When Harrogate restaurant Norse posted a plea on Twitter for people to support it, Jay Rayner added his voice to concerns about the restaurant’s future.He not only retweeted the owner Paul Rawlinson’s worries about his restaurant’s sustainability, he added his own comments which went viral, crashing Norse’s website for a time and increasing bookings for the Scandinavian-inspired restaurant.
“I loved @EatNorse in Harrogate when I reviewed it, and now they’re being honest about the challenge they’re facing. Pls give em your support by eating there,” said Rayner in his Tweet earlier this month.
Rayner, 51, says he got involved not only because he loved Norse when he reviewed it for the Guardian a few years ago, as did the entire team of Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet that he took with him, but also because he fears for the future of independent restaurants across Britain.
“We always predicted the 2018 was going to be brutal and it seems that is already being borne out already,” he says. “We are even seeing some big names disappearing.”
Although like Rawlinson, he believes the rise of chains has hit independents, he says the real threat comes from the Brexit vote to leave the European Union.
“Since Brexit the value of the pound has plummeted by 20 per cent and that means the cost of goods has gone up. The bigger chains are in a far better position to absorb that because of their margins, independents are just not in the same position,” he says. “They were already battling for their part of the market share, add the increased costs to that and it makes it very difficult for them to survive. On top of that we have made Britain a pretty unfriendly place for a lot of the people on whom the hospitality industry relies to live and work. An increasing number of restaurants are finding it difficult to recruit, everything from front of house to chefs. And then there is a hike in business rates. It is a real worry.”
Rayner, who studied politics at Leeds University before becoming an award-winning journalist and food critic, says it is vital that we support independent restaurants if they are to have any chance of survival in this uncertain climate.
“Use them or lose them,” he says. “If we don’t go and eat at these restaurants then they will disappear and more chains will open and every city will end up looking the same. If we don’t want identikit towns and cities then we have to vote with our feet. It is already the case in some places that I cannot identify the town or city I am in by the restaurants that are there. They all look the same.”
However, he says many of the chains themselves are also suffering.
“Byrons recently announced they were closing 20 of their outlets, Polpo has closed some of its restaurants. It worries me that they are struggling to survive.”
Rayner is quite critical of the decision by the owner of the iconic Ivy in London to expand the brand across the country. The Ivy Collection has two restaurants in Yorkshire, Harrogate and York, with a third due to open in Leeds this year.
“They have taken the design iconography of the original Ivy and reproduced it, but the chef of the Ivy isn’t involved. It think it is quite a cynical move,” he says.
Rayner will be able to see for himself the situation in Harrogate when he visits the town next month as he is key speaker at the Fine Food Show North at the Yorkshire Exhibition Centre.
“I wrote a book a few years ago called A Greedy Man in a Hungry World about the challenges of food production and consumption in the 21st century which became the basis of a one-man show. I was approached by John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food to give a keynote address at the Fine Food Show North in Harrogate.”
Although known best for his writing, restaurant reviews and appearances on MasterChef, Rayner also has another string to his bow. He has a jazz quartet, aptly named the Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet. He plays the piano and his wife Pat is the singer.
“I have always loved jazz. I started playing the piano when I was 10 years old. But then the 80s came and I dyed my hair yellow and got into other music. But then I went back to the piano and tried to master the jazz songs that I grew up with.”
His ‘live’ debut came around seven years ago, ironically at The Ivy. Rayner was at Leeds University with Ivy Club’s musical director Joe Thompson and they have remained friends.
“I used to go down and watch the musicians and then one Friday night Joe insisted that I play.” Although he says it was a frightening experience he obviously got the bug and in 2012 the Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet was formed and has been gigging around the country ever since.
“Jazz and food just seem to go together,” he says. His late mother, agony aunt Claire Rayner, gave him the idea for the quartet’s first album launched last year. “A Night of Food and Agony was recorded live and is as much about the stories as it is about the music,” he explains. Rayner’s mother died seven years ago and he says he never really talked about her publicly. “I didn’t want to be accused of nepotism. But when you grow up with a mother whose job is to give sex advice there are lots of stories that just need to be told.” So does he see himself becoming a full-time musician?
“No way. I am a writer first, second, third and ninth,” he says passionately. The father of two is currently writing his 12th book. “People often ask me what my last meal would be if I was on Death Row,” says Rayner. “I always reply that if I was on Death Row I would probably lose my appetite. But it got me thinking. I suppose it is a memoir through food as I travel the world looking for the perfect ingredients for my last meal.”