Food rules

Claire Dupree can’t resist putting the bite on Jay Rayner when he visits Newcastle to perform his show based on his new book, The 10 (Food) Commandments, at The Stand comedy club. Here’s what he divulges under intense foodie questioning

So what’s it like being a food writer appearing at a comedy club?

The last time I was in Newcastle I was at The Stand as well. I turned up and thought, ‘F-me, it’s a comedy club!’ I had to sit in the corner for a couple of minutes and think ‘how the hell am I going to do this?’ It quite radically changed my approach that night, which I carried away with me on the rest of the tour. There’s nothing more intimate than a comedy club, although I talk about what I do being stand-up comedy, it is quite different to be in the face of the audience, so I’m really looking forward to coming back to The Stand because it was such a good one last time.

Did you feel more pressure to be funnier?

You can only be who you are, but I did feel a slight pressure to pick up the pitch, or maybe just to swear more, which in itself can be hilarious. I may be about to turn 50, but I still think the F-word is hilarious! The last show was about negative restaurant reviews and was pitched as comedy, but this one has a lot more nerdy stuff in it. It’s not all laugh a minute when you’re getting into the nutty academic research on super foods or why we should cook more, so I’m curious to see how it goes over.

What inspired you to write about food?

I never had a plan to write about food. I’ve been a journalist for 25 years, I’ve been a feature writer and news reporter. Back in the late 90s I was on the Observer and I’d written about everything except sport, and one day I was told the restaurant column had come up. I’d always spent my money in restaurants, I love them and I still do – which is a prerequisite of the job I suppose. I never imagined I’d make it a living. The editor of the paper didn’t want me to, he was happy keeping me as the news features writer but I refused to lie down. There’s something in the subject that’s brilliant for a writer. Mine is not an eating job – people often stop me and say ‘Oh I’d love your job, all that eating’ – I do the eating for free, it’s the writing I get paid for. I‘m not selling restaurants, I’m selling newspapers or the digital equivalent thereof. Nobody is coming to The Stand to hear whether the lamb was overcooked or the fish was raw, they’re coming for how I examine the world. Food is a brilliant prism through which to examine the world; politics, emotion, sex and sometimes it’s about dinner.

So the new book and show, The Ten (Food) Commandments delves into the science and psychology behind food?

Each commandment is a jumping off point for a 5,000-word essay on a particular subject. I only put a commandment in if there’s enough material in that subject to really go off on one. I want to know what the experts say on it, how much detail can I go into, so I can make a convincing argument, and then of course there are the recipes.

What’s also worth saying is that the book and the show were devised at the same time, I wrote the book with the show in mind.

I wrote a book a few years back about food security in the 20th Century, which sounds very nerdy but I hope is quite entertaining. I realised the book was fodder for discussion panels at literary festivals – you know, three people seated between rubber plants. I hate discussion panels, I think they’re tedious; you get two people in entrenched positions being moderated by someone who hasn’t read the book. The only way to dodge this was to come up with my own one-man show, so that first one was a way to avoid having to enter into discussions with experts and have a conversation with the audience. After about a year of doing it I looked at my accounts and realised this had become business, which is how I came up with My Dining Hell, which grew out of my collection of bad restaurant reviews. So this time around, I knew what the show and the book needed to be. I think about them as a whole, the show is not a promotional thing for the book, but it underpins the show.

What do you think is the biggest mistake chefs routinely make?

Overthinking everything. Cook nice food, don’t sit there thinking ‘what’s the wow factor?’ Cook food people want to eat, rather than trying to come up with some unique selling point that’ll make you look clever and smart. There are myriad ways to complicate a restaurant experience; tables and chairs, plates – please God plates, not flat caps and mini wheelbarrows – served by people who don’t feel the need to explain the concept to you.

How do you feel about music in a restaurant?

I don’t have a particular problem with music unless it’s intrusive. Sometimes it’s a replacement for atmosphere, and we all know what that’s like, it means the restaurant’s failing. What does trouble me is when albums come along and they have restaurant background music written all over them. So I’ve been through the Swing When You’re Winning years, the Norah Jones Come Away With Me years, the Tony Bennett Duets played on a loop. If they wanted to be hip they’d put Caro Emerald on.

There was one restaurant in Newcastle – the food was really nice, but there was a constant soundtrack of Lindisfarne. I addressed my review to the kitchen, saying you’ve got to sort this guy out, who’s putting on all this Lindisfarne. About a week after my review came out they had a ceremonial burning of the Lindisfarne CDs.

Have you had any particularly entertaining run-ins with a chef?

Not particularly. I joke that when people get in touch it’s usually the chef’s mother. There’s nothing you can say. I had one chap’s 15-year-old daughter get in touch, obviously distressed that her dad’s work had been trashed by me, there’s nothing you can say in those circumstances. As a writer of books I too am reviewed and I take it on the chin. It’s a privilege to write for a living and a privilege to cook for people for a living and if you do that and charge £100 for two or whatever, you have to accept that some form of criticism may come your way.

How do you feel when you get reviewed as a musician?

It’s terrifying. I’m an accidental performer of the piano, but I’m very serious about it, I take it very seriously. I’ve been properly reviewed once by The Times – a nice fat four of out five stars – but waiting for that review was more terrifying than any other. Perhaps because I don’t over claim my own piano skills; I‘m solid and in certain places I have particular strengths, but I’m not a great all-round pianist, I bring something else to the party. I work with very good musicians, I’m good on repertoire, patter and showmanship.

That was terrifying, but I got away with it. If someone just said ‘really he’s shocking, he’s just some big haired bloke off Masterchef’ I wouldn’t have much to say about it, how could I?

One of the interesting things with live shows is you’re getting people to part with good money and spend time with you; you have to be very conscious of that. It’s a privilege and a responsibility, never take it for granted.

If you could only go back to one place to eat again, where would it be?

It would probably be The Sportsman in Seasalter. It used to be this great unknown gem and I’d sound really clever when I said it, but it’s been voted number one in the National Restaurant Awards this year, so it’s hardly obscure. It’s a tumbledown pub on the coast near Whitstable, run by a brilliant chef named Stephen Harris, who just has pitch perfect taste. There’s no flummery or linen tablecloths there, just really
clever cooking.

When you’re cooking, what’s your signature dish?

Oh, I don’t know about signature recipes. I never sign anything. I’m happiest when I’m braising. The Ten Commandments book comes with recipes, including in the We Should Worship Leftovers chapter, a recipe for braised lamb shoulder. When winter comes and it’s been braising for seven hours, that makes me very happy.

Do your friends cook for you?

Not much. I have two sets of friends who do invite us round for supper, but we don’t get invited to dinner parties. I wonder why? It’s more a case of ‘we’re putting dinner on for the kids, get round for six and join in.’ In the summer holidays we take a large house in Northern Spain and invite a bunch of other families to come with us. The qualifying criteria for joining us is not just a willingness to cook but an enthusiasm to do so, so we all take turns in doing dinner. We’re just having dinner, but the ingredients are great and it’s a lot of fun.

Is there any particular world cuisine you’re fond of?

I veer between Spanish and Japanese, depending on my mood. One of the interesting things about Japanese cuisine is that it’s a far more complex repertoire than we might earlier have thought; it’s not just raw fish and noodles. It can be very exciting; Japanese food can always get me going.

McDonalds or KFC, and why?

KFC! Why? It’s fried chicken! The reality is I‘ve eaten KFC very recently. We generally go to Center Parcs and on the route between my house and Center Parcs there’s a service station with a KFC. For a long time my son had a photograph of me eating it which he swore he’d put on social media and bribe me, but it’s good to get it out there. I live in South London, and we all know the dodgy reputation of South London chicken shops, but KFC really isn’t that bad, in moderation.


Recipe: Jay Rayner’s pork, chorizo and butter bean stew

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