Lunch­with­the­man who ate the world

Food critic Jay Rayner dined at the best restau­rants in five con­ti­nents. Si­monRound sat down with him in Lon­don

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

IT WAS in Rus­sia that Jay Rayner came face to face with his Jewish food her­itage in the most bizarre and sur­real fash­ion. Rayner was sit­ting in the Sirena, one of Moscow’s top and over-the-top restau­rants. It is, says Rayner, a strange place to eat. The floors are made of glass, there are stur­geon and carp swim­ming be­neath the feet of the oli­garchs pe­rus­ing the menu. “The crazy thing is that what you are served is es­sen­tially gefilte fish.” And al­though this par­tic­u­lar gefilte fish is dressed up as “carp in the Jewish style” and elab­o­rately pre­sented in a Miche­lin-starred kind of a way, it sud­denly hit Rayner with a jolt.

“Had his­tory taken a dif­fer­ent turn and my fam­ily had stayed in Rus­sia, this would not have been a part of my culi­nary her­itage which I vis­ited nos­tal­gi­cally ev­ery now and then — this would have just have been din­ner.”

While Ashke­nazi com­fort food plays a role in Rayner’s life (al­though he has al­ways de­spised gefilte fish), it is fair to say that it does not play a dom­i­nant role. Rayner is ob­sessed by fine restau­rant food. His trip to Rus­sia was part of a globe-trot­ting gas­tro­nomic jour­ney, de­tailed in his new book, The Man Who Ate The World, in which he ate at top restau­rants in Las Ve­gas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York and Paris.

It gave him the chance to ex­plore his own fas­ci­na­tion with this kind of din­ing as well as ex­am­ine his own at­ti­tudes to eat­ing.

“I be­came aware that there was this new breed of lux­ury restau­rants and the truth is that while I get to eat all over Bri­tain, there are a whole bunch other places that I didn’t have an ex­cuse to go to — but I wanted to know what they were like. I also felt this was an op­por­tu­nity to in­ves­ti­gate the global econ­omy through its restau­rants. Each city is cho­sen not be­cause it is a good place for me to eat din­ner, be­cause no one would want to read about that, but as a way into an­other story.”

Hence the chap­ter on Moscow which al­lowed Rayner to flex his re­port­ing mus­cles as well as his gas­tro­nomic sen­si­bil­i­ties, al­though ul­ti­mately he could not wait to leave.

“It’s a sin­is­ter, dark and wor­ry­ing place. The whole chap­ter is about the end of Com­mu­nism and the rise of the mafia. Then there’s the per­sonal thing. My shik­sah wife has an un­cer­tain re­la­tion­ship with Ashke­nazi food. If truth be told, she thinks it’s mostly drek. But if, like me, you are a cul­tural Jew who draws upon in­tel­lec­tual rather than faith-based tra­di­tions, there’s not much left other than salt beef. Com­ing face to face with that through this jour­ney has been an eye-opener.”

So what of the other des­ti­na­tions? Rayner rates Tokyo as the world’s top food des­ti­na­tion (“over there, Gor­don Ram­say didn’t even war­rant a Miche­lin star”), Rus­sian food was “mis­er­able in ev­ery way”, and Lon­don was, well, a bit thin. In fact, he says he only in­cluded the city be­cause it is his home town — the book in­cludes meaty seg­ments about Rayner’s own back­ground and at­ti­tude to food.

An­dite­mergesthatthe­wa­ter­shed­mo­mentofRayner’s child­hood in­volved (and ob­ser­vant read­ers might like to avert their eyes) snails. Rayner was 11-years-old when he ate alone in a restau­rant for the first time. He was on a ski­ing trip in Switzer­land and was home­sick. His way of deal­ing with the prob­lem was to walk into a posh restau­rant and or­der the es­car­gots, which his mother, agony aunt Claire Rayner, would serve him as a treat.

“It seemed like an ob­vi­ous thing to do and I gained suc­cour from it. I re­call that if I was ner­vous about go­ing in, it was only about whether they would agree to serve me the snails rather than a whole meal.”

Snails apart, Rayner’s child­hood was dom­i­nated by food — much of it Jewish. “My par­ents were both chil­dren of the De­pres­sion. Food was scarce for them, but they wanted us to live a life of plenty, and we did.

“My mum wasn’t re­li­gious but she could cook all the Jewish stuff. She has an un­easy re­la­tion­ship with her Jewish­ness. I’m prob­a­bly more re­laxed about it than she is. De­spite her un­easi­ness she was com­pletely cog­nisant of the Jewish cook­ing tra­di­tion. She could make chopped liver, she could make gefilte fish and, for some rea­son, be­fore we had our Christ­mas lunch of turkey we al­ways had chopped liver on matzah.”

Rayner’s eclec­tic up­bring­ing was not con­fined to food. Claire was, in the 1970s, one of Bri­tain’s most recog­nis­able faces and the fam­ily’s lifestyle re­flected her fame. There were din­ners aplenty at Joe Allen’s in Covent Gar­den and there were many en­coun­ters with celebri­ties. None of this phased the young Rayner. “At the time you know no dif­fer­ent, so it didn’t strike me as odd un­til later that I had a fa­mous par­ent.”

How­ever, his mother’s fame did mo­ti­vate Rayner in his teenage years. “I re­alised that if I wanted to be a jour­nal­ist and avoid the charge of ne­po­tism I was go­ing to have to do some­thing rad­i­cal. Ac­tu­ally, I still got that charge even af­ter I had won Young Jour­nal­ist of the Year, which pissed me off a bit.”

His ca­reer is now such that he need not be wary of the com­par­isons with his mother. He had 12 years as a se­ri­ous news jour­nal­ist be­fore tak­ing on the job as the Ob­server’s restau­rant critic and start­ing to write nov­els (so far there have been three). So why was he so keen to write about food? “I had been eat­ing out in high-end restau­rants since my 20s. My wife in­dulged me al­though she thought the whole scene was a lit­tle silly. I had be­come a bit of a nerd on the sub­ject. Look at me , I’m a North-Lon­don Jew — we like to eat.”

He is not the only Jew writ­ing about restau­rants. There is Giles Coren at The Times, Matthew Norman at The Guardian, Michael Win­ner at The Sun­day Times. So what is it about Jews writ­ing about restau­rants? “Well, we’re big eaters, we’re smart-ar­ses and we like sit­ting around ta­bles. I’ve sat with Giles and Matthew in restau­rants and played the game of who can come up with the smartest line. I can even re­mem­ber Giles tex­ting me from ta­ble to ta­ble when we were re­view­ing the same restau­rant. We are very com­pet­i­tive.”

If there is a down­side to his job it is that it makes it hard for him to main­tain his physique. Af­ter writ­ing The Man Who Ate the World, he en­gaged in a week-long Su­per Size Me- style ex­er­cise in Paris where he ate at top restau­rants ev­ery night to see what it did to his body. By the end of the book the Miche­lin stars had turned him into Miche­lin man — he tipped the scales at nearly 21 st. He now works out six times a week.

He says: “I have a taste for pork belly and crème brulee — things which are guar­an­teed to put on weight.” He pauses. “Con­sid­er­ing this is the JC we maybe we should re­place the pork belly with roast lamb.” The Man Who Ate The World is pub­lished by Head­line Re­view at £16.99

PHOTO: KAREN ROBIN­SON

Jay Rayner says Jews make good restau­rant crit­ics be­cause “we’re big eaters, we’re smart-ar­ses and we like sit­ting around ta­bles”

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