Jason Rayner is big …..not only in a physical sense but also his presence.
Jay as he prefers to call himself, is a man who is ‘Big in Britain’.
He is held high in regard thanks to his success as a writer, journalist, author, critic, by his solo flight stage shows, television appearances, radio programmes and one time trip to the USA, as an expert on Bravo channel’s Master Chef spin off. This barrowload of awards and accolades reminds us and him, who he was and is.
For his big name and big reputation he could even be a 21st century Renaissance man if there is room for that.
With his own performing Jazz Quartet in London which strikes a noticeable similarity to Woody and his set in New York, and a wife who sings with him about food and drink, he’s almost the full circle of talent and diligence.
Jay arrived in New Zealand in May with opinions and his book to perform the show The Ten Commandments and share it with readers, writers and broadcasters.
I was granted 30 minutes of his time to meet and interview him. I was happy to begin my series on global food writers for Food and Wine Gazette with him and I had done my homework.
I’d buried myself in Rayner’s work for weeks, read pages about the things he had said and done, but was still curious.
Who was behind the public persona, Rayner’s series of masks and his realities?
Why did he choose to look like Salvador Dali, Moses, a Vampire?
What was his motivation? Who encouraged him to do this? Was it his agent?
(A question asked lately by those who read GQ’s piece on Brad Pitt.)
What was behind the writer, talker, performer, entertainer, musician, comedian, son of mother Claire*, partner, as a father, friend?
I hoped I could guide the conversation to perhaps get some insight into Jay Rayner which had so far eluded me. I had questions about things I hadn’t learned in my research, the most gnawing being his need to tag himself as a food writer and a greedy person.
Greedy for food, life experiences, lusty, insatiable?
I’d thought about running a Proust questionnaire under his nose but decided maybe that wasn’t appropriate as he was a feted food writer coming to talk at a Writers Festival about his writing.
So food seemed to be the obvious start to our tête-à-tête.
As a genuine first canoes New Zealander** having been been brought up with the concept and practice of whakamanuhiri***, understanding roles of host and guest, welcomes, hospitality and warmth, it was my natural approach to a big visitor and a genuine meeting.
We met in a theatre dressing room, shook hands and then he lounged on the sofa while I sat uncomfortably askew on a chair I had found for myself and began.
“Jay I do not want to talk about your mother nor you being a musician, so my first question is about your work. Why have you chosen the word greedy to define yourself ?
I enjoy eating. Greedy people are enthusiasts.
Well I have something to see how greedy you are.
(I knew he was two hours out from lunch) I have Coromandel virgin fresh oysters for you. One hour ago they were on the rocks and I have splits of sparkling, glasses, linen napkins and a lemon.
Oh no, I cannot eat oysters at 3.45 pm.
Really so you are not that greedy?
I feel ambushed. I can’t just eat oysters just like that.
Well if you can’t accept them I have brought you the best honey you can imagine to take home with you; Manuka honey from the Coromandel (a 500gm pot).
Oh no I can’t accept that ….I really can’t take it in my luggage . I really can’t and maybe I can’t take it in Australia? I just can’t take it in my bag.
Well lets see if you change your mind at the end of the interview. So why describe yourself as greedy, why not a gourmet?
I like to use the English language.
Doesn’t gourmet suit you better?
No its pompous.
No….do you know what a gourmand is?
Or bon vivant even?
So staying with greedy.
I eat to share. I couldn’t do my job unless I enjoyed eating,
You do seem to have eaten out a lot, I read at least 700 restaurants in the last number of years. I imagine your senses come into the picture, touch, taste, smell. How do you keep your senses unjaded?
I think you are being too analytical. Am I a sensual man? I try to keep them fresh. My job is not about discerning flavour so keeping them unjaded, or having an unjaded palate isn’t an issue. I write about eating out, the pleasure of that and how much it takes to pay for it. I am employed for how I write. Eating is my job. I write about food to sell newspapers. In my book, my first 9 Commandments are about the senses.
What about appetite and anticipation when one thinks about it and then sits down to a meal?
I have a paid appetite and a good appetite. Anticipation? It is a battle we humans face to live in the present tense. With food in front of us, we can live in the present even if momentarily.
On the beat. It must be hard to disguise yourself when you turn up at the restaurant door sending shock waves through the place when you step in the room.
Oh I refuse to engage with the scampering around and distractions. I behave like a normal diner, sit down and order and watch how others are treated. Then I go home and write about it.
I read your Bristol interviews and how progressive and rewarding the city is for eating out but particularly the review about the small husband and wife jewel you discovered. When you come across an enthusiastic and pleasing pair doing good things do you go up to them after the meal and tell them how happy you are?
No I just go home and write about it. They can read it.
What term do you prefer to use Cook or Chef?
Cook. Chef is French. Its Chief like Chief of the Fire brigade.
Have you ever been asked into the kitchen by the cook or asked yourself to go into one?
No, I haven’t been invited into kitchens but I may see things in passing by the kitchen doorway.
But there was at a place in Truro. A one-man thing. It was so good, those of us at table bet he must have brought commercial food that was ready made. So we went in and asked him. He said no and we could see that indeed he hadn’t and was preparing it all by himself.
What impact or effect do you think your writing has on your readers?
Most of them never go anywhere. They just enjoy my writing.
I can imagine that, you write with a flourishing pen.
What do you mean?
You write like a florist who makes flamboyant bouquets rather than minimal ones. Do you get people emailing you directly about your reviews and asking for advice. I wrote to you myself and booked this meeting and said I would send you my questions to which you replied “you will have to call me as if I answer in an email I will be writing for free.”
Yes I do get asked for recommendations and I answer most of them and try to keep on top of them and my agent also responds.
I can’t always service questions out of the blue. A woman wrote once asking for a recommendation for an occasion with her husband but added that there were 101 things that limited where he could go. The list included things like no wooden floors, only ceiling lights, no white table cloths that I said go out without him.
How often do you cross over to Europe and to Belgium in particular, you wrote your Paris review a few weeks ago. Have you eaten in Belgium, in Brussels ?
I write for an English newspaper, I am employed in Britain.
Do you have a food crush at the moment.
Yes, I do get them.
Its Cantonese. Red Laquered pork, crispy duck.
You once wrote and questioned Chefs acting as agents of social change, do you still think the same or have you moved with this ?
Still the same.
I think it is grandiose to think that high end chefs can affect social change from their kitchens and restaurants when they are feeding the elite and then make political, social and environmental statements about changes like The Lima Declaration, for example. It was created in 2009 by leading chefs who shared a dream of a future “in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society.”
We don’t have time enough to discuss these big issues of food and distribution and sustainability but advances have been made, led in one corner by these chefs, agro- technicians, farmers, fisherman. Many examples are discussed at Redepzi’s MAD conferences for example.
Plenty of things are done without the noise. These people are not super heros. I work on a London program for AIDS victims, there are a lot of good Humanitarian causes going on.
At home. Do you cook?
Yes, all in the family. I cook together with my wife and son. I have 21 recipies in my new book.
What’s your traditional comfort food?
Cheese on toast.
How do you do it?
Are you serious? This is absurd.
I am writing for a Belgian publication and they do a Croque Monsieur.
I lightly toast slice bread, cheese on it, bits of bacon and tabasco sauce and grill it.
It is not a Croque thats for sure. Are you a Netflix fan?
Yes presently watching Designated Survivors. The structure is interesting, the quality and story telling off the written page is interesting.
And Chef’s Table?
The first series, but I am not sure if the chefs are important enough. Not big enough personalities. The Japanese woman chef Niki Yakanama from LA who says her food speaks for itself, who she is….who she is?
What about Francis Mallmann, he is incredibly original and important. Inspiring.
Who is he?
Argentinian chef. lives works in Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Uruguay.
Netflix and its digital content works ,its a great model .
Final question. Have you read Muriel Barberry’s, Gourmet Rhapsody about a Chef who is dying and no one can decipher what is the last thing he wants to eat. In the end its something so simple and junky everyone is caught by surprise yet realise of course thats what he would like.
No I haven’t read it but its an interesting idea about the end of life and the food nurturing aspect of it.
My father’s story, concerns me trying to find just what he wanted and I was able to call upon any cook friend in London and I did. It wasn’t successful.
The thing was, he had no appetite and no hunger left in him.
I had the same experience My mother kept up until the last hour trying to tempt feed my father with his favourite pudding. I think he just wanted to get on with dying.
Rayner apologised for not taking the gift of honey home with him and handed it back.
No space on a first class ticket I wondered?
Connection between us was difficult. I had hoped to meet the person, not only the writer who had butchered the Le Cinq restaurant in Paris earlier in the month.
I never got to see what might be behind his mask, not even a crack to let the light in.
I asked as we were leaving the dressing room if he wanted to read my piece before I sent it in.
He said no, he never does that when he is interviewed handing me carte blanche.
I felt I had just spent under 30 minutes with a dispassionate food reporter, who unlike Belgians with their gastronomic passion for food and wine have a luxurious method for grilled cheese sandwiches and would never, ever turn down an oyster, let alone a coupe (glass of sparkling wine or champagne).
* The late Claire Rayner UK Media agony aunt, writer and broadcaster
***whakamanuhiri. translated as welcoming and hospitable