From Mark Bittman to Dan Barber to Mario Batali, leading American thinkers, writers and chefs suggest that the best way to eat right is to know your farmer. To embrace locally grown and produced ingredients. To shop at your local greenmarket when possible. Jay Rayner, however, has a different take on the subject.
Jay who? The cantankerous and extremely talented restaurant critic for London's The Observer published a book last year, A Greedy Man In A Hungry World, that sets out to dispel, or think critically, about the widely held belief — at least in food-centric circles — that cooking and eating as locally as possible is the best thing for the environment, for your body, for the world.
He jetted across the pond a few weeks back to perform his one-man show in Brooklyn, and took time to meet us for tea at the NoMad. (While in town, he also visited Estela, and filed his review of the NYC hotspot this weekend. Mostly, he was amused by the stylish and aloof staff and by Ignacio Mattos' habit of shrouding dishes in leaves: "At Estela it seems you must first excavate to find out why they are charging you so much for a plate of foliage.") Here's an edited, condensed version of the chat on topics ranging from his book to critiquing London's buzzy scene.
What’s been the reaction since the book came out last year?
The general reaction to the book has been moderately pleasing. There are some people who will never be convinced by some of the arguments in it. And partly I was responsible. For misrepresenting those. ‘Cause when you try to sell a book, you sell it on extract. And anybody who’s read the book will know that it’s nuanced. It’s very big on the fact that polarized arguments are useless in food. Black and white doesn’t help. But if you sell an extract, you do actually polarize it. So I – I sold an extract all to do with why local is not the be all and end all. And this enraged some people in Britain. And they remain enraged. Even why I protested to them and said please, read the book. Because if you have read it, then you’ll understand where I’m coming from and a really interesting debate has started and continues.
Is that a big part of your agenda? Is to start conversations rather than finish them?
I put my hand up to that. There’s a bit of a gag at the end, where I have a checklist. And the checklist runs to 17 points. Normally checklists only go up to 10. Or 20. I’ve gone a bit Buzzfeed on 17. They are things like: local isn’t the solution, local isn’t the be all and end all — except when it is. Supermarkets are not evil — except when they are. And actually I think the big problem [is] not any malice on anybody’s part. But this oversimplification of what food systems are. And there are a lot of people who have an entrenched interest in maintaining that position. And I just think we need to actually talk about it.
You seemingly have what a lot of people would see as a dream job. Why would you wanna go down the rabbit hole of food politics in the first place?
First of all, the restaurant reviewing job is always misunderstood. It’s a writing job, not an eating job. I’m employed by my newspaper by how I write, not how I eat. There are a lot of people who can eat the meals I eat and probably do even better – I know many who can eat out much more than I can. The second point is, I have been a reporter for a very long time, before I became a restaurant critic. I covered everything else. Apart from sports: murder, politics, terrorism. And that bit of me is still there. And when people put this question to me, [I] say well why wouldn’t I be interested in food politics?
Still, food politics is a fraught subject—
It is politics. And it’s the politics of the 21st century. I do believe it is the big issue of the 21st century.
Yeah and you talk a lot about food prices, how –
—They bring down governments. And they impact upon civil society in enormous degrees. If the question is – why when you’ve got such a lovely job – would you throw yourself into the bear pit of political discourse, I’m an awkward bastard, and I’m up for an argument.
"One of the things I love, is when people who run pop-ups and underground restaurants talk about doing to restaurants what punk rock is to music. No. No. Having a dinner party is not punk rock!"
One point that I really engaged with the most in the book is when you consider the pros and cons of supermarkets. You make the point that supermarkets don't have to be evil, despite what many locavores and farm to table types preach. Did you come out of that feeling like you would be any more confident about walking into a supermarket today?
No I wouldn’t actually, I would feel exactly the opposite. But for very specific reasons. I wrote a piece quite recently that said we need supermarkets, just not the kind we’ve got. Like we need bankers, just not the kind we’ve got. Um – I still hope the argument is true, that there are virtues to the supermarket structure, and to ignore all of those is idiotic, and it was one of the jumping off points of my argument, because while everybody in the media seems to be banging on about everything needed to be local/seasonal/farmers market, everybody I knew was shopping in supermarkets.
Well let’s pivot off of that into some general things. First of all, London, it’s been shocking to me, going back over the past few years, how much better the restaurants are.
London has restaurants — shock. One, it was never quite as bad as you all thought it was.
It was pretty bad.
I’ve been doing this job since 1999. That’s quite a long time to be eating out on somebody else’s dime. And believe me, it wasn’t like in ’99 I was scrambling around to find somewhere good to eat. There weren’t anywhere near what there are now, but there was still a pretty good base. My book before this one was called The Man Who Ate The World, which is a journey through seven cities. And my chapters each had a theme. So Dubai was about the creating something from nothing; in Moscow it was post-communism. And my chapter on New York was over-winning metropolitan self-confidence. The belief that you were the greatest city in the world, which you probably are. And your restaurant sector is very very good. But the British – London's restaurant sector has always had a lot going for it.
Now, it’s insane. I review on a Sunday in the Observer, my colleague Marina O’Loughlin reviews in The Guardian on a Saturday. Although we don’t have a full crossover — it’s only about 30% — that 30% is very, very vocal and doesn’t like it if we review the same restaurant side by side. So we now divide up London, mostly, and bits of the rest of the country between us. And we have no shortage of restaurants. Without doubling up, without covering the same thing. I might review something she’s done 10 months down the line.
So who are some of the people you think are the most interesting characters in the British culinary scene right now?
Russell Norman is fascinating. He has the Polpo group. They are actually very – they’re quite derivative of New York Venetian restaurants (metal ceilings, small plates). But he has a whole collection of places which do a very very nice job at a very very good price. Rex restaurants continues to rule the roost — that’s the Wolsley, Delaunay, and now they have Fischer’s and they’ve just opened a Colony Room at their hotel. That’s very stylish. The Caprice Group is about to close the Ivy for a refurb but they’re opening a bunch of other places, and never underestimate their professionalism. But then, more interesting I think, is the outbreak of smaller stuff. So I live in a little area called Brixton in South London, and we have some covered markets which have been taken over by people who ran supper clubs and bloggers and small restaurant concepts that they could afford to put into these units in these old Victorian coverrd markets. And Brixton, which was – until 7, 8 years ago, what Harlem was 30. A place you didn’t go. It has become a weird tourist center for white 20-somethings. Causing its own particular political dynamic. It’s really fascinating. And then you see certain trends emerging – I don’t know if you know, we’re deep in the ramen wars at the moment. Every third joint seems to be doing tonkotsu. That’s big. You know, I can keep going on, taking you through the…
Well are you pleased with the direction it’s going? Or a little bit of just – it’s going out of control?
I’m not sure what an out of control restaurant sector would look like. Rioting in the streets and chucking their homemade sourdough bread rolls at each other? And their churned goat’s milk butter?
Well it’s become ripe for parody.
But the restaurant sector always is. Basically we’re talking about bourgeois polite society. So one of the things I love, is when people who run pop-ups and underground restaurants talk about doing to restaurants what punk rock is to music. No. No. Having a dinner party is not punk rock! It’s polite society in a different model. So there’s more cant and hyperbole around food than anything else. The important point, where it is uncomfortable is that London is pulling away and away and away from the rest of the country. In the same way that I always told people, New York is not the U.S. London is most definitely not Britain. And that gulf is troubling. Particularly troubling because I have to review the rest of the country.
There was one last question, which is about the sheer amount of restaurant reviewing going on between newspapers, blogs, review sites, user-generated places like Yelp. Is it all too much?
I separate out what I do from that noise. And I separate it out, because in the inimitable words of Ruth Reichl many years ago, my job is to sell newspapers, not restaurants. People read me for the writing. And as long as I am writing better than the people who are writing and not being paid for it, then I’ve got a job… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people expressing an opinion. But it becomes problematic for the restaurateurs. When people are using social media to settle scores, and for misinformation. If I was a restaurateur, I’d bloody hate it. Because you can’t interfere with it. It’s very very hard. From the business side, it must be awful. And that’s – seeing it from their perspective, I give thanks that I have somehow lucked out and got the best job as possible to have in restaurants. I don’t have to run them and I don’t have to cook for them. I just have to go to them.