How did you first start out writing about food? Can you tell us about the early steps in your career?
I had no plans to be a restaurant critic until about three seconds after the then editor of the Observer magazine told me, in 1999, that there was a vacancy. I said: “That’s not a job you can apply for but I think I’d be rather good at it.” The magazine editor eventually agreed. The then overall editor of the paper, Roger Alton, had other ideas as I was one of his news feature writers, which is a tricky job. He wanted our brilliant political commentator Andrew Rawnsley to do it, because he took a few people out to lunch. Eventually it was agreed that we would alternate. Except Andrew really wasn’t interested in writing about restaurants so, by default, the job became mine.
Tell us a little bit about how it all works behind the scenes. Do you eat out every night? Does every meal you eat start to feel like a review? Is it inherently social or antisocial? How long does it take to review a meal?
I only review one restaurant a week, though, being a greedy swine, I may end up in a couple more through the week on my own dime. Otherwise I’m at home cooking for and eating with the family. And yes, of course, it’s a hugely social business. It gives me the perfect opportunity to catch up with friends. They just have to know (a) that we’re having the works; you can’t say “no dessert for me”; (b) I get to taste everything they order; and (c) I’m the one writing the column, so while I’m vaguely interested to hear their thoughts, they’re only there to keep me company.
What’s the most important thing to bring to the reader in what you are experiencing?
My column is about how much pleasure (or otherwise) your money will buy you, and that’s what I have to communicate. But to do so, as with all journalism, I have to find the story. It might be about the rise and fall of Chinese restaurants, or the joy of stumbling across a great place by accident. I need an idea to hook it on. It’s definitely not a score-based forensic analysis, which would be tedious to read. It is, first and foremost, a writing job, not an eating job. You need to put the reader in the seat next to you.
You have a consistent dialogue with readers about your column and your reviews. Can you tell us about that and why you think it’s important?
It’s not so much that I regard it as important as unavoidable. Failing to engage with commenters below the line or on social media is to ignore the way the world has changed. It’s a conversation, however much some of that conversation may drive me nuts.
What’s the best thing about your role – what brings you the most joy?
Very simple: stumbling across a brilliant young chef few have heard of and knowing that writing about them will bring them to the wider audience they deserve. That, and the fact I get to eat out a lot. I have always loved the theatre of restaurants, and I still do.
Tell us about some of the backlash and the controversies over the years, including the fallout and reaction to your review of Le Cinq in Paris. What has stood out after you publish a negative review?
Sometimes, after I’ve written a negative review, I’m contacted by people connected to the chef, complaining. Usually it’s the chef’s mother. They ask if I know how it feels to have your work slagged off. I’m able to tell them that, as both the author of 10 books and a gigging jazz musician, I know exactly how it feels. As to Le Cinq, that was nuts: global newspaper headlines, TV segments, the works. For me the pinnacle was when the American food blog Eater ran the strongest lines from that review as speech bubbles spoken by cats. I deal in detail with the fallout from that review in the introduction to my new collection of stinkers.
Are there times in the past where you feel you may have got it wrong, perhaps on reflection?
Only one. I completely underestimated how significant a category disrupter Dishoom [the Indian cafe-style eatery] would become. I dismissed it as uninteresting when in truth it has turned into something very interesting indeed. That said, I was later told by one of the owners that my less than obliging comments about some of the cooking had encouraged them to alter what they were doing.
How do you think dining in London compares with other cities around Britain or Europe?
London has pulled away from the rest of Britain in a way that is not healthy. There is now little point comparing anywhere outside London with the capital. Instead London should be compared with Paris or Milan, New York or Tokyo. By those standards it comes out very well. You can eat more interestingly and broadly in London than in any other European city. However, because of property and wage costs, price remains a significant issue.
How do you feel about food fads and crazes?
I have no time for exclusionist food fads. Being a coeliac is very difficult and I have a lot of sympathy for anybody managing the condition. But most people claiming to be gluten intolerant, or lactose intolerant and so on, are just trying to control the world around them through their food choices. They’re not at all interested in food. That said, the increase in meat-free cookery is not a fad, but a useful and important development. We need to eat less meat.
During difficult times in the world, what do you think is the importance of eating out?
I am a strong believer that we are capable of holding two thoughts in our head at the same time. We can be appalled by, say, the situation in Syria, while also being displeased by the poor cooking of a steak. The former does not make the latter irrelevant because at base we all aspire to living normal, comfortable lives, untroubled by conflict or social exclusion. A meal out is a mark of that normality, and normality should be celebrated.
• Jay Rayner’s book Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights: A Journey Deeper into Dining Hell, published by Guardian Faber, is out now and available at the Guardian Bookshop for £3.50. Click on the link to order or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Aspiring food entrepreneurs are being offered an incredible chance to follow in the footsteps of culinary legends.
Le Cordon Bleu London has unveiled its highly anticipated annual Julia Child Scholarship – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone passionate about food and hospitality to kickstart their career.
The prize is worth over £40,000, and includes a place on Le Cordon Bleu’s Diplôme de Pâtisserie – recognised globally as one of the most respected culinary qualifications in pastry and baking – plus a three-month Le Cordon Bleu Diploma in Culinary Management.
The winner will also receive an internship at the iconic Savoy Hotel and 12 months luxury accommodation provided by London accommodation specialists, Londonist.
The prize adds up to a unique opportunity for someone passionate about a career in the food and hospitality business to follow their dreams, learning from the best, while studying at the world’s leading culinary arts institution.
Le Cordon Bleu is the prestigious network of institutions dedicated to excellence in culinary training and entrepreneurial hospitality management. It has 35 institutes worldwide and trains over 20,000 students each year of more than 130 nationalities.
Le Cordon Bleu has helped shape the careers of some of the best chefs and food enthusiasts around the world.
The prestigious Julia Child Scholarship is in recognition of Le Cordon Bleu’s most esteemed alumni. Julia Child famously changed career to become a pioneer of French food and home cooking.
Culinary Arts Director at Le Cordon Bleu Chef Emil Minev said: “As an institute with a rich heritage spanning over 120 years, Le Cordon Bleu has a long-standing reputation of training the finest chefs and most innovative Food Entrepreneurs in the world.
“This year’s Scholarship will showcase this and offers a unique platform for those with exciting food business ideas.”
The prize will be presented to the winner by esteemed Le Cordon Bleu Alumna, Mary Berry.
She said: “Le Cordon Bleu has always held a dear place in my heart, as the starting point of my career in food.
“Whoever the winner is, will be embarking on a life-changing journey.”
As part of the 2019 scholarship, Le Cordon Bleu has teamed up with some of its most successful alumni to provide additional mentorship to the winner, including Luiz Hara; Georgia Green; Dhruv Mittal and Evelina Ogorzalek.
The winner will also receive an exclusive prize from Churchill, the leading manufacturer of innovative tableware, a 12-month membership with The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and tickets to The Business Show.
The second and third-place runners-up will receive high-performance ZWILLING Diplôme knives.