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Jay Rayner on No-Reservation Restaurants, Crusading Chefs, and the Gifts of the Recession

Photo: Daniel Krieger

This is the concluding portion of an interview with Jay Rayner (see part one), in which the Observer restaurant critic rails against preciousness in food writing, talks about the dining scenes in London and New York, and stands by his opinion that "the food security challenges of the 21st century, and the nine billion people we have to feed, are not going to be fixed by some very good cooks who are cooking some very nice food at their restaurants."

The "kale as a breakout vegetable" thing you pointed out recently: it doesn't seem like you're a fan of that kind of food writing, of which you could say there is plenty these days.
Preciousness around food makes me twitch slightly. I think I've said before that if there is a phrase that bothers me, it's "I cooked this for you with love." If I wanted a blowjob, I'd call my wife. If I want dinner, I'll go to a chef with technique and style. What do you mean you cooked something for me with love? You don't love me. Are you going to have congress with those ingredients? Please don't bandy around this emotional incontinence as a replacement for technique, good skill, and good taste. Do not pretend that you want to have my babies, because they will have really big thighs and bad feet.

How do you reconcile that with what you said before about loving the human experience of eating? That suggests emotion.
The experience of eating can be emotional, yeah, but I can tell you that on the line in the back of Balthazar right now, not one of those cooks is harboring a deep emotional feeling of love for the 450 covers they are banging out for this lunch. They are not getting moist. None of them. If they are aroused, they need help. These guys are cooking with professionalism.

Do certain front of house and hospitality philosophies rub you the wrong way, then?
I don't have a problem with front of house staff being insincere. I just want them to be good at it. Danny Meyer wrote that book, and he said something very simple: "Just find people that like people." Most people who work in this business I think really need a narcissistic complex, in the psychiatric sense of the word that they get off making others feel good. Insincerity is fine.

Let's briefly talk about your city now. Are you excited about anything that's going on in the world of restaurants there?
There is, actually. We are still in the grips of the recession, and that has gifted us some small-scale restaurants. Brixton, where I live, is an ethnically mixed area. I hesitate to call it the Harlem of London, but it has gone through the same issues of poverty and gentrification and all the politics therein. There's a number of covered markets with a number of small upstart restaurants where you can eat very well for not much money. I think the best burger in London is in Brixton Village. It's called Honest Burgers.

There are similar things going on throughout the rest of the city, and the only thing that's bucking that trend is the bloody New York restaurateurs who are opening vast gastrodomes in London.

Balthazar is on its way over there.
Yes, it is. Just to be clear, that last comment was a joke. But I am fascinated to see how Balthazar plays. I've always been slightly baffled by this restaurant. It's a faux French brasserie, brilliantly done for New York. What happens, though, when you take that to a city two hours away from Paris?

You have similar places, like the Wolseley, no?
Yes, a little bit, though they would say they style themselves after Middle European cafes in Salzburg and Vienna. We don't have anything quite as in your face as this.

How do you think it'll play out?
He's a very, very skilled restaurateur, and betting against him would be an idiotic thing to do. I will say that London is a frothy little market. I know he won't do this, but the worst mistake he could make is to think that the lyrics to "New York, New York" are true. They ain't. London is complicated and difficult and driven by fashion as much as any other city.

Do you see many similarities between the dining public here and at home?
I don't know if I've spent enough time here to say authoritatively, but we are seeing similar trends, like the no-reservations restaurant. That's quite big in London now. It drives me nuts, but what can you do? We had an interview with Russell Norman, who says that if you don't like restaurants that don't take reservations, you can go to one of the other 4,000 that do. I wish I didn't like him and his food so much.

Could a policy like that result in a more negative review?
No, but I will raise the issue. Like I say, the review is an essay that's part of an ongoing conversation about how we eat. It's like time limits at tables, which you don't have that much of in New York.

Do they actually do that to you?
Well they don't know who I am when I book. Once I get there they aren't rushing to scoop me off. I'll write about it.

You're only in town for a short bit, but where have you eaten?
I ate at Frej, which Eater posted about yesterday. I'm always amazed that I fart on Twitter and it's on Eater immediately. The restaurant was very good. It was very good indeed. One doesn't want to overweight it by referencing the best restaurant in the world, but that Noma-esque agenda — actually, it has nothing to do with the agenda. It was the quality of the food, the use of bitter, vinegar notes, umami. It was very good food at a very nice price point — young guys cooking up a storm.

The question is how long they can sustain having such a small restaurant, three days a week, at such a low price.
Yeah, I know. Actually, I think that's one of the things that we've been gifted by the financial circumstances in which we find ourselves. There's this idea that success only really exists when you open a really big restaurant, make a lot of money, and are there for years. So, if 2012 is the year when they did that thing out of that place out of the way down there, and then they went and did something else, big deal. Right now, they are cooking up a storm, making people happy, and clearly making themselves happy. Seems fine by me.

I won't pretend that it's new, but the story I need to write is what's exciting is going on over there, in Brooklyn. I could look like an ignorant fool, but that's how it appears to me.

I also just had lunch at the Dutch. I am trying to lose weight, and then they do this to me. [Shows a cellphone picture of pie.] The desserts there are outrageous.

The pies are insane.
The pies are insane. It was a nice lunch. I had some fried chicken which made me very happy.

We're running out of time, but I want to bring up Mistura and the Open Letter, which you criticized last summer. I ask because Gastón Acurio and Ferran Adriá were in town recently to premiere the documentary on what's been going on in Peru.
Are they still railing against me?

No, they didn't bring you up. They were very soft-spoken, actually. But when asked what they thought of those critical of the episode, Acurio stood behind the fact that there's clear, tangible evidence of social and economic progress.
There is something to be said here. I can understand why particularly in Peru they were cross with me. It's absolutely clear that Acurio has done lots of social good through this culinary movement. The problem is the bunch of chefs from elsewhere standing up in Lima and making a huge declaration. I had a back channel conversation after the event with a high profile chef who was involved. What would have happened in the old days with that declaration is that they would have pinned it up on the notice board in the corridor in the back of the culinary college, and all the students would have looked at it.

They didn't do that. They released it onto the web and it became a message to the world. I still hold by absolutely everything I said about how ridiculously overblown and self-regarding it looks. The food challenges this planet faces, which will be the subject of my new book, are so vast that it's ludicrous that high-end chefs with Michelin stars and San Pellegrino rankings think it's something with which they can engage.

There's no question there's a great debate to be had around this, but be very careful about how you shape political statements. That does not mean that what Acurio has done is not good. When was the Lima Declaration?

Last July, I think.
Has the world suddenly been populated by a vast number of crusading chefs saving us? No. Are they all back in their restaurants cooking? Yes. I think some of the chefs in that group were looking for a new role as their careers moved on. It fit them very nicely. I have a particular line that I use around food culture in the UK that I think applies to this: we have to be very careful about mistaking a bunch of lifestyle choices for the affluent middle classes with a wider debate about how we feed ourselves. They are not the same thing. The food security challenges of the 21st century, and the nine billion people we have to feed, are not going to be fixed by some very good cooks who are cooking some very nice food at their restaurants.

Obviously, paying attention to where you get your ingredients and where they are grown and raised is important, but it is not a massive part of the debate and conversation that needs to be had.

Briefly, if that's even possible, what conversation do you feel needs to be had?
The new book is called A Greedy Man in a Hungry World and it's asking a lot of serious questions about how the aesthetics of food measure up against a wider debate about how we feed ourselves. The assumptions that are made around the importance of local, seasonal, and organic produce seem to me to be insubstantial. I do hate polarized arguments, and a lot of the book is about how we need to find the middle ground on lots of this stuff. It requires more than just an emotional response to food.

There are, for example, lots of question marks around the value of the organic and local movement. When we are talking very seriously about sustainability, simply assuming that getting your ingredients from nearby is a bit silly.

The book includes a bit of memoir and whimsy, because I'm not trying to write a tedious, polemic book that will be nodded at by everyone but read by no one. I'm quite keen on being read, because otherwise I can't get my argument across. It's proper journalism, though, and I've done a lot of reporting. I've been talking to very senior people at Cargill, corn farmers, I'm drawing from my experiences in Rwanda. I worked at an abattoir last week, on the kill line, so that when I attempt to take down Jonathan Safran Foer one more time, I'm doing it with my hands steeped in blood.

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