When I originally spoke to Jay Rayner back in mid-February, the world was a different place. He was looking forward to returning to Yorkshire, and Leeds in particular, with his one-man show and talked effusively about the British food scene which over the past 25 years has gone from drab and predictable to a vibrant and imaginative tour de force.
And then came the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants, bars and cafes have been among the businesses worst affected by the lockdown measures and, even though these have started to ease, the hospitality industry finds itself in a parlous state.
It’s something Rayner discussed when we talked again this month. “The main issue is that economically, most restaurants are a little bit like a conveyer belt in that they function on the basis of money coming in one end and going out the other, so they need a constant stream of money and if this stutters it can become difficult,” he said.
“I’m aware of some of the most high-profile, expensive and glossy restaurants in the centre of London that are suffering hugely.” Just the day before we spoke came the news that the two Michelin-starred Ledbury said it wasn’t planning to reopen.
“It may well be the smaller restaurants that find it easier to reopen, funnily enough, not the big ones,” said Rayner. “The smaller ones with fewer staff require less to get them back on their feet.”
Many restaurants, even high-end ones, have found themselves doing takeaways. “It’s been a way of surviving for some of them. The problem comes with full social distancing and it’s no surprise that the hospitality industry has been encouraging the Government to embrace a one metre rule over two metres, because at two metres they cannot make it work.”
For many of us, going out for a meal is as much about getting dressed up and the buzz of being in the restaurant, as it is about the food. “Someone said to me ‘we’re not selling food and drink, we’re selling an atmosphere, we’re selling a room you want to be in.’ And what all of this has done is raise questions as to whether people want to be in the room,” says Rayner.
And yet he’s cautiously optimistic. “I have a sense that people are less reticent than once they were. There’s an awareness that there could be a second wave, but also a sense that we cannot live like this. So there may be more appetite for eating out than some people think, but it’s going to require some smart thinking to begin with.
“The centre of Leeds, for example, has a lot of pedestrianised space and, although summer weather comes and goes, there must be a way to use that and for councils to think laterally and to understand that if we are to get the economic engine moving, then small businesses, in particular, need support.”
Rayner is a journalist, author and broadcaster and regarded by many as the country’s pre-eminent restaurant critic. He certainly doesn’t mince his words. He has over the years (he’s been the Observer’s restaurant critic since 1999) likened dishes to bodily fluids and, on one memorable occasion, a dining room to an S&M chamber. But equally, if a chef delivers him a memorable plate of food he’ll praise it to the hilt.
Rayner was a journalist before he started critiquing the nation’s cafes and restaurants for a living. “I never intended to be a restaurant critic. I often get emails from people saying, ‘I like food, how do I get your job?’ And I have to remind them that it’s a writing job.”
As a journalist he’s written about all manner of topics, including some that might surprise you. “I covered everything apart from sport, though I did cover the amateur all natural bodybuilding championship for Arena magazine. I followed a couple of guys in their training and the actual event was at the Queens Hotel in Leeds. There were these guys painting themselves orange, looking like condoms full of walnuts.”
Rayner grew up in a “noisy, north-west London Jewish family” that came together at meal times, and later headed north to study politics at Leeds University. “I got it in my head that I needed to go to a city that was far enough away that I wouldn’t be tempted to go back, and I wanted a campus that was in the city, not outside of it. Added to that, I wanted to do journalism and thought if I worked on a student paper I’d be able to shrug off any suggestion that I got where I am through nepotism.”
He’s referring to his mother, the journalist and broadcaster Claire Rayner. “I did eventually get elected student editor and it was great, but it made no difference. She’s been dead ten years and I still get accused of getting where I am through nepotism.”
He arrived in Leeds in the mid-80s and warmed to it immediately. “I liked the sense of the city, I was all over it like a rash,” he says. “Leeds has an amazing food story. When I was there I did shop in Kirkgate Market and I remember those brilliant slabs of bacon. Some of those old stalls still exist and now we’re also seeing the emergence of the small food operations. Though this has to be managed, because you don’t want one to force out the other.”
After leaving Leeds he embarked on a journalism career with gusto – he was named Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards in 1992 – and found himself gravitating towards food just at the moment the country began reconnecting with, and championing, its culinary heritage. “What I found very quickly was it was a route into many other subjects. It’s about taste and aesthetics, but it’s also about emotion, sex and family, and memory and politics.”
Rayner views himself as a restaurant critic rather than a food critic. “It’s about how much pleasure your money will get you, which is a very different thing. There are people who bang on about the acidity of this over that, but I’m really much more interested in how the experience makes you feel. People say it’s frippery, but a good food culture suggests a country that is at ease with itself and is able to enjoy the good things.”
It’s something he taps into with My Last Supper, his one-man show which is now due in Leeds next year. “What I’ve learned from doing the show is food is extremely emotional, and the things people attach value to when they’re talking about their last meal would be aren’t necessarily the greatest food experiences known to humanity, they’re the ones to which they have an emotional attachment.
“One of the sweetest references was someone who said, ‘I would go and knock on the door of the house where my late gran lived and ask if I could sit on the back step and eat a Dairylea triangle.’ No one’s claiming that Dairylea triangle is the greatest cheese, but that’s a man remembering a moment when he felt supremely loved and secure, and it was associated with food. So it’s about memory more than anything.”
Jay Rayner’s My Last Supper, Leeds Carriageworks, March 18, 2021. His Out to Lunch podcast is available now. For details go to www.jayrayner.co.uk
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