Food & Drink Wednesday, March 16th

Jay Rayner: "It's not personal"

He is one of the UK's most-respected, entertaining, and some might say fearsome food critics, having reviewed more than 700 establishments and almost as many Masterchef dishes.

On April 5, The Observer food critic Jay Rayner will share his stories of restaurant strife at the Courtyard in Hereford. These are not any old stories but ones about some of the most excruciating evenings he has had to endure as a food critic. 

Aside from being a critic, Rayner chairs BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, is a judge on Masterchef and, since 2009, has been the resident food expert on The One Show.

We swotted up on our culinary knowledge and grabbed a chance to speak to him to discuss all things foodie.

Courtyard Friends and Patrons get 10% off tickets for this event.

JR pic 1 Bella West


As a restaurant critic of more than 15 years you’ve concluded that people delight in bad reviews of restaurants. Why is this?

I think it's simply all negative stories are more compelling. If you talk to somebody about their summer holidays and the plane left on time and the weather was good it’s boring. But if they tell you about an absolute calamity it becomes very interesting. You will give thanks that you did not have to go through it. It’s the same with restaurants - we just love stories of disaster. The negative reviews are just a small part of what I do. I write 50 reviews a year and fewer than 10 are negative. 

Would you prefer to have a bad meal so you can write a lousy review and please your readers or have a pleasant culinary experience to please your stomach?

I would prefer to get a restaurant to recommend every time. There is no doubt that when you find a truly bad restaurant it represents a good opportunity writing wise. But I don’t want to sit through a bad meal any more than anybody else does. If I really cut up rough to a restaurant it tends to be one of the big glossy ones that charges top dollar.

Is there a part of you that gets a kick from slating some hapless chef?

No. If it has been terrible there is an element of revenge but it’s not personal. I write books and I totally recognise that I should be reviewed and that is part of the job. Not all of the reviews are positive. I read out some of my bad ones in the show to balance things out. It’s not personal but these are people who have set out to feed you and if they are not doing it very well something needs to be said.

If you have a bad meal how do you make it clear to restaurant staff that you’re not happy? 

There are restaurants that deliver on everything they said they would, on being their selves but that self is awful. Then there are the ones that go wrong. If something goes wrong it is down to how they deal with it. The situations where the staff are doing something really obscene are really rare – so rare that I cannot even think of one.

Should customers tip staff in the event of a dining disaster?

Yes. I would. It’s rare that I come across truly clumsy service. Tips are a vital part of their income.

What is the worst reaction you’ve had from a chef after giving them a poor review?

Chefs generally don’t respond. It’s usually the restaurant owners. I had an email from a chef’s relative and that is fine. I wrote back and said I am sorry you are upset on behalf of your son or father but that is the way the job works.

Are you planning to review any restaurants in Herefordshire when you are here performing?

It’s not beyond the bands of possibility.

What’s your view of decent local pubs that have been closed down and replaced with over-priced restaurants pretending still to be pubs?

Some places it works. They know how to balance the two things. But if you can keep the booze flowing you will take more money on booze than you would from food. You would be very foolish to to ignore the booze element.

What is worse: taking away the bread plate at the end of starters, or putting wine lists inside plastic sheets?

They are both pretty rank. The bread thing has mystified me for many years. It’s not like they need the space.

Salt and pepper on tables? Yes or no and why?

I like the option. Not putting out salt and pepper is a very grandiose statement from the kitchen. It is like saying ‘our food is perfect’.

Why are some restaurant staff incapable of removing empty glasses and bottles from tables but all too quick to clear one person’s plate before the other is finished?

In a way what we are seeing is a bunch of waiters who are not trained but I agree it is tiresome. It comes down to a lack of common sense. You can tell when people need their plates removed and when is a good time to do it.

You’ve suffered some bad reviews of your own. How do you react to them?

It’s not always comfortable. You have to realise if you take the good reviews on face value you also have to take the negative reviews at face value. You have to be quite careful about how you respond to them and not pay too much attention to them.

You did a stint as a sex columnist for Cosmopolitan. What makes you such an expert?

It’s a writing job - it’s always a writing job. It’s about whether you have got the ability to write on these things. It’s the same as with restaurants. I am employed for how I write not how I eat.

JR pic 2 John Arandhara Blackwell MedRes


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