UK critic Jay Rayner recently released a new book — titled A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (e-book available in all retailers and in all formats) — which takes on such restaurant world hot topics as local food, sustainability, and seasonality. Though promotional materials for the book proclaim that Rayner is taking these "foodie sacred cows" out to the market square to be shot, the arguments in the book are much more nuanced and argue against a polarization between food purists and big agriculture. Eater recently called up the Observer critic and here in the first of a two-part interview, Rayner discusses how he came to write the book, the role media plays in polarizing the debate, and the emotional connection people have to their food. He also issues an apology to Rick Moonen for an incident that transpired during season two of Top Chef Masters.
So when and why did you decide to write this book?
Although I am known as a restaurant critic and perhaps in the US for my appearances on Top Chef Masters, I regard myself as a reporter. That's what I've done for 25 years. As a result of certain bits of my reporting life, particularly a television gig here for a magazine program called The One Show, which has taken me all over the country looking at forms of food production, I became convinced that a lot of the dogma we've been fed on what sustainability meant was simply not true. And I'd also become a bit suspicious of the quality of the debate and the way it seemed to be very much about lifestyle choices dressed up as something else.
The problem for me was how do you write about something like that in a way that's fun and engaging? The thing to say is, this is not a pinched and miserable finger-waggy book which is trying to make you feel guilty about your food choices. I've done it through memoir, I've done it through whimsy, and I tried to make it as entertaining as I possibly can. I'm a strong believer that just because a subject is serious doesn't mean the writing about it needs to be serious, too.
It seems like what you're arguing for here is moderation.
Yeah, I absolutely hate polarized arguments. I hate the idea that if you express any point of view that there is a place for large-scale farming, you are therefore on the side of big agri. That's not the case. One of the gags I make in the book is that if you in any way say there is a place for biotechnology, you immediately obviously want to have your own children gene-spliced with a mackerel so they cry tears of pure fish oil when you beat them. There is an absolute place in the middle ground.
And also I think that if all you do is pursue a polarized argument, it goes to the margins. All those people in the middle are actually interested in this stuff just refuse to have anything to do with it. It turns into a shootout. There has to be a middle ground and there has to be a place where we can really debate this stuff. Plus, we have to get rid of dogma. Because a lot of dogma is what we in the UK call bollocks. It's not backed up by proper science. Bollocks is a nice piece of slang for testicles.
In the extract published last week, you brought up Rick Moonen and Top Chef Masters. Back then, you criticized him for not paying enough attention to the food miles for his venison.
I mean, it tells you in a way the journey that I've been on that in 2009 I should have been absolutely convinced by the food miles argument that I should have thrown that at him. And then I did this reading and realized that it was entirely possible that the venison from New Zealand was more sustainable than venison from California. I realized that was correct. It's not guaranteed that the venison from New Zealand had a smaller carbon footprint than Californian venison. But it is possible. That's all I'm saying. I was proving to myself that I, too, was completely convinced by the food miles argument until I started reading all this stuff and doing the journalism.
It's about doing the journalism. I think sometimes I have this image — which is self-created, it has to be said, with the ridiculous hair and the flowery shirts — which undermines any reputation I might have as a proper journalist. And I do regard myself as a proper journalist. But getting my notebook out and doing the research is what it's all about. And the Moonen case is the perfect example of where journalism made me realize I had been wrong.
Sorry, Rick Moonen. I still don't want to have a beer with him. (laughs) It's one of those funny things you do in Top Chef Masters. You sit on that panel and you think, "Now that's a guy I'd like to have a beer with." I constantly wanted to have a beer with Jonathan Waxman. But Rick Moonen not so much. But I doubt he wants to have a beer with me either, so there you go.
So this is a lot about how you've evolved too in this.
You know, there's the over-used term "I went on a personal journey." But actually the best journalism is accessed through people's stories. And in this case a lot of it actually is my own story. And I hope it's not done merely for effect. I worried that a man with no good reason for doing so had written his memoirs. I didn't want it just to be that. If I told something through my own story, it had to have good reason.
The media is very poor at understanding how science works. Generally newspapers leap upon a single study and say "that's what scientists have found therefore it's the truth." Whereas the reality you only reach toward a version of knowledge through a whole set of studies. You need an accretion of knowledge through many, many studies.
When I was a kid, my mother was the Ann Landers of Britain. She was an agony aunt. And she had a major research base in her office at home and that included box files full of academic papers. "A" was for allergies and "I" was for impotence and "N" was for narcotics. Before I did anything during my druggie phase as a teenager, I used to read all the academic papers. I was actually treating the science properly. And when we come to look at things like genetic modification, that's actually the way we should behave. We should be looking across the board at many studies and not just at one or two.
So has the media had a role in creating this polarized discussion?
Oh god yes. Certainly in this country, we've had a whole lot of food writers who have banged on endlessly about local, seasonal produce and they have done it while beating up the carbon sustainability of this produce. This is the sustainable way to eat. Now I have no problem if all they're saying is this is the aesthetically pleasing way to eat. Aesthetics move with the years. But there's an awful lot of writers who have picked up the idea of eating seasonally and locally and said that you should do it because it's the most sustainable way to eat.
And the reason is that food is so emotional. We like these ideas. They're very straightforward. Food is what we nurture each other with. It's how we get our lovers into bed with us. It's how we look after our kids, express love. We do it three times a day. And so we have a strongly intense relationship with what and who we eat. So we don't necessarily want to think of it in non-emotional terms. And localism and seasonality have a big emotional pull. Localism is washed with the idea of the neighborhood and neighborliness and that's lovely. But that may not be the same thing as the big carbon sustainability issue.
It seems to me that a lot of the time it makes it so hard for non-scientists like myself to understand these issues is because it's written in these terms that we can't really connect with.
One of the key things about the book is that it's complex. I think the politics around food, the issues around sustainability, how we feed ourselves in the 21st century are very, very complex and cannot be boiled down to a short set of rules. It takes time and it takes effort. I think the reader can be quite clever and I think the reader can cope with complicated ideas.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two of this two-part interview, in which Rayner discusses the romanticization of agriculture, the responsibility of restaurants, and why it's important to be serious in an entertaining way.