5/25/2012 03:00:00 PM

British Food Critic Jay Rayner on His Dining Hell, Bad Restaurant Reviews

The often-feared and always hilarious, Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the UK's Observer, is releasing an ebook that gives his fans exactly what they want: page upon page of scathing vitriol on his worst dining out experiences. The ebook, entitled: My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out will drop on June 1 and compiles the critic's 20 most epic restaurant take-downs. We called up Jay to get his thoughts on why people love a bad restaurant review, his dining pet peeves and more. Check out our chat with him below, and get the book here.

Zagat: What inspired you to release this book?

Jay Rayner: People had been saying to me for years, 'oh you should do a compilation of your journalism' and I've always been deeply suspicious of that, because most journalism does not live beyond the moment that it's written for.

Anyway, the more I listened to them, the more it become clear to me, that if they did publish a compilation of my writing, the only thing they'd want to read would be the negative reviews. So I thought why don't I just do something that just pandered to them, just give them what they want.

Zagat: Do you think that there's a greater demand for bad restaurant reviews in Britain vs. the U.S.?

JR: I think that there is a difference in journalistic cultures. A journalist is America is, dare I say it, rather more polite, rather more well-mannered. It's a scrimpy old business in this country and one of the things is, that in New York for example, there really only is one critic that anyway pays attention to and that's the NY Times critic. These guys aren't exactly competing with anybody.

We are in competition - there are 11 of us at last count in the UK and we know that if we are not entertaining then you're gonna go read somebody else. Now that's not the reason for being negative but that is the reason for having a more, dare I say it, visceral approach to restaurant reviewing. It's always been the way with British writing. We've always been a bit little more on-the-fly and bare-knuckled about it. And personally I say all for the good.

Zagat: How relevant is the opinion of a traditional newspaper food critic today?

JR: There are two things to say. One, we are as relevant as we make ourselves. In other words, if you trust my opinions based on having my reviews and perhaps followed some of them, and I continue to write in a convincing manner, a compelling matter and with authority then that's how relevant I am. But let's be clear: we're selling newspapers not restaurants. That doesn't give you carte blanche to make things up or not be accurate, but the majority of people who read you are not going to act immediately upon your reviews - book a table or un-book a table, etc.

The bloggers, the crowd-sourcing sites, the Zagats of this world, have a very important role to play because  they are a way that people make active decisions about where they are going to eat. I think critics like me and my colleagues here in the UK tend to be more about informing the debate about the long conversation about eating out. If you're a complete food-head, you go out to dinner, and then you sit in one restaurant talking about all the other meals you've eaten in other restaurants. There's a long conversation to be had about it and we're part of that conversation. It's a writing job, not an eating job.

Zagat: What are the telltale signs of a bad restaurant?

JR: The absolute perfect one is when the waiter approaches the table and says: 'can I explain to you the concept of our menu?' Run. Run away as fast as you can and don't look back. If the concept goes beyond 'we bring you a list of dishes, you choose them, and we bring them to you', I don't want to know. Other than that, a long wait for the receptionist to make eye contact, for them to take you to the table, bring your menu, offer you a drink, any of those things, you know you're in unsafe hands. And also, overly-detailed menu descriptions. 'Kitchen sinking' as they call it. Everything but the kitchen sink. West country, long-aged, etc.

Zagat: Do you ever feel that your words, particularly the ones in negative reviews, have an impact on people's lives and jobs?

JR: Well I'm sure they've certainly had an impact on people's lives. Anybody that wakes up in the morning and gets a bad review feels horrible, and I think it's important to say I know what that's like, because I've had it. I've had my share of very nice reviews, I've had my share of bad reviews, I know what that's like.

In terms of restaurants changing what they're doing, and I don't want to get too zen about it  - I would say that the bad things they're doing continue to exist whether I reviewed them or not, perhaps that they might decide to change what they're doing should also exist outside of what I'm saying. Someone put it to me they said very interestingly: the last person who needs to hear what I've got to say is the person I'm saying it about. In other words, the chef should know, the restaurant should know. Very few people are bad without knowing about it.

Zagat: You must get a lot of angry letters - does it ever make you upset?

JR: No. I'd be pretty thin-skinned to be upset about that. I don't blame them if they or the chef's mother gets cross. They're entitled to do that. All's fair in love and war. 

Zagat: What do you think are the most annoying phrases a restaurant staffer can use?

JR: 'How is everything?' I'd die a happy man if I didn't hear that phrase every again. It's a mildly awkward question because the answer I really want to shout at them is: "why don't you leave us alone?" Instead I use the word "fine" like a finely-chiseled weapon. "Fine" covers a multitude of sins. 

Zagat: Do you find it harder to deliver negative criticism to a chef's face (ie, on TV) versus in writing?

JR: Apparently not. The Top Chef Masters format, which I suspect which is what you're referring to, is the only time where I'm really coming direct to the chef's face. But it was bound up with a certain American politeness. I think it's the same thing had been done in the UK it wouldn't have been quite as polite. In fact on the first day's shoot they did actually have to tell me to calm things down.

Zagat: Really? That seems like the kind of thing they would want.

JR: Well not on Top Chef Masters. I remember in the first one I said the steak was 'so tough you could walk home on it.' And actually then the producers came to be after saying: 'we really can't use that line, can you come up with someone else please?' Clearly I had no problem with it.

Zagat: Do American reality shows casts Brits as the token "tough judge?" Do you think Americans respect the opinion of a British person more?

JR: We do play great villains, have you noticed in Hollywood movies? Well, It's exactly the same thing. Villainry is associated with the British accent. We're like Henry Blofeld. You know, we're like choking a cat. I don't think it was any accident that Peter O'Toole was the voice Anton Ego in Ratatouille. It's a cultural thing. We play that role. You say nice things in an English accent and it sounds condescending.

Zagat: What are some of the best meals you've ever had?

JR: It can vary. One of my favorite restaurants in the whole world is Jean Georges in New York. Doing the full thing at Jean Georges never ceases to give me joy. And then again one of the others is St. John where you can order in advance a whole piglet roasted for 15 of you. One night I did that with some friends - it was just very simple very straightforward, good watercress salad on the side - it was lovely. It doesn't need to be as fancy as Jean Georges. Just roast me a piglet very well - and I'll be very happy. That's all I ask. That's all I want.

Zagat: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

JR: I'm working on another larger book called A Greedy Man in a Hungry World about the challenges of food security issues and how they measure up to all the kind of interests of foodies like myself. And do they actually stand up to the real challenges we're facing? That's a properly chewy book which My Dining Hell, which is a carefully packaged piece of pandering to those, well you know, things people like to read. In the US, I don't necessarily think people are used to that kind of thing. It's a particular kind of visceral furious writing. 

3 comments :

  1. It's not surprising that British critics come across harsher than American critics: food in the U.K. is not as good.

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    1. True, and this man always looks so unhealthy? Pallor, dark circles, elasticity gone from skin..must be a heavy smoker.

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  2. Bit of a sweeping generalisation there, no? I've eaten amazing food in the US and in the UK, and I've eaten truly terrible food in both countries. But I don't think you can say that food in the UK is simply 'not as good'. Next time you're coming to London, let me know and I'll point you in the direction of any number of places that will disprove such a theory.

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