I am lovely.”

The latter assertion is a matter of opinion, obviously. There are those who salivate in anticipation of his every word, both his tongue and pen dripping unctuous adjectives and oozing the linguistic equivalent of either liquid chocolate or pickling vinegar, depending on his view.

And there are those who don’t, preferring instead to use social media to air their lack of appreciation. “I’ve blocked rather a lot of people this week, I just choose not to engage with that kind of thing anymore,” he says, referring to an incident on talkSPORT “in which I found myself in the situation of being a metrosexual fop being shouted at by the equivalent of a couple of blokes drinking Diamond White in a pub. I hung up and it didn’t go down too well, and their fans gave me Twitter abuse for days. It’s tiresome but we live in a dynamic world, and if you have a privileged soapbox in order to say your thing then people will always want to respond.”

Fortunately we’re not here for abuse or sport talk, but to discuss My Dining Hell, a national tour in which he discusses his worst experiences of reviewing restaurants. “The first half is stand-up, using audio-visual stuff to take you through the landscape of what I hate about restaurants. It’s therapy after 15 years of doing the job, but although the negative reviews are the smallest part of what I do, they’re the ones people remember.”

Does it bother him when bloggers, social media commentators and tweeters disagree with his reviews?

“Not in the slightest. My job is a writing job, not an eating job, and I’m employed for how I write not how I eat. So my job is simply to be a better writer than they are. If they are better than me then I have to pull my socks up. If they just think I’m wrong, that’s fine. But the second half the show is interesting because I ask people to Tweet their reviews of the show, then read some of them out. It gives them an idea of having their own opinions reviewed.”

Here I think we have some common ground: so I bring up my experiences as a theatre critic. Does he see a correlation? Is being a critic being a critic, regardless of subject?

“I have done some theatre reviews, but I think there’s a sense of more noble intent with theatre. When you eat out you’re essentially paying someone to cook your tea. You could have done it at home. But the benchmark still has to be ‘how would you feel if you were paying for it?’. When it’s bad it’s pretty obvious, but it’s in the middle mediocrity when I find myself asking my companion if they’d be happy to come back again and pay for it.”

Fair enough. But with theatre all focus is on the show. When eating out, it’s about the food and the company. Which is worst? Good food with bad company, or bad food in good company?

“Good food in bad company is always worse. It’s awful. If the person sat opposite you is awful then all is lost,” he says.

“From time to time I auction myself off for charity, for someone to come with me when I review. It’s ridiculous that people will pay for it, but I don’t quite know what they expect to see now we’re in the age of the web. If you read my column then I would imagine that generally you share the principles of that newspaper, but the Internet means they don’t have to be part of that agenda. Anyway, I was ‘bought’ by the wife of an oil trader who lived in Spain. Halfway through the meal she leaned across the table and asked me: “Shall I tell you why Margaret Thatcher is a hero of mine?”

“I said: ‘No, I don’t have to listen to that’. It was somewhat traumatic. But it is one of my Ten Food Commandments (plug for his new book woven seamlessly into his answer): Thou Shalt Choose Thy Companion Carefully.”

He’s also been vocal recently about his biggest service peeves in restaurants.

“It really annoys me when waiters ignore my request to pour my own wine, and then don’t tell their colleagues that’s what I’ve requested.”

“I once said the ‘service was like herpes. Absent for long periods but then you can’t get rid of it’. I thought it was hilarious.”

“I said: ‘No, I don’t have to listen to that’. It was somewhat traumatic. But it is one of my Ten Food Commandments (plug for his new book woven seamlessly into his answer): Thou Shalt Choose Thy Companion Carefully.”

He’s also been vocal recently about his biggest service peeves in restaurants.

“It really annoys me when waiters ignore my request to pour my own wine, and then don’t tell their colleagues that’s what I’ve requested.”

Why is it a big deal? He laughs. “This might be too much detail for the Mercury. But if I go out for dinner with my wife we split the bottle and have half each, but I drink faster than she does. If I drink too much it ruins the rest of the evening. And it’s more detail than I want to go into with a waiter than to tell them I want to pour my own wine or I won’t get laid.”

Along with My Dining Hell, he also tours with his jazz quartet, occasionally mixing food talk with music. And along with all those performances comes a corresponding number of interview requests.

What does he always get asked? “What’s my favourite restaurant? And I can’t answer it. You can have just as extraordinary an experience in a seafood shack on the coast as you can having the tasting menu at The Fat Duck. Alchemy is about many things.”

So what’s his starting point when faced with the menu at a restaurant he’s reviewing?

“I’m looking for the thing that sounds as mad as possible, the thing that shouldn’t make sense. If that’s not there, I start to look at what isn’t pork belly, then take out the bankers that are on every menu – steak and chips for example. Ignore those and then just look for a dish that says something about what the restaurant is about. But mostly I’m looking for something to write about. And I don’t take notes. If I can’t remember something about a dish then that’s everything I need to know.”

And as the journalist being interviewed by journalists, what’s the one thing he wishes they’d ask, but they never do?

“I’m a writer so I always want to be asked what’s the funniest thing I’ve said.”

OK. What is it? “I once said the ‘service was like herpes. Absent for long periods but then you can’t get rid of it’. I thought it was hilarious.”

And on that note, it’s interview over. “Thanks, that was a lot of fun,” he says. And then the nerves hit me again, now this journalist has to serve up what the other journalist said, and attempt to make it both presentable and palatable.

I just hope I don’t get roasted.

My Dining Hell is at Melton Theatre on Thursday 19 May 2016 at 7.30pm. For details call 01664 851111 or visit meltontheatre.co.uk
See the original article from the Leicester Mercury, May 14 2016 below.

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