“During the Q & A session at all of my live shows, the question I’ve been asked most regularly over the years is, “imagine you’re on death row. What is your last meal?” And I always say: “if I was on death row, I would have lost my appetite.”
Coinciding with his 20th anniversary of writing The Observer’s weekly restaurant column, Jay Rayner is preparing for the launch of his new book, My Last Supper, as we sit down for lunch at The Four Seasons on Gerrard Street. Inspired by the constant questioning in regards to his Death Row dinner, the author attempts to answer the question once and for all. The book is not, however, a list of recommendations, or of his favourite recipes (although short recipes are included at the end of each chapter). It is, instead, a journey with a tight narrative documenting Rayner’s global travels in search of perfect ingredients.
“I suddenly realised all of the people who are eligible for final meals, the suicidal, terminally ill, all of those people – none of them are actually suited to eating the last meal, which is not what you’re being asked anyway. What they’re asking you is, ‘if there was nobody watching and if you didn’t have to think about consequences; if it really was an expression of who you are, what would you have?’” He explains. “And that’s what the book is, it’s me obviously trying to put some journalism in there, there is a lot of that in the first chapter, but then going out and telling the stories of the ingredients and why they’re there and a lot of memoir stuff, which I suspect may take people by surprise.”
After documenting his obsessive quests for the perfect ingredients for each stage of the meal throughout the book’s various chapters, Jay holds a dinner party for 40 guests in order to showcase his findings, ultimately hoping to answer that ultimate question: “Is it the great be all and end all? Or is it just dinner?” As for the chapters, their headings include the likes of ‘Oysters’, ‘Snails’, ‘Chips’ and, of course, ‘Pig’. (Did you honestly expect Britain’s most notorious restaurant critic to keep things simple and stick to a mere three courses?) “I couldn’t write a whole chapter on spare ribs, but I could write a whole chapter on pig, and I think my relationship with the pig has been quite pronounced enough for me to talk about that. Which also accesses other things: it accesses Jewishness and meat eating.”
On the subject of meat eating, Jay shares an anecdote from one of his research trips for the ‘Pig’ chapter, in which The Kitchen Cabinet team (the BBC Radio 4 programme hosted by Jay Rayner) visit Pearl Liang in Paddington to sample a whole suckling pig. While the pig is presented in a ceremonial way then taken away to be carved, the group discuss the ethics of eating a piglet. Tim Anderson believes “you’re only allowed to eat it if you’re prepared to kill it yourself,” to which Dr Zoe Laughlin replies: “Meat eating is hypocritical. It’s hypocritical, but it’s hypocrisy with which I’ve made a firm accommodation to.”
In this Jay finds plenty of comfort. “It is kind of brilliant. We’re all trying to lead our perfect lives and a book like this is an attempt to step back and say “what kind of a man am I?” And there is Zoe, coming up with a get out of jail free card, for which I’m eternally grateful. So that’s now my position: eating meat is hypocritical. It’s immoral. But it’s an immorality I can live with.”
While researching dishes for the chapter, the author made various solo trips to the Four Seasons in order to sit and think, eventually deciding he must go on as many “pig adventures” as possible. That also explains his choice to visit the restaurant for our lunch meeting (“the one on the left. Never the one on the right”). One of three Four Seasons in Chinatown, the restaurant opened in 2007 following the success of the Bayswater original and is often considered one of central London’s best Chinese restaurants. Inside the décor cries to be dragged kicking-and-screaming into the 21st Century. Tables are closely packed and a hurricane of noise whirls through the dining room during a busy lunch service. The food, on the other hand, is quite remarkable in a sense that’s deeply comforting.
While pork is a significant pillar of Cantonese cooking (and of My Last Supper), it’s the Cantonese roasted duck that’s particularly genuflected here. The Financial Times even went so far as suggesting it’s one of “best in the world”. Sourced from Silver Hill Farm in Ireland, the ducks are free-range, grain-fed and apparently serenaded with soft-playing music in order to relax them, especially renowned for their high fat content. Jay orders half of one for the table, with the bone-in, plus morning glory with minced pork, and mushrooms with salt and pepper.
Contending with a lady blowing her nose at the next table, Jay mentions that a live show will also accompany My Last Supper. “The shows, in the same way with all of mine, sort of stand separate from the book. It is not a reading of the book. It is the telling of the stories in the book but in a very audio visual manner, so there is a lot of video work in this one,” Jay reveals. “They will be a little bit more theatrical than they have been before. I’m only a performer, not an actor, but it will be fun. And I will be getting people to tweet me their last supper. That’s the other thing that’s quite nice about this. There is a vehicle for people to interact with it, so we can say ‘tell us your last supper’.”
The food begins to arrive. Looking as though heavily lacquered with hairspray, the duck is cloaked with impeccably crispy skin beneath which a thin, waxy layer acts as a cushion to separate the brittle exterior from the soft, buttery fat that snuggles the slow-cooked flesh, marinated with vinegar and maltose syrup; rampant with slightly sweet soy sauce. To put it simply, the dish is a revelation. On the side, entire mushrooms are wok-fried, heavily seasoned and surprisingly moreish.
As we plate up, discussion turns towards Jay Rayner’s 20th anniversary as The Observer’s restaurant critic. A lot has changed since then, I suggest. “Certain things have changed,” Jay replies, ditching the plastic chopsticks in favour of his hands. “The fundamentals of my job haven’t.” The UK’s restaurant scene has changed immeasurably, however, then there’s the growth in popularity of online journalism, followed by the rise of the Instagram influencer.
In this day and age, with so much servile influencer and food blogger culture, are the positive critic reviews more important than ever? “Why?” He asks. “Because they’re real?”
“I think restaurateurs may disagree with this but the essence of what I do has not changed. And I think most punters are quite savvy and realise that a lot of it is just froth and that they still do pay attention to me, or Grace [Dent], or Marina [O’Loughlin]. Or Giles [Coren]. Promotionally Instagram influencers might be useful for restaurants, but I don’t think punters look at that as a review. That’s the thing: I think people are quite savvy at spotting bollocks.”
To coincide with the new book launch, Jay has also set up an Instagram account of his own, in which he shares rough, reference photographs from various meals out – a new approach that’s almost revolutionary in its refusal to conform. Photographs so raw, so matter-of-fact, they have an almost artistic quality. “Two things happened. One, I found – as many people do – I’m aggressive on Twitter. It really is a bear pit at the moment and I’ve been told that Insta was a softer, gentler place. And I liked the idea of that.
“And two, it’s a very good vehicle for reaching out to people with events. People on Twitter are paying so much attention to arguments, you would sometimes lose traction in trying to tell people books are coming. The key to it was finding something to do. So for me it was to post the real pictures that I took, and I think it’s worked out quite nicely. It’s almost anti-Instagram, as Instagram is ‘look at my beautiful life’ and I’m posting just dinner.”
He pauses to discuss the morning glory, which has just arrived in a large serving dish, sizzling furiously. “This is incredible; don’t you think? It’s just such a performance piece, and I have to say I found this after I’d written about the green beans, but I just thought this was an even better iteration of a similar thing.” Adored for its tender shoots and leaves, the water spinach is quickly stir-fried, rife with chilli, garlic and soy; embellished with a healthy portion of fatty pork mince that adds outstanding depth of flavour.
“I think people are quite savvy at spotting bollocks.”
Disregarding the underlying premise of death, My Last Supper has a relatively positive theme – particularly when compared to My Dining Hell or Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights. It also has a tighter news narrative in comparison to both collections, as well as The Ten (Food) Commandments – a riotously funny collection of essays. Jay admits that both My Dining Hell and Wasted Calories were a “shameless and very effective attempt to cash in on the terrible tendency of people to like really shitty reviews. We know they do, but they’re the smallest part of what I do. Only a fifth of my reviews I do a year are negative, but that’s what people remember.”
It would be fair to suggest that although the publication of these brutal restaurant reviews isn’t a particularly regular occurrence, they’re arguably the writer’s most memorable columns; not to mention the most discussed. In the spring of 2017, Jay Rayner made international news headlines with his review of his experience at Le Cinq in Paris. Within hours of publication, the backlash was staggering, as is discussed at length throughout the introduction to Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights. The review was the most popular article on The Guardian’s website throughout the entire day of publication, and on the following Monday. Newspapers from around the world weighed in on the critic’s sharp takedown and the media reaction was even televised.
This brings me to my final question. “Over the past 20 years on the job, if you had to pick just one experience, do you have a particular highlight?” Jay thinks for a few seconds then quickly answers. “It bothers me slightly that if I say anything other than Le Cinq, it would be dishonest. But I think it has to be that.”
“I had no intention of writing the review I wrote. I thought I was going to write a mildly controversial review of very expensive food, which was also divine. And we’d all have a good hearty laugh at what rich people put up with, but it would be sublime.” He continues, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know what I was doing. As I walked down the steps I knew what I was going to write and I knew what the reaction would be, but it sort of codified all of the arguments around “what is criticism for?” and “what are restaurants for?” Its hits were enormous. It went somewhere north of two and a half million. It was everywhere. So It would be disingenuous of me not to come to that.”
As we chase the final scraps of minced pork around the morning glory’s serving bowl, I ask for the bill and the card machine is begrudgingly delivered to the table. During this time there’s some small talk about the self-indulgence so prevalent in modern journalism; the occasional plight of blogging giving absolutely anybody a platform to write about food. With this Jay shares one final pearl of wisdom: “I was very clear that if I just meandered through the highways and byways of my life it would just be 100,000 words of masturbation between hard covers. It would have to be about more than that. Which I think it probably is. I hope!”
Jay Rayner’s My Last Supper: One Meal, a Lifetime in the Making is available now, published by Guardian Faber (RRP £16.99), and is available from the Guardian Bookshop (£11.99) amongst other retailers.
Further information on the book’s accompanying live show, My Last Supper – premiering at Cadogan Hall on Monday 9th September, followed by a string of UK dates – can be found at jayrayner.co.uk.