Jay Rayner is an award-winning journalist and one of the UK’s most respected restaurant critics. He’s also a judge on Masterchef and has written many books including The Ten Food Commandments which he’s recently turned into a one-man show where he talks about how we should love leftovers and that it’s ok to eat with our hands. Eileen Leahy spoke to him ahead of his appearance at the EM Forster theatre in Tonbridge on January 20 to pick over a few more of his culinary morsels of wisdom . . .
What is your new Ten Food Commandments show all about?
It’s based on the book of the same name and is essentially 55 minutes of stand-up comedy about how and what we eat now, using audio visual tools as a second performer on stage. It’s a lot of fun and, as well as talking about my own food commandments, I ask the audience to come up with theirs too as the second half of the show is a Q&A where we challenge one another and try to put the world to rights.
How did the idea to bring the book to a live audience come about?
It all grew out of a desperate attempt on my part to avoid having to sit on discussion panels at literary festivals – because I hate them! I knew the book I’d written on my food commandments was fodder for discussion panels but the only way I could avoid doing them was by coming up with a series of one-man shows and out of that I’ve developed a slightly surprising career on the comedy circuit.
How do you get your audience involved?
The second half of the show is a Q&A and I love it as I don’t know what’s going to happen. I get the audience to tweet me during the interval with their commandments and then we go through them. Some of them I may be quite rude about but that’s the jumping off point to a good discussion. I’m one of those performers who asks for the house lights not to be turned off: I like to see the audience and talk to them.
So could you enlighten us with your favourite food commandments?
Well they’re all my ‘children’ but one in particular is how people mistake food for pharmaceuticals. There’s an awful lot about superfoods and how things like beetroot can protect you from dementia or how chocolate can help prevent cancer and they can’t. Obviously a good, varied diet is very important for human health but the idea that individual ingredients have a pharmaceutical effect is utter cobblers and based on a misunderstanding of science and we need to challenge that stuff. That’s a commandment the audience tends to be really disappointed in though as they’ve been stocking up on kale and spirulina only to discover they don’t have the benefits they thought it did.
Any other nuggets the audience will enjoy hearing about?
The one about my dining companions over the past 18 years of being a restaurant critic. It’s just pure therapy for me and it gives me the chance to get a few things off my chest. There was time where I went to review a Soviet style café after the fall of the Berlin wall and the guy who was the former deputy director general of MI6 was emerging into the light and agreed to have dinner with me. But on the day I’d gone and had a health test for a genetic heart condition and as part of that they made me leave the hospital wearing a halter which is essentially a wire connected to a tape recorder so I turned up at this Soviet café to meet this former MI6 member wearing a wire! I had to convince him it was only recording my heart and not our conversation.
Can you pick out a memorable place you have dined – or is that impossible?
Yes because after 18 years and having eaten at nearly one thousand restaurants all around the world it is very tricky to do so. Lots of people ask me this question and I literally cannot answer it as it has a lot to do with mood and location and who you’re with. It could be the cheapest fish shack on the seashore to a gastronomic palace – it all depends those factors.
What about food trends for 2017, do you have any predictions?
No! The problem with predicting is that you’re always wrong and I’ve been wrong for years and I hate being wrong. I could say ‘ooh Korean fried chicken’ as there’s quite a lot of it around and my review last Sunday (in The Observer) was on Korean fried chicken which would make people think ‘oh isn’t he clever!’ The one thing I hope we’ll continue to see more of is smaller, less fussy restaurants being set up in unlikely spaces – a kind of pop-up gone permanent. It may be I’m just being hopeful because they tend to be cheaper and you’re not always sure what you’re going to get.
Do you feel we’re losing a lot of our identity with the rise of restaurant chains?
Yes and it does require councils to be a little more enlightened when granting licenses because a lot of venerable towns like yours do suffer from the march of the mid-market chains. Pizza Express, Strada, Wagamama and Côte, they’re all very sophisticated at what they do and for the most part they’re not bad at it. But every time a site comes up on a British high street with an A3 licence, which is what you need to open a restaurant, all of them pile in and the landlords will take one of them over an independent and you then add up with identikit restaurant sectors and that’s somewhat depressing.
Finally, what do you enjoy most about performing on stage?
Live performance is a booming area in Britain at the moment. In the digital age you can see anything online so now I think we search for more authentic experiences and there is nothing more authentic than being in the presence of someone doing something live – whether that’s music, theatre or comedy.
Jay Rayner’s Ten Food Commandments in on Friday January 20 at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge. Tickets cost £15 per person and can be booked by calling 01732 304241 or visiting www.tonbridgearts.com