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Jay Rayner on Leaving Top Chef: Masters, David Chang, Saveur, and Anonymity

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Photo: Gabe Ulla/Eater.com

Jay Rayner has a lot of things on his plate, so to speak. His main gig is as the restaurant reviewer of the Observer, but he is also a frequent guest and presenter on various British television programs, he was a judge for the first two seasons of Top Chef: Masters, and, as we recently found out, he also really loves pianos.

During a recent visit to New York, we met at the bar of his hotel ("they serve drinks there in glasses," he assured over the phone) to discuss, among other things, his views on the global dining scene, anonymity, New Yorkers and the restaurants they go to, writing for Saveur, and the end of his involvement with Top Chef: Masters.

Here's what went down after Rayner got his glass of sauvignon blanc:


Why do you want to interview me?

Well, my editor saw you were in town and suggested I reach out.
He's a man of great taste.

For a bit there we thought you might not do it because of some snarky things that've been said about you on the website.
I'm always quite struck that I fart in London and Eater picks it up in about fifteen minutes, which I'm not sure happens to other British critics. It's very flattering.

What are you doing here?
What the fuck am I doing here? Well, I haven't been to New York in a couple of years. For various reasons I've been too busy and I wanted to get into town. The main reason is a big set piece/profile of Marcus Samuelsson, whose story is intriguing. He's a good talker... a very, very, very good talker. David Tanis is cooking me dinner tomorrow in his apartment. And I'm doing one review.

So you've been up to Red Rooster?
I had dinner there last night and I interviewed him for most of the morning today. I think it's fascinating. It's liberal New York's wet dream — radical chic made real. You walk in there and the white guys from the Upper East Side have come up to Harlem. It's Harlem itself, the whole community itself. Patterson, the former Governor, was in there last night and a very tall man I'm reliably informed is a basketball player.

And I think what Samuelsson's trying to do with the food is interesting, too. The sort of under-the-wire bit of those African flavors in a soul food menu. It had a good buzz. To be clear: I'm not reviewing Red Rooster.

Can you talk about the place you reviewed?
I reviewed Má Pêche. I think it's always important to review restaurants very jet-lagged, ideally straight off the boat. I think that adds to the experience and gives you a proper perspective.

What did you think?
It was all the vices and virtues of New York urban eating. The thing I think is hilarious is that they have this fuck-off dessert bar right in front of you which you pass through to get to the dining room. Then you eat, go through the menu, and they say at the end, 'We don't actually do dessert. We like to spotlight artisan cheese.' Now, there is a European perspective on this, and that is that America is where cheese comes to die — because of the 90-day rule. Apart from the fact that cheese is just a victory of shopping. "Look, we went shopping and then we kept it in a box in a nice way." Yet you have this huge thing upstairs which is a dessert bar. I had one of the waitresses agree to bring me contraband cookies.

Did she know who you were?
Perhaps. Jesus, there have to be some benefits to this job.

There is this obsession with Chang. The reason I did Má Pêche is that Chang has got a bit of traction in London now. Momofuku appeared on the San Pellegrino list — let's not get too hung up on the numbers, because it's just a list, and I say that as the chair of the British. I've eaten there, and it's a nice bar. And they do nice food. But I'm not sure why everyone has gotten so overheated about Chang. I may be missing something.

Overheated in what sense? The praise?
Oh yeah. The idea that he's the future of upscale dining. Is he? I thought it was very mid-market. You've got to be careful to not review an elephant for being a cow. That's not a criticism of the place, and actually, one of the things I liked about Má Pêche is that it had this buzz, that informality which London is very bad at doing. But I'm slightly confused as to why Manhattanites are so obsessed with David Chang. Maybe it's just pure physical beauty.

Where else have you eaten this trip?
ABC Kitchen, where I had salad. It was fine. It feels like a California brasserie. Again, it's one of those where I'm slightly mystified. I think people are a little more excited by the furnishings than they are by the food.

I am not, weirdly, obsessed with the three-star Michelin thing, but I'm going to Jean-Georges tonight, and I really love Jean-Georges. It has a very recognizable, defined flavor to it. A unique palate.

A.A. Gill came to New York somewhat recently and filed on what many people here considered to be a weird selection of places. The sense was that he didn't get it, and he was criticized for that.
I mean, we'll all get flamed for being outsiders. Adam Platt came to London and I'm sure he got the piss taken out of him.

When I wrote The Man Who Ate The World, a very fine book available on Amazon, New York's chapter was "Overweening Metropolitan Self Confidence." It's the city that thinks it's the greatest city in the world. In brackets: irritatingly possibly it might be, but that doesn't mean you have to take New Yorkers at their word. I mean, I love this city and I love being here and I'm always scratching my head as to why I don't live here. And it has some lovely restaurants. But it's not the last word in eating in the western world.

Which city is the last word?
Well, it's in the eastern world. Tokyo is a better restaurant city and I'll punch anyone who argues with me. It just is. It has everything in such extreme depth. I remember driving by a place that served Belarusian home cooking. It has more Italian restaurants than bloody Rome.

Unfortunately it's riven by a classic anti-western racism. A lot of these high-end restaurants in Tokyo, you just can't get into if you're not a blood relation of a pre-existing customer. And that's absolutely obnoxious. But that doesn't stop the food from being quite nice. Mind you, that's a little bit like saying Hitler was a good house painter.

Is the Má Pêche review for...
It's for The Observer. It's a fine liberal newspaper in many ways.

Ah, because James Oseland told to us that you might be writing for for Saveur.
Really, did he?! That was quick. Yeah, that was the other reason I came to New York, to whore myself around shamelessly in front of various wings of the media. A friend of mine, who's dead now sadly, said to me, "All freelance journalists are hookers, but you show more thigh than is strictly necessary."

So what do you have in mind for Saveur?
It's what they have in mind for me. It's quite interesting. Since the demise of Gourmet, they've been gifted an extra bit of real estate — so they're launching an extensive review column. We haven't figured out exactly what I'm doing or when.

They probably won't let me do the fellatio jokes I do in the British press. We actually had a conversation about that. There was some gag about "looking for good service in this restaurant is like looking for an expert on fellatio in a nunnery." I asked if I could do that in Saveur, and they said, "No. Just no."

It will be longer. My Observer column is just about 800 words, which is a good length. But sometimes you want to stretch it out.

What are your thoughts on anonymity?
There are a number of things to say.

Go for it.
I love goading the self important New York — American critics, actually — it's all the same. God, they're so self-absorbed. I have actually dealt with this before, in a piece for Saveur when Colman Andrews was still the editor.

One, I'm selling newspapers and not restaurants. What really matters is the quality of my copy. If my copy becomes boring, unentertaining, and is no longer delivering an interesting account of the restaurants, I will be sacked. Most American critics are kidding themselves if they think they are anonymous. Everyone knows that Frank Bruni's pictures were all over the restaurants of New York. They all had him made. And Sam Sifton didn't even really pretend. We all know what he looks like.

How do you navigate that lack of anonymity? Terry Durack of the Sydney Morning Herald came up with a great line: "I'm yet to find a bad restaurant that becomes a good one because I walk through the door."

I book under a pseudonym, they don't know that I'm coming until I've arrived. I pay my own bills. Sometimes I have to send the bill back to have things that have been put on [for free] taken off — the reverse of what happens to most people. I watch assiduously the things that happen at the tables around me. You can find reviews of mine where I've pointed out that tables around me — that the service was awful and yet I was getting fed and the food was very good.

In the end, if the copy is no longer convincing, and if the piece seems to be the account of some large, hairy, bearded bloke who's swanning around Britain being carried on a sedan chair by bare-chested indentured dwarfs wearing turbans and woofting him with ostrich feathers as he is lorded into these restaurants, then they'll sack me and I'll have to find another job. The Americans love to pretend they're anonymous, and it doesn't exist. I say to the guy who posted the picture of S. Irene Virbila, good on him, go for it.

My picture is everywhere. There's no point pretending. If there comes a point where that is reflected in my copy and it's no longer worth reading, take me outside with a revolver and shoot me in the back alley.

Are most critics in London recognizable?
Most of the British critics are quite clearly recognizable. The only one who is anonymous is Marina O'Loughlin, who writes for Metro. She is very good. She really has protected her anonymity, and good on her.

What's your involvement with Top Chef: Masters?
I've been sacked. All I know is that the new host is non-American and therefore they couldn't have another non-American accent on the panel. And that's fine. I'm reasonably assured that is the reason. I don't examine these things too deeply, because all jobs come to an end.

Being involved with TCM was fantastic. Being able to say I'd done it was fantastic. But it was difficult. I have two small children, and doing the show meant I would be in Los Angeles for a month at a time. And that was very, very hard.

It ended up with me phoning my wife and saying, "I've got good news and I've got bad news: the bad news is that I'm no longer involved with Top Chef: Masters, and the good news is that I'm no longer involved in Top Chef: Masters." I knew she'd be delighted.

And San Pellegrino, that'll be coming up soon.
Second Monday in April I think.

Does Noma stay at the top?
My suspicion is that Noma will stay at the top for one reason only. Well, actually, can I issue a preamble?

Go for it.
I have always said that you shouldn't get too hung up on this list. It is not definitive, it is not the last word. It is a compilation of the votes of six, seven, or however many hundred people who eat out too much who are asked to name their top seven restaurants in the world. As a result, for three days a year we all bang on about restaurants.

It's an interesting list, particularly because of how consistent it is. It has huge weaknesses in that Japan has never been well enough represented and there are parts of the world that don't appear. All that said, it's interesting, and we all love lists.

So, will Noma stay at number one? Probably. It's very good and its agenda was the most interesting thing going on at the time and it was the most influential. And it remains that way. The moment it popped into the list at No. 3, as many people that could that had voting power tried to get there. You can't vote for a restaurant unless you've been there in the previous 18 months. And so, it made the list and everyone dashed off to be able to vote for it. The fact that it became number one last year will mean that the same effect will be in place.

The bartender interrupts: "Hi guys. You're a restaurant writer for the UK and you need to have what's called a Brooklyn. It's good bourbon, maraschino liquor, apricot, and dry vermouth.

That's nice! We like the Brooklyn. Even though we're inauthentically drinking it in midtown.

So yeah, I suspect Noma will be number one still. I'll be curious to see where elBulli turns up because it's so hard to get into.

Are you a fan of elBulli?
I ate there only once, and even though it had been hyped beyond all human expectation, it was still one of the greatest meals of my life. It was marvelous. It was witty and playful. There's a film online of me going into the restaurant with my friend Stephen Harris, the chef of the Sportsman. The cameras don't follow us in. But on the way out, there's footage of us, basically two middle aged men sickeningly pleased with themselves , slightly pissed, standing on the steps [in an exaggerated, Churchill-esque accent]: "It was a marvelous experience, great!"

There was that very important New York Times piece ten years ago that said Spain had become the focus of world gastronomy and that basically anointed Adria.

Do you think Spain remains the top as far as high cooking?
No, I think it's atomized thanks to the web. There are really great things going on everywhere — Copenhagen, the Lowlands, The Fat Duck. I don't think it's about a single culinary culture anymore because they're picking up stuff from each other.

Actually, one of the things the 50 Best List has done is that the chefs now get together for a few days and hang out. And out of that event have come a series of relationships where they're all going off to each other's restaurants.

I went to PDT last night and I only knew about it because Heston had told me about it, and Heston only knows about it because Wylie Dufresne told him about it at 50 Best.

That can't be a bad thing.


· All Jay Rayner Coverage on Eater [-E-]


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