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Jay Rayner on His New Book, Agricultural Myths, & More

Photo: Harper Collins

Yesterday, in the first half of a two-part interview, UK critic Jay Rayner addressed an old feud with Rick Moonen and how he came to write his new book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World. The book — whose e-book version is available in all retailers and in all formats — seeks to debunk some of what Rayner says is the "dogma" of the sustainability movement and provide a middle ground between that and big agriculture. Here now, Rayner explains the challenges raised by the romanticization of agriculture, the responsibilities restaurants have in this debate, and why a book on a serious topic like food security can always use a few good dirty jokes.

(cold open)

Jay Rayner: It's a very different book from the last one. The Man Who Ate The World was all about luxury restaurants. It was almost the exact opposite of a treatise on sustainability. I still review restaurants and I'm still interested in aesthetics. I still care how things taste. I spent the morning writing a restaurant review, I'm reviewing another one tonight. That's still a part of my life. But I suppose I found myself wanting a bit more substance. And it particularly is a result of the TV work I was doing that was taking me out and about and meeting farmers and understanding how agriculture works and realizing that a lot of what we've heard was a mythologizing of agriculture.

Can you talk a little more about that?
Let's say you trot along to the farmers' market at Union Square, which I know is a very big one. And if you trudge around the Union Square farmers' market, it's full of very, very nice people in dungarees who come up from the Hudson Valley bringing their artisanal produce that they've sweated over and invested with all their passion and their love and their devotion. And now they're selling it to you from a stand that's made to look a little bit like some cottage out in the wilds. And they are selling you a version of agriculture which is that it is nature's bounty.

Now obviously the natural world is involved in the food that we eat, but basically agriculture is a technology and has been a technology since we first sowed wheat grasses on the banks of the Nile thousands of years ago. We have to be realistic about that. We have to lose our complete addiction to these romantic images of what farming is and understand it as the way man has become so successful.

Maybe we've become overly successful. Seven billion on the planet right into nine billion is a testament to what humanity has done. We've been horribly successful. It would probably be better if there were only 3.5 billion of us, but we're too good at breeding and staying alive. One of the reasons why we're becoming overpopulated is because we're better at not dying. Obviously not dying is a thing to be celebrated. Children aren't dying, that's great news. But they're still here and they still need to be fed. This is the thing about food. It impacts upon everything. It is the story of the human race for the 21st century. And I've tried to tell it with a few filthy gags.

In the extract I believe you were making the point that seasonality and sustainability can have an adverse effect on this food security issue, right?
We have been told that you eat local because it is the most sustainable model on a carbon basis. That doesn't actually stand up. There are still good reasons for eating local. It can be good for community, it can be good for supporting farmers in your locality, and a good local economy is good for local communities. I understand there are other reasons for shopping local. But the carbon footprint is not one of them.

Now, if once you've realized that it's how your food is raised, not where, that matters, seasonality becomes a sticky issue because it may well be the case that certain foodstuffs produced out of season a long distance from you may still actually not have a massive footprint. There are aesthetics. There's nothing wrong with caring the way things taste. So when people say in response to my local food argument, "Yes, but that's ignoring how they taste" — I care how things taste, I really do. I'm a restaurant critic, what do you think I do for a living? I absolutely love the best food. But when it comes to feeding the planet, there are slightly bigger issues than how good your dinner tastes.

So what responsibility do you think restaurants have here? Especially since their main purpose is to make things that taste good.
I think restaurants have a responsibility not to be profligate. Let me be absolutely clear that within Western lifestyles actually eating out in restaurants is pretty outrageous. It's not something we ever need to do, but we like to do it. There are lots of things we as humans like to do. As I say, this whole question reaches into the very essence of who and what we are.

Accepting that restaurants are a lovely luxury, I think they shouldn't just parrot phrases that they've heard because they think it makes them look better. I'm sick to death of restaurants banging on about their local, seasonal produce as if it is a badge of authenticity. It needs to mean something. If they've done whole life cycle analysis on the carbon footprint of their local seasonal produce and discovered they have a small carbon footprint, then good on them. But if not, then it's just mouthing platitudes. So they've got to be serious about this stuff. If they want to prove themselves to be a venerable, virtuous business, then they've got to go out and do a whole life cycle analysis. They've got to do it properly.

I would question — this may sound a bit controversial — certain big-ticket restaurants where they have their own farm and they're growing their own stuff. I would love to see what the carbon footprint is on those farms when you look at the number of people employed and the number of people they're feeding. If you've got a lot of people working on your farm then actually the carbon footprint per kilo of produce can be very high. And, more to the point, if you've got a whole lot of Manhattanites driving out of town to come and be fed, then the carbon footprint of that food is going to be enormous. And yet you're selling a wonderful story about the virtuousness of your farm. Can I say here, I'm not actually referring to any specific example because I've never been there. (laughs) I'm being very careful.

On sort of a tangent here, last week a US food writer published a column about how the blog culture here has created unsustainable hype that focuses so intensely on the beginning of a restaurant's life cycle and makes it harder for them to last.
Oh that's interesting, yeah. They get the white-hot light of the blogosphere's attention and then two months later they've moved onto the next thing. I think there is a very fussy blogger culture [in Britain]. Often I'm asked what I think about them and my own view is that actually restaurants need to be a little cautious with it. They can build up lots of white-hot buzz then actually turn out not to be able to cope with the numbers who come in.

And another one of the criticisms seemed to be something about food writing as entertainment. That these blogs have interesting voices and good jokes or whatever, but the piece lamented the loss of "thoughtful, knowledgeable" expertise.
I think that's a very precious American view. American food journalism can be very, very precious. I feel a little disloyal for saying this because I met him over the weekend, but certain of the responses in the UK to Michael Pollan's new book have been a response to his seriousness.

How so?
If you want to have a laugh, go and find Giles Coren's review of Michael Pollan's new book. It's an absolute takedown of the sort I can't imagine a US journalist ever writing. There is a certain very self-regarding seriousness across all American journalists actually. It can be very, very good and very, very important. Please don't misquote me on that. It's why everybody looks at us dirty British restaurant critics as being a bit sensationalist and playing to the gallery.

Yes, we like to entertain. I don't think American mainstream newspaper journalists are that eager to entertain. In fact, I think sometimes they think it's a little bit beneath them. If the blog culture is injecting a bit more fun then that's a good thing. It really is. Mind you, I put my hand up to say I can quite happily look at Buzzfeed "27 Cats That Look Like the Führer" and laugh like a child. It's a shameful thing for a 46-year-old man to admit.

That seems similar to what you're doing with the book, too, using your stories and being more entertaining is a way to get people to read the more serious things.
There is no point writing an important book if nobody's going to read it. I can look down on the floor next to my desk at a bunch of books I did read some of but it felt like punishment for a crime I wasn't aware of. Serious issues can be written about entertainingly, I think. Whether I've achieve that is for other people to decide. I'm not going to claim it for myself. But that was the intention, to try to write about a serious subject in as entertaining and engaging a way as possible. I don't want to bore people because when people are bored they stop reading, and they stop taking it in, and you might as well have not bothered at all.

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