Food critics wield an extraordinary influence over the restaurant industry. With a flick of the pen, they have the undeserved power to make or break careers. They love to dish it out – and make a tidy sum doing so – but no one questions their knowledge of cuisine. The Fence has hired a Michelin-starred restaurateur to go undercover and analyse their oeuvre.
The first Anton Ego to get ratatouille’d is Jay Rayner.
Isn’t it amazing when a great opportunity comes your way? An opportunity so beyond the boundary of your capabilities that it may make you feel a little queasy. Like on the very odd occasion someone attractive chats you up. Your tongue starts to fur. You try to say something interesting, but all you can muster is a moan, like a cow mid-milk.
I imagine that is how Jay Rayner felt when he was asked to review restaurants.
In many respects, he’s my favourite critic. He bangs out funny copy and that’s what he’s employed to do isn’t it? Let’s face it, we’ve all picked up his column of a Sunday morning and spat out the muesli. Reading Rayner on form is like watching videos of Mike Tyson in his early twenties, lifting people off their feet with a crunchy uppercut. You find yourself watching the replay again and again, feeling really glad it’s not you in there.
But to compare Jay and Mike isn’t particularly fair on either of them. With Jay, the first figure that comes to mind is Hagrid. He even went to Haberdasher Aske’s Boy’s School, which sounds like a shop where Harry would buy his Owl Beaks from. An even better comparison is Mrs Jumbo. If you don’t know who that is then see if you can remember Dumbo’s Mum. I’m quite pleased with it. It works well: the ears, the hair. It’s all there.
But he’s a good writer isn’t he? Remember the St Leonards review: ‘If what you want is food as a centrepiece to your conversation which will entice you to thumb the picture button on your smartphone repeatedly so you've got something to show your dreadful friends, St Leonards is for you.’
His mean ones are the best, it must be said. The nice ones are a bit… nice. There’s no ‘nice’ comedy is there? It needs to sting. So that’s what I want to do. Review him meanly.
I think this is fair move on my behalf. He’s only published the two collected anthologies of his cruelest, career-ending reviews. Don’t worry Jay, I understand. Your publisher and your agent wanted you to do it, I’m sure. So much easier than trying to write another novel.
I have to say that on first sight he is unimpressive. A bit grotty looking. All that hair, the smug grin. Like Aramis just ate Porthos and d‘Artagnan and washed them both down with a large glass of port. Surprisingly unassuming in the flesh, the physical reality of Jay Rayner is a little disappointing. I’ve only served him once, but he almost seemed embarrassed to be in the restaurant at all. You’d think he’d have a bit more front, a bit more banter to match his acerbic writing.
Like so many of his contemporaries, what Rayner really enjoys is what we call ‘dude food’, which is basically kids’ food. I’d wager a large sum that were I to serve up a cricket ball, smoked, panéed and deep fried, Rayner would swallow it whole and lick his plate clean.
But cheap, that’s the main thing I get from him. No one who harps on about price as much as he does is doing so because they’re beholden to their cost-sensitive readership, they’re doing so because they’re cheap.
Maybe someone should open a restaurant called ‘Seven Pounds’ in South London. Right next to his house. He’d love that. Guaranteed five stars. No sharing either, just every plate of food and every glass of wine at £7 only.
But here’s the rub. While I accept that food is subjective, price is not. Food and wine cost money to buy and every restaurant in London pays pretty much the same for it. Some restaurants charge a lot for it, but then reviewers and the public clobber them for being too expensive.
Read a TripAdvisor review of any restaurant that is slightly better than a Nandos and it’ll read something like this: ‘stunning food, great wine, amazing hospitality… bit expensive’.
The British resent how much quality food costs. Two world wars, the memory of rationing and the rise of 24/7 supermarkets have warped our notions of value. So restaurants are compelled to tempt the public in with the illusion of cheapness. You know the score:
ROASTED NUTS: £2.50
CRAB CROQUETTES: £3.00
CODS ROE: £3.50
Rayner and the rest of his cronies are frothing at the over-seasoned cheapness of it – ‘billows of fluffy cod’s roe on crisp toast that crackles like frozen leaves on a frosty forest floor’.
Thank you, Jay. But bite-sized food, however keenly priced, does not make for a particularly fulfilling meal. Nor does the production of it make for a sustainable business.
The way it works is quite simple. Though you can’t make a profit on everything, let’s say for argument’s sake that you could. Let’s mark everything up and times it by three to give a rough idea of how a restaurant tries to break even.
Confused? Don’t worry. I’m going to break it down for you like Ryan Gosling does in The Big Short. Imagine that the total amount of money coming into a restaurant is a huge cherry pie. Sorry, let me rephrase: a conservatively-sized cherry pie.
The whole cherry pie is all the money coming into your establishment. Divide it into three slices. The first slice is the staff costs. The second slice goes to your suppliers, so you have a third left over. Now you must pay rent, gas, electricity, ice, linen – every cost takes another piece of the pie until you’re left with just a sliver.
It is increasingly hard for restaurants to survive. Decent wine costs money, as you would expect, but so do bloody vegetables. The rents in London are only surpassed by Manhattan and possibly Hong Kong, and it’s not getting easier – before we even mention the ‘B’ word.
What are we supposed to do? Set up shop on Camberwell Green with a couple of pots and pans? Serve crab croquettes only? Ask for donations?
What we should really all do, and what most establishments I know would like to do, is to look at how restaurants operate in Paris. Charge everyone £35 or thereabouts for 4 courses and offer them cheese, which they can pay for should they want it.
But no. Everyone is terrified of doing that, because from 2010–2015 every restaurant critic railed against the tasting menu. You will be unsurprised that this was led by none other than our old friend Jay. And he was totally successful. Here he is, expounding on the subject with glee earlier this year:
‘It sounds great, doesn’t it, this whole tasting menu thing? Away with the tyranny of the dull old starters and dreary main courses. Who wants something as lumpen and uninspired as that, when you could have three-and-a-half hours of itsy-bitsy tweezered miniaturism. Me. I want the lumpen and uninspired.’
Surely the whole point of the critic is to awaken the senses, to enlighten the reader, to signpost the road less travelled? If you were given the opportunity of a national platform, wouldn’t you be the champion of the bold and the new? Wouldn’t you think about how the restaurant industry is fundamentally looking to provide pleasure to consumers?
This might be asking too much of Rayner. He is, after all, keen on entertaining people, and he’s definitely good at that. Am I just being a grumpy restaurateur who doesn’t want to hear valid criticism? Maybe. Is he actually championing the opinion of the everyman? Representing the people? The man on the street – with his reductive palate and snappy turn of phrase? Possibly. But at times like these I remember the words of Johnny Lydon: ‘don’t listen to the man on the street because the man on the street is a fucking dickhead’.
Illustration by Olga Prader