Kosher restaurants will never reach the standards of leading eateries, says critic


FOOD and television are two of my favourite things, so an interview with Jay Rayner, who I have long admired, was too good to turn down.

Jay is known to most people as either Claire Rayner's son, the scary one on Masterchef or, if you are a restaurant owner, the man who can bring down a food empire with a single review.

But he is also highly-intelligent, musically-talented and a very affable character.

Embarking on a new tour, My Dining Hell, the man who was voted the best food and drinks writer in Britain has decided to unleash some of his bad restaurant reviews on to the public.

He explained: "My show is a journey through my worst-ever restaurant experiences.

"One of the things I have learned is that, as much as people love a restaurant review, what they really love are the negative ones.

"I think that simply put; people find stories of bad things happening to other people much more compelling.

"I have performed it all over the country in smaller venues so this next set of dates will be in bigger venues.

"The inspiration for going on tour was born out of frustration at the lack of support from touring the literary festivals.

"I would be interviewed by someone who had barely read my books, and it would be a dull interview that I was bored with so I had no idea what the audience was feeling.

"They also screwed you because you would be sitting in front of an audience of 500 people who had paid to be there and all you would get would be a flower to say thank you.

"When I wrote my last book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, I decided to come up with my own show to avoid debating it with people who would ask numbskull questions because they had not researched it properly.

"I toured with the book and my own show for a year, which became quite a big thing and I was getting quite well paid for it, but there was a time where I would need to retire that book, after about two years and bring in another one."

One of the appeals of touring is the freedom he does not get from working on broadcasting.

He said: "I can stand on my own two legs, on a stage in front of an audience and entertain them and have fun."

Having grown up in 'traditional' Jewish household and attending Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in London, Jay disputes the claim that he broke into journalism due to his mother being a journalist and his father, Desmond, being an artist and actor.

He recalled: "I was presented with a series of opportunities or means of employment which looked like an everyday thing to me.

"When it came to me to decide what I wanted to do for a living, it was a normal thing to choose.

"I originally wanted to be an actor and follow in my father's footsteps until I realised I was awful, but I lived in a house full of newspapers with my parents getting four of them a day.

"I used to meet journalists all the time and they seemed like interesting people, and I was often accused by my teachers of writing in too journalistic a way, which is hilarious in retrospect as they would not let me work for the school magazine."

At 16, Jay decided he wanted to go to Leeds University to read politics.

The university, at the time, had the biggest student newspaper in the country and the editor's job was a full-time position.

He said: "I had decided that this was the only way I could stop being accused of nepotism.

"The ridiculously precocious thing is that despite working my up, this has not made the slightest bit of difference and there are still knuckleheads who insist on this despite my mother being dead for five years."

When I asked Jay about his Jewish upbringing, I received an honest, yet brutal response from a man who had grown up in a perceived "Godless household".

He explained: "Although my mother would at times resolutely set her faith against it in public, there was no doubt we were a culturally Jewish household.

"My father had the traditional East End London cadences to his voice that you hear very little of anymore.

"We did Passover until I was about 10, when that went out the window, and I was barmitzvah at Middlesex New Synagogue which no longer exists.

"I had very little social life and in desperation my parents sent me to Shemesh, which was a summer camp for the Reform shul.

"I came back from that with an intimate circle of friends numbering in the hundreds so, for the first few years of my teens, I had a very Jewish social circle, but that was it.

"When I released my second book, Day of Atonement, which is a lump of Judaica, my mother even said to me 'I like this book, but I have no idea where it came from'."

The 49-year-old brother of Adam and Amanda had a small relationship with Jewish food that went no further than the occasional salt beef sandwich and his mother's gefilte fish.

He recalled: "She had this hilarious thing for a Godless woman who pointed out that the gefilte fish had to be eaten cold without realising that that was only done because of Shabbat.

"I love that stuff hot, fresh out of the pan but my mother was having none of it.

"But we were not a kosher household at all."

But with some of the food he eats during his TV appearances, has he ever received any backlash from the Jewish community?

He replied: "I don't think anyone from the Jewish community would say anything to me as I am quite clearly a Godless Jew. It would be the stupidest thing they could say to me.

"I occasionally get some stupid non-Jews say to me 'Why are you eating that, you're Jewish?' or 'Why do you have a Christmas tree when you are Jewish' but ignorance is not something that often gets me angry . . . well, sometimes it is.

"If anyone in the Jewish community wants to have a spark at me about that, that would be ludicrous."

Jay has two children, Eddie, 12, and 16-year-old Dan, with wife Pat and professes that he was surprised that food had become such a large part of his career.

He explained: "I started as a general journalist for 10 to 15 years and could still cover a murder case or a court trial to this day. I covered everything - apart from sport.

"By the time I was given the chance to become a food writer in 1999, I was exhausted.

"I had been writing news-focused stories for The Observer, which I was good at, and the restaurant critic job came up, but the editor wanted me to carry on writing news stories.

"We came up with a plan where I could alternate with someone else. I saw in food a subject that would work for me."

Jay is highly-regarded for giving advice to upcoming writers.

He said: "I would advise anybody to write about anything and everything because nobody reads me to find out if something was overcooked or raw, they read me for the writing.

"I would also advise you to write as much as you can about as many things as you can because you have got to find a voice.

"This led me to being on radio and TV as my writing reaches everywhere.

Jay has earned the nickname 'Acid Rayner' due to his direct and abrupt style of critiquing, especially as a judge on Masterchef.

He explained: "I don't even know where this nickname came from but I just get on with my job.

"You cannot do this job if you spend too long wondering what people think about you.

"There is enough of an interest in what I do and how I do it to keep me employed, but I don't wander around saying 'I am fear, hear me dissect your soufflé'.

"My main problem on Masterchef is that I am there for five hours and, if I don't say something witty, I won't end up on the final edit, but I don't just say things for effect, I mean it."

Jay feels that kosher restaurants will never reach the standard of the top restaurants in the UK due to the obvious restrictions. But he thinks there could be a positive future for them.

"Kosher restaurants are great when they stick to their own particular thing," he told me.

"When the kosher style becomes almost irrelevant, they can do great things, like ZEST or Reuben's in London.

Jay has a hidden talent that he will be showcasing during his tour as he is a jazz pianist.

He explained: "I have been playing piano for a long time, but only recently have I felt comfortable enough to play in front of large crowds.

"I have always loved jazz and loved songs like Love Cats by The Cure and my parents used to listen to that kind of music as well, the three chord wonders never really did it for me."

For his music dates, he will be performing as a quartet.

Dates on Jay's My Dining Hell tour include St Georges Hall, Liverpool, on March 9.

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph