Jay Rayner is a scary man. It’s not that he’s horrible to talk to – far from it; he’s an absolute delight. But he is a very important man. And for food writers, he is pretty much the holy grail. As a judge on Masterchef UK and the restaurant critic for the UK’s Observer (The Guardian’s Sunday form) for the past 18 years, he can close a restaurant’s doors with the faintest breath of prose. Nothing gets past him, it seems. On overly attentive waiters, he tells SBS Food, “When they ask you every ten minutes [if everything is ok], like it’s in the manual? Just go away. Leave me alone. I’m a horrible person.”
Which of course isn’t true. He is not a horrible person, “but I’m here to sell newspapers, not restaurants,” he says.
Rayner is coming to Australia (for the first time!) for a series of events starting on Sunday, including what is effectively a stand-up show (not only is Rayner a tough critic – and, as it happens, a jazz artist – he’s also a brilliant comic). The show, The Ten (Food) Commandments, is a spin on his most recent book, of the same name, a collection of ten short essays on topics such as eating with your hands. (“The reason these talks happen is an attempt by me to avoid having to sit on discussion panels,” he says, “I hate them because they’re boring, and you end up sitting opposite someone who disagrees with absolutely everything you say and you get nowhere. The only way that I could think of avoiding this was to do a one-man show.”)
The shows, like the book, are split up into commandments - ‘Thou shalt not cut off the fat’, ‘Thou shalt not mistake food for pharmaceuticals’ and so on, partly in a bid to satirise the #cleaneating dogma permeating our Instagram-frenzied culture right now. “They moralise about food, and they will tell you that you should eat clean and that you should avoid this and cut out that, and that’s the way to a righteous life. And I thought I needed to come up with something in order to take that to its ultimate – declaring that you are a biblical prophet, and therefore that what you come up with is the word of God,” he tells SBS.
In short, “It’s me playing Moses, trying to lead you to the edible promised land through a series of food commandments,” he explains. He champions the opposite of food snobbery, “Anybody who does my job and claims to only live on roast swan and braised otter is lying. We’re greedy people with expense accounts.”
Rayner’s restaurant pet peeves are the stuff of legend. “The sudden belief that your dinner will be improved because they’ve delivered it to you in a miniature wheelbarrow or they’ve put your sparerib selection in a miniature, galvanised dustbin, or even just that they’ve put the scallops on a black slate… Now slates are terrific on tops of houses, but they’re shit for food,” he says. “I was once given bread in a Yorkshire restaurant in a flat cap. And you find yourself thinking, ‘Is this a new flat cap?’ ‘Is this a second-hand flat cap?’ ‘And if it’s a second-hand flat cap, whose head has been in my bread basket?’”
Most recently what got his goat was Le Cinq in Paris – a lauded restaurant with three Michelin stars. He hated it. And his April review – now tumbling up to almost 2,000,000 page views (his reviews average around 60,000) – must be one of the most read in history. “There are a number of things to say,” Rayner explains. “I genuinely did go there hoping for a glorious meal, and that the people I would be upsetting were the ones who whine about price. I kind of wanted to say ‘you have no idea how much dinner can cost! Here’s a glorious meal, but it costs 300 euros a head’. And then it all went tits up. It all went wrong. It really did. And yes, as I left there I knew the kind of review I was going to write. I did know what I had. But I didn’t anticipate the scale.”
Not only was the whole world reading the story, but France was less than pleased. “The response in France was hilarious. It was ‘My God! You think we should be reviewed by an Englishman? What do they know?” And you think, ‘1973 called – they want their prejudices back.’ The conclusion was that the entire French nation hated me, and the rest of the world liked me. And I think that’s better than the other way around. I expect it will be in my obituary.”
The Ten Food Commandments talks take place at Brisbane Powerhouse on Sunday May 21 and for The Wheeler Centre at Melbourne's Northcote Town Hall on Wednesday May 24. Tickets here. Want to meet the man in person? He will be talking about his 2015 book, My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out while hosting a lunch at Sofitel Melbourne on Collins on Tuesday May 23. Tickets here. The Ten (Food) Commandments is published by Penguin (pb, $12.99).