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Jay Rayner on Negative Reviews and How to Keep Your Job as a Critic

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner was in New York City yesterday for what he refers to as "new book whoring." As part of that adventure, he met at Balthazar during lunchtime for an Eater interview, his second in about a year's time. In the first part of that conversation, published here, Rayner talked about the appeal of negativity, how to balance readability and accuracy in criticism, the "possibly misguided" dismissals of restaurant critics across the United States, and what he loves about how he makes a living. The book, by the way, is My Dining Hell, a collection of twenty of his best bad reviews. You can get it here for a couple of bucks.

[Cold open] I timed this trip brilliantly, because David Chang is in London.

He's cooking at St. John, I think.
Yeah. I thought that it was possibly the perfect moment for me to come to New York because, you know, he gets cross. I don't think it's good for him.

How'd you react to his response to your review last year?
It was merely baffling that you and I should do an interview two days after I had been to the restaurant and I should explain my own curiosity about the no-dessert policy, but he only gets furious at me when the review appears three weeks later.

He can't read everything, can he?
Not so sure. I just thought it was amusing, especially when Mario Batali weighed in.

He called you...
Self-absorbed. I think being called self-absorbed by Mario Batali is possibly the highlight of my career. I thought that I had arrived at that moment. It was something very special. It's a little bit like being made a cardinal by the pope.

Do those kinds of spats happen often in London?
That's a good question. I don't think that happens in London much. I'm sure people talk about the critics behind their backs, but the confrontations are infrequent, even on Twitter.

Do you interact with chefs?
Yes, on a number of levels. For one, I make films around food for the BBC almost every day. I also write features. You just have to tiptoe carefully around people that you are about to review or those who you've recently reviewed.

Perhaps a better question is if you have chefs that are friends. Here you might say that certain critics at least try to make it seem like that's not the case.
That preciousness has always slightly baffled me. I have friends who are chefs and I do go to the occasional party, but I'm not a massively reliable friend when it comes to chefs. I once had to send a letter to Simon Hopkinson reminding him of the story of the scorpion who asks the frog to take him across the river, promising not to sting him. Halfway there, he stings him.

I consider Simon Hopkinson a friend, but I once had to give a restaurant he was involved with a bad review. I'll do it if I need to.

Now to the plugging. For those that may not be familiar, what are the basics on the new book?
My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out is a collection of twenty of my most negative restaurant reviews. There's an introduction that explains why we like negative restaurant reviews and there are notes at the end of each review that explain what happened to the place after. There's a page called "Abuse for the Author," which is what we have instead of praise. It's only fair to have negative reviews of my work and my personality.

It's not a guide on where not to eat, because the majority of the restaurants have closed. It is merely pandering to an interest and delight in really rough restaurant reviews. People like negative stories. They just do.

That takes us to something you've brought up recently: the entertainment factor and its importance in your city.
The reason that journalists and critics elsewhere tend not to use the "E word" is because they are not necessarily in a market that demands it. If you are the restaurant critic for the New York Times, you have the market to yourself. Pete Wells does not need to look over his shoulder at anybody else. He does not have to worry about any other critics.

In London, there are over ten of us. We know that if we are not entertaining enough, people go down the street.

Does that quest for readability ever trump accuracy?
It does not mean that you pursue entertainment value or readability at the expense of accuracy and truth. They are not mutually exclusive. Your review can be accurate, truthful, decent, and honest. But it can also be interestingly and vividly well-written.

Is it ever the case, in a bad review, that you pursue a line that may not be fair but is just too good to abandon?
I know what you're saying, but I generally don't think so. I don't go looking for bad restaurants to review just so I can write stinkers. Frankly, given how often they happen to me, I don't need them. I describe them as colds and car crashes. They are things that just happen. If you start coming up with lines designed merely for an effect or to get a laugh, it will be so obvious. One of the things that's important in any review is that it has to be believable.

People talk, especially in the American restaurant reviewing world, about objectivity. There is no such thing as objectivity. I am a person with a set of tastes, likes and dislikes, which I make perfectly clear from time to time. What's important is that the piece you write is self-contained and has a logic. It has to be clear, and any point you make has got to be fair, within the examples you give. It's Journalism 101.

Do you read the American reviewers?
Not much. I read Pete Wells this morning on NoMad. There were some really nice lines in there.

Is it because you don't find most of it interesting, that it's too local...
No, no. I'm always a consumer of restaurant writing. Sometimes I think the American press give their restaurant reviews too much space. It's an enemy of concise writing, sometimes.

Looking back, have you ever been unfair in any of your reviews?
I don't believe so. I've only had to apologize once to an Italian chef named Giorgio Locatelli. I blamed him for serving my wife a caffeinated espresso, but a reader pointed out that it was probably the tiramisu. It was a good point. But in terms of my negative reviews, no. I wouldn't put them in a compilation and then publish them if I thought they had nothing of any value other than pure comedy.

How'd you go about narrowing it down to twenty?
I've been reviewing for the Observer for over a dozen years, so that means almost 800 reviews. What was intriguing to me was when I came to produce a selection of them, there weren't 300 waiting to go in. There were about forty or fifty that qualified and that I looked at. I erred towards those that had closed, because of legal issues of republishing a bad review, but also because it's hard to say what's happened to those that are still open. The ones that are still open are mostly recent reviews. And then it was about the mix. You don't want repeat the same thing again and again.

Back to the question of looking over your shoulder. How do you measure whether you're successful?
You can't really measure how you're doing. There's only one indicator, really: that you still have your job. Editors are very fickle lovers. They will tell you how much they love you and how much they'll stand with you until the end, until they no longer want to do that. I will know when I am no longer succeeding, because I'll get a phone call that says, "You know, Jay, we've had a good run." As I've said to you a number of times, this is a writing job and not an eating job. I have to write a column every week that is readable, entertaining, keeps the readers coming back, and is reliable. If I stop doing that, they will hire some young blogger and give them money to keep doing what they had been doing for free.

I push this topic because it seems that critics are getting dismissed left and right in America.
Yeah, unfortunately. I think that's possibly misguided on the part of the newspaper organizations that are doing it. The big question mark is how old media reforms and reshapes itself for an age when there are free sources for information and entertainment.

What's your sense of how that can be achieved?
It's about providing something you can't get elsewhere. Weirdly, the critics, as long as they are really good writers, can provide something you can't get elsewhere. People ask me all the time what kind of challenge blogs — and I'm not talking about professional ones — pose to me. The only problem is if they are better than me. I have to make sure that I am always better than them.

This may sound like sacrilege, but if I was running a major newspaper organization, there's a certain amount of information gathering that could be done by agencies rather than by news desks. I would start to skew my content more towards those unique voices and skilled writers that you can't get elsewhere. That may sound like absolute sacrilege. Believe me, I've been a reporter and done those jobs. I understand the vital importance of really good reporting to keep governments to account and to keep big business from getting away with murder, both literally and figuratively. But there has to be a new model for content.

Does it ever feel tenuous?
What? My job?

Yeah. You've been there for a while, you could say.
Gabe, do you think it's time?! The one thing I will say is that a constant low level of paranoia is a vital attribute of any freelance journalist with a career. The moment you assume it's all fine and nothing will ever go wrong, that's when they'll take you into the dark room and shoot you with the revolver. You have to constantly consider what you need to do to maintain this great life. I try to not be complacent or lazy about it. I try to make sure that when my column publishes on Sunday, it's more readable than the other guys'. I don't always succeed, though.

Let's finish this portion by talking about good reviews.
A good review also has an interesting response. I published a very positive review on Sunday of an eighteen-year-old chef who is running his own kitchen and cooking up a storm. That also gets talked about. I still think narratively — and if I can be so grand as to put on the fiction writer's hat — bad experiences are more compelling than good.

I've always said that I'm not writing a restaurant guide. I'm writing a column that is an ongoing discussion about what happens when we eat out. The great thing about restaurant writing, at least for me, is that it gives you a way to access so many other experiences. All life is there. It's lovely.

I kind of know exactly what you mean, but indulge me and explain.
You don't have to go to the theater, however much the drama critics will tell you. You don't have to go to the cinema. You do have to eat. Whether you do that in restaurants or only at home, there is a relationship between us and our food. Food is something with which our mothers nurture, with which we court our lovers, with which we comfort ourselves. Anything around food gives you access to a myriad of human experiences in an uncontrived manner. I used to write about theater, but it is contrived. The eating experience is a part of being human. It's very human, and that's what's so great about it.

People often write to me and say, "I like food and see my future in food." We all like food, because we need it. We may not need steak tartare to survive, but we do need food.

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