Jay Rayner

Eat­ing out costs but it’s not a sin: don’t moan about the price

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS - Jay Rayner jay.rayner@ob­server.co.uk

Don’t moan about the restau­rant bill, we should be pay­ing more

How much are you will­ing to pay for some­one else to cook your din­ner, bring it to you in a nice room and then do the wash­ing up? If re­cent news is any­thing to go by the an­swer is: nowhere near enough. Jamie Oliver is to close a dozen branches of his Ital­ian chain, and flog his up­mar­ket Bar­ba­coa grills. Bang go a bunch of Stradas, bang go 20 By­rons, bang go 100 Prez­zos. And along­side the chains there are myr­iad in­de­pen­dents call­ing it a day. The ice buck­ets are over­flow­ing with blood.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Us mod­ern Brits were meant to have be­come like the French and Ital­ians; a cos­mopoli­tan, gas­tro­nom­i­cally lit­er­ate na­tion who un­der­stood the dif­fer­ence be­tween polenta and cous­cous; for whom restau­rant go­ing had be­come an in­grained habit. Re­port af­ter re­port said so. They talked about “long-term de­mo­graphic and con­sumer trends”. And yet the eco­nom­ics tell an­other, more bru­tal story. We aren’t pre­pared to pay enough for it. We aren’t pre­pared to pay enough for the peo­ple cook­ing the food to be paid a de­cent wage for work­ing rea­son­able hours.

The use of the word “we” is un­fair, of course. Gen­er­al­i­sa­tions al­ways are, though I can be for­given for mak­ing them. Ev­ery week, below the line on my restau­rant re­view, some­one pops up to com­plain about the price of the meal (even when it’s a £20-for-two pie shop). Ap­par­ently, it’s an ob­scen­ity for any­one to spend money like this in restau­rants when there are peo­ple feed­ing them­selves from food banks, de­spite that be­ing about a de­formed eco­nomic sys­tem, not the price of a steak. They ar­gue that they could feed their fam­ily for a week on the cost of the re­viewed meal, or eas­ily make it at home for a quar­ter of the price.

Ibe­came so fed up of re­ply­ing in­di­vid­u­ally to these com­ments that I wrote a lengthy, all-points re­but­tal and posted it to my web­site. My plan is to post the link be­neath each price whinge. To kick off I tweeted the link. The re­sponse was heart­en­ing. The tweet was liked more than 2,700 times, and retweeted nearly 1,000. At last count, roughly 50,000 peo­ple had read the post. There were dozens of com­ments and all but one was sup­port­ive.

Hur­rah! Ev­ery­body agrees with me! Ex­cept they don’t. The in­ter­net We W aren’t pre­pared to pay enough for the chefs to be paid a de­cent wage is a bril­liant echo cham­ber, for­ever re­in­forc­ing our own world view. If ev­ery­body re­ally did agree with me, if ev­ery­body re­ally was will­ing to pay the true cost of a restau­rant meal in the UK, so many places wouldn’t be clos­ing. I wouldn’t re­ceive emails from young chefs, des­per­ate about the ap­palling hours they are ex­pected to work for such lousy pay.

It is, at base, an old-fash­ioned cul­ture war. I often make a com­par­i­son with sport. Foot­ball fans may com­plain about the price of go­ing to see a Pre­mier League game, but no one crit­i­cises them for will­ingly pay­ing that price. Pay­ing to watch your team play is some­how au­then­tic and real. Go­ing for din­ner and pay­ing equiv­a­lent money for the plea­sure is seen by so many as pon­cey and self-in­dul­gent and per­haps even de­gen­er­ate. How dare you fill your belly and pay money for it.

We can point to var­i­ous causes of the restau­rant in­dus­try trauma: busi­ness­rate rises, Brexit-in­spired work­force short­ages, food-price in­fla­tion. But it comes down to this. Bri­tain isn’t the great cos­mopoli­tan na­tion it imag­ines it­self to be. Not enough peo­ple are will­ing to pay for the good stuff. It’s a cry­ing shame.

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