Jay Rayner, Author of Jay Rayner's Last Supper
Jay Rayner is food critic and news writer for The Guardian’s The Observer, which covers the top stories and trends in lifestyle, arts, business political, and celebrity news around the world, a television personality, serving as a judge on Top Chef Masters, a radio show host for BBC 4, and an author of 11 books, both fiction and nonfiction. His new food memoir, Jay Rayner’s Last Supper, answers a question he’s often asked in interviews and brings together anecdotes and a thoughtful, in-depth exploration of food. Rayner spoke to Shelf Unbound about his approach to this writing, becoming a food critic, and his advice for those who aren’t as privileged to have the perks of being a food critic, but crave food adventures of their own.
How did the premise for My Last Supper come into being?
JR: The one question I’ve been asked is “if you were on death row, what would your last meal be?” I’d always reply that I thought I’d have lost my appetite, which disappointed the audience hugely. But then I started thinking about it very seriously. What were they asking me? What was this last meal obsession? I realized it wasn’t about the food, but about self. If nobody was looking and you were able to make a meal that defined who you are, what would be in it? Obviously, I’m greedy – I like how things taste – but what intrigues me about food is the way it reaches into every aspect of our lives. It’s about memory and emotion and family and relationships and politics and big business and small business. In considering forming a last meal, I saw a vehicle for the kind of writerly project that I like, which is one that investigates ingredients, requiring me to get my notebook out and be a reporter, and while also covering a subject very close to my heart, which is myself.
This book is mix of food critique, memoir, and guide. What does your writing process look like? Do you find the story or does the story find you?
JR: I’m a strong believer that ideas are easily had, and what matters is execution. At one point, I had written down, in columns, the potential ingredients for a given chapter, and then potential memoir elements, then reportage, then anecdotes. It was a useful process, though I didn’t use it in the end.
I was clear that there would be reportage in every section and that I’d have to go out and ask “Where can I find a water sommelier? How can I test different versions of Mont Blanc against each other? Where should I go to try pork?” That section in the pork chapter, when I go out for those ridiculous meals with colleagues, is very knowing. It’s self-regarding and self-important, but, even having been aware of that, I felt it was necessary those set pieces are in there.
Is your goal or approach to writing about food different than other journalism you’ve done?
JR: That’s my dirty secret, in that I do not regard writing about food as some separate creature over in the corner. In fact, when people ask me about food writing, I say to them, “There’s no such thing as food writing, there’s only writing that happens to be about food.” I have written about almost everything during my career and I think you need to approach all of those things in exactly the same way. What are you trying to say? How are you going to make this readable? I’m very intent that nobody has to read what you write, not even your mother. Your job, as a writer, is to keep people reading until the end of the page, not because it’s intellectually nourishing, but because it’s engaging. That applies whether you’re writing a business piece or a crime story or about your last meal.
In this new book, you mention that you’re often asked how to become a food critic and in fact, you’re asked so often, that you have a template response ready to send. Can you expand a bit on what your response is?
JR: I say to them that, if you want to be a food critic, then you need to be a writer. It’s not about food; go write about everything. In fact, go write about anything other than food. Go learn your craft. Write and write again; there is no better substitute to hone your craft as a writer. In this country, we have seven or eight jobs on national newspapers for food critics. That’s it. And there’s not many more in the US, frankly. I didn’t plan to be a food critic; the job landed in my lap and I decided not to let it go because I reckoned I might have a skill set that suit it. So, don’t ask me about being a critic, ask me about being a writer. One of the key things I always say is that you can’t write anything worthwhile unless you’ve got something to write about. A full notebook makes me very happy, even if I use barely any of it.
Everyone, of course, has a relationship with food, but yours took you on a very specific journey. How do you think your lifelong appreciation of food has impacted your work as a food writer?
JR: It goes in waves and is something that I try to be very conscious about. People ask how you avoid becoming and jaded and well, you can’t entirely. There was a time in my life when I would have thrilled about a high-end restaurant knocking out a 12-course tasting menu and, now, I’d rather nail my own hands to the desk than have to sit through such a thing. What I try to remind myself is that that doesn’t mean my view of a high-end restaurants or a tasting menu is valid or correct, rather it’s a sign that I no longer have a literal or figurative appetite for that kind of performance around food, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for it. I think that I can tell the difference between good and bad with that type of stuff, it’s just not my personal choice. When you do a job for a long time, you have to be aware that certain things will become less thrilling, but that you have to continue seeing them through the eyes of people who do not do what you do for a living. Experience is one thing, being jaundiced is quite another.
Having done this for so long, what is something that you do find exciting?
JR: It’s the one thing that I admit I find hard to explain. After 20 years, I still push in through the door of a restaurant with a sense of anticipation. I find the idea of going out to eat thrilling; I’ve always found it romantic and exciting and grown up. When I was 10, I read an interview with Woody Allen and he said that he ate out every night. I thought, “Oh that’s what being an adult is. How glamorous is that?” Now, even though I am very much a grown-up, I wouldn’t want to eat in a restaurant every night.
Do you have advice for people who have not had opportunities to eat as widely as you? How do they seek out experiences like you do?
JR: I think you have to apply the one rule that was applied to me as a small child, which I think you can extend to the entirety of life: You cannot say you don’t like something if you haven’t tried it. So, you can’t look at something on a menu and say, “I don’t like the sound of that.” Not liking the sound of something, without having tried it, is a narrow way to experience the world. I would encourage people to head towards the things that they don’t like the sound. If you don’t like it, at least you tried.
How has being a food writer changed your approach to food?
JR: I’ll be honest, I don’t think it’s changed me, but it’s probably made me more annoying to live with because I feel like I have a license to fetishize ingredients in a way that my other half doesn’t really get into. You can practically hear her eyes rolling around in their sockets when I start banging on about something. In the home, you have to remember that you’re just him, that bloke, regardless of the fact that, somewhere in the world, someone might be enthused by your writing. But I think I’ve always been like this. That’s the extraordinary thing, that I didn’t have a plan to be a restaurant critic, but it feel into my lap and I was perfectly suited to it. I used to spend good slabs of my money in restaurants and I’m just the same chap, just with a license to be him. Sometimes, even I look at myself and go, “Ugh, you are so annoying,” but there is a place for toast and peanut butter in my life – and it’s the mass market stuff. Sometimes I just want a bag of chips. I am promiscuous around food, but I am not some gourmand, or what I call napkin sniffer.
You’re also a musician. Does that tie into your work as a writer and critic, or is it something you try to keep separate?
JR: There is some overlap because what drives the jazz gigs is the storytelling. Performance is now a large part of my life; there’s one man shows and the radio show I do for BBC Radio 4, The Kitchen Cabinet. But the actual music is itself? That’s about me in a room fighting the good fight with the harsh lover that is my piano. It sometimes gives and sometimes takes, sometimes rewards me and sometimes doesn’t.
What other writers have influenced your approach to storytelling and writing? Musicians?
JR: The late Tony Bourdain was a massive influence. I think, prior to him, there was this whole idea that food writing had to be nuture, love, and domesticity, which had always struck me as slightly odd because, if you’ve ever been in a professional kitchen, you know they are not loving, domestic places.
Johnathan Gold. I don’t know if I saw him as an influence, but I saw him as a fellow traveler, if that makes sense.
I love the nerdiness of Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue magazine, who attacks everything with an absurd intensity.
In terms of prose style, I adore David Sedaris. He does more with fewer words than any writer I can think of; there’s a blissful control and brevity to the way that he tells a story that leaves me breathless. I don’t care whether what he writes is true or not, but it’s compelling in every regard. I’ve been reading Michael Chabon recently, too, and am feeling a bit like, “Why have I waited so long?” There’s a very British style of fiction that seems to disapprove of narrative, believing it should all be internal monologue, but I’m a believer in narrative and Chabon does that very, very well.
Article originally Published in the June/July 2020 Issue Summer Reads Edition.