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.