Jay Rayner is arguably Britain's most prominent food personality. As the restaurant critic for The Observer, he's a major tastemaker in London's restaurant scene and a regular fixture on TV and radio, appearing on "Top Chef Masters," the UK version of "MasterChef," and BBC One's flagship "The One Show."
Last week, he came to New York and gave a talk entitled "My Dining Hell" at Brooklyn's Union Hall, where he discussed his most hated restaurant trends, notably terrible dining experiences, and their entertainingly bad reviews. Among the worst was Abracadabra, a gaudy London restaurant with bathrooms that look like this (and the ladies' room, both NSFW.) He also answered a question about anonymity in restaurant criticism by throwing around several photos of New York Times critic Pete Wells.
We met Jay at his hotel to talk with him about dining in New York, New York's and London's increasingly similar food scenes, and his most recent book, "Greedy Man in a Hungry World," which deals with global food issues and his own experiences surrounding them. He had just returned from Dominique Ansel Bakery where he tried his first Cronut.
Where have you eaten while you've been in town? When you get in for the first night, I think you need a comfortable old pair of slippers, and I don’t think Danny Meyer would be too offended if I called the Union Square Café a comfortable pair of old slippers. It’s a lovely, lovely place. It’s also a very important restaurant to this town. There’s always a tendency to ignore and forget the great trailblazers, but USC did an awful lot to reinvent New York restaurants, and I still love it. And they’re gonna have to move or close, I don’t know what’s gonna happen to them, but I wanted to go there one last time.
My review for The Observer will be Estela on East Houston, and happily they accepted my credit card, so that’s good, because they wouldn’t take the President’s. And then last night was at The Breslin, Ken Friedman’s place. I know Ken, I met him in London, and I like April [Bloomfield].
Any places on the inexpensive, greasy spoon end of the spectrum? On this trip, none at all. I haven’t had time. Over the years I’ve done all those things. I’ve done Katz, and I think Londoners are guilty of this too: there are certain places that are so established that you can’t bring yourself to mention them. If you say to New Yorkers, I had the pastrami sandwich at Katz, they’ll go “Huh? Why? Why did you bother? Why didn’t you go to this place on the Lower East Side,” And actually what you want to say is, “Katz may have been there for a very long time, but God they do it well.” Also, what’s his name? Barney Greengrass, the sturgeon king on the Upper West Side.
What sort of similarities and differences have you seen between the London and New York food scenes? I think actually they are becoming increasingly similar. We’re seeing a frenetic nature to the London restaurant scene, which mirrors to me the frenetic nature of New York, and that means we’re getting all of the worst attributes of New York. No reservation restaurants: the reason they encourage walk-ins is because they can turn the tables quicker. Timed tables as well. The thing that bugs me about timed tables—and we’re getting it more and more in London—is as a restaurateur, you know how long it takes to feed people in your restaurant. If you don’t, then that’s your problem. You should be able to get people in and out in two hours, because after that, it’s just dawdling over a coffee.
I get the sense that New York is still a little obsessed by Michelin because it’s still quite new, where in London, it’s far less so. It’s been there longer, but we have been through the Michelin wars, where our very good non-European restaurants are ignored. It took years for an Indian or a Chinese restaurant to get a star. And eventually, that’s gonna color your view. You have a more developed high-end sector. I can’t remember how many three stars you have in New York now, but it’s more than in London. And actually, one of the other things we’ve started to see is the backroom counter high-end places. So we have a Kitchen Table in the back of Bubbledogs of Fitzrovia. The more I talk about it, the more I’m basically saying we are starting to ape New York. That’s a pity.
That sounds a lot like Brooklyn Fare. It is like Brooklyn Fare, that’s exactly what it is. Kitchen Table at the back of a place called Bubbledogs, which sells high-end hot dogs and champagne. And that’s their main list. I haven’t eaten them, but the chef is a guy called James Knappett.
And the other element where London is following New York is the donut effect: you’ve got all the restaurants in the center, and actually it becomes so crowded, they start to emerge into the suburbs. So, Brooklyn’s obviously not a suburb, but it’s not Manhattan. And we’re definitely seeing that in London. Particularly near areas where I live: Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton, are getting restaurants which a few years ago, were of a quality that I would have expected to find in the center of town. Because they’re further out and rents are cheaper, they’re cheaper as well.
Your talk last night was devoted to bad restaurant reviews, what terrible places have you been to here? You see, everyone wants me to come up and dish the dirt on having truly appalling restaurant experiences in New York, but actually—it may be because my trips are so concentrated, my mind so much more focused—that I don’t. I’ve never had a truly appalling restaurant experience in New York. I’m sure they’re out there, but I’ve never had them. So no, I really haven’t really had any shockingly bad meals, apart from the food poisoning that I mentioned off Times Square. I think it was Ruby Foo’s.
[Editor's note: Rayner has asked to add the following statement. "In my interview with Gothamist I am accurately quoted as suggesting that a particular restaurant in New York was responsible for a bout of illness I suffered. I am experienced enough to know that you can't just make claims like that. It was foolish and I withdraw the comment unreservedly. I have no idea how I came about that unfortunate bug. I stand by everything else in the interview including the stuff about queuing and my love affair with Katz's."]
“Greedy Man” focuses heavily on how the food community deals with global food issues, and criticizes a lot of the sustainability dialogue: “food miles” and other buzzwords. I say it time and time again, that too many people in food circles have oversimplified the arguments, and don’t understand the metrics. Not out of malice, not out of an attempt to mislead anybody. They think they understand it, actually they don’t.
You talk a lot in the book about how the culture of sustainability tends to include a lot of high-quality food for people that can afford it. Imagine you set up a restaurant outside the city, outside Manhattan with its own farm attached. And you serve up your $150 tasting menus of your prime produce from the farm, and you talk about the short supply chains, and therefore the immense sustainability, without necessarily focusing on the fact that every night, coming to your restaurant are Town Cars, pouring out of Manhattan to get there. In other words, the carbon footprint of your business, in an unintended consequence, is vast. You may be doing the thing that you’re doing, but you’ve got to look at who you’re appealing to, and who can get that. A business does not exist outside of an ecosystem. The ecosystem is your customers, and if the customers you’re appealing to are people who are living on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and are having to hire a Lincoln Town Car to get out for dinner, the carbon footprint of this business, on its web, is vast, and there’s an awful lot of this stuff going on in the food world.
Genetically-modified (GMO) foods are a particularly controversial topic in the food world, why do you think people are so resistant to them? I think the greatest damage done to the reputation of the science has been done by Monsanto and DuPont, who have managed appallingly the business of owning patents in seed stock. They are their own worst enemies. I do not believe that they have been particularly forward thinking in avoiding monocultures, and I do not think that they’ve been particularly good in managing the impacts of pesticide use on crops that have been genetically modified not to have a problem with the pesticides themselves. It has to be said that monoculture is not a GMO issue, it’s a crop issue generally.
I come from Britain, we were at the forefront of the Enlightenment, we are the country of Newton and Darwin: the great scientific minds that put God to the sword, and yet we have developed this fear of a science that we think just looks a bit unnatural. One of the points I make in the book is “what is our concept of natural?” Everything that human beings do impacts upon the world, and we need to find a new lingua franca. Our use of language is appalling. There was a professor who asked me if human beings were natural. Therefore it follows that everything human beings do is natural. So that when people go on about nature, and how it’s unnatural, what are they really talking about? Are they talking about the non-human-made world? Even then, it’s very hard to pin down.
One of the examples I used in the book is the mutagenesis episode in the early 20th century when newly discovered radiation was fired at seed stocks and produced a lot of pointless mutations, and some that worked. And there is a mutagenesis episode in 70-80% of conventional seed stock history, but we don’t know about it, so we don’t complain. So, it just seems to me that an awful lot of the opposition to GMOs is based on wooly thinking and misappropriating cause-and-effect. And one other thing, when people talk about health risks: this country has been eating GMOs for 20 years and you’re not dead yet. It’s the biggest study test of a product in human history.
I mean, we’re fat, but… You’re all fat because of high-fructose corn syrup. Because of the replacement of sugar with high-fructose corn syrup, that’s almost certainly the case. All the evidence I’ve seen leads me to believe that.
And I think that’s the sort of thing with GMOs, the fear that something very bad could happen. But in reality, you have the ability to feed billions of people that you can’t otherwise. That fear seems very stuck up. A lot of what “Greedy Man” is about is explaining what’s going on in the world: the massive explosion in population, the desire of those emerging middle classes for a particular kind of lifestyle. I would love to know who it is in some local food web in Connecticut who wants to pop over to the Chinese and tell them that their hard-fought and won prosperity is not to be celebrated through their consumption models based on what the west has been doing for decades. We have many, many challenges, and you can retreat to some ridiculous agrarian model and live your life like that, but the planet will go on without you, and there are far bigger decisions to be taken. So, if you want to think that sole human behavior, personal decisions, is enough, then good for you. But it’s not actually going to impact what’s going to happen for the next 20, 30, 50 years on planet Earth.
Is there any more to “natural” anything than there is to “gourmet” or “artisanal”? Gourmet? What the hell does gourmet mean? What does that word mean? It’s a particular American trope. I see it all over this city. We’re a gourmet grocery. Well what? What is it?
We have gourmet popcorn… Gourmet popcorn. What does that mean? Basically it means it’s more expensive popcorn. You’re gonna pay $2 for the marketing and the packaging. What is artisanal? One of the funny things when people talk about all these artisanal products: certainly in the UK, they’re not manufactured on wooden tables like the one we’re sitting around now. They’re made in a light industrial unit somewhere off a ring road ‘round the city. And you want it to be that way because otherwise they’re gonna poison you. So all of the techniques used in the larger industrial systems are used in the smaller ones as well, because that’s what the health regulations demand.
It strikes me that there’s a very anti-corporate bent in the food world just for the sake of being anti-corporate, no? I understand anti-corporatism, and there are a lot of good grounds for it. And I say my critique of Monsanto and DuPont is very, very clear, and I would pass that into any of the major food corporations who have piled high-fructose corn syrup into their products. They’re probably all terrified now that they’re gonna go the way of big tobacco, because I think they will. And they’re gonna suffer enormous torts as time goes by, particularly from public bodies trying to recoup the amount of money they have to pay to deal with obesity. But in the main, food production is the same regardless of whichever level it is, until you get to the absolute handmade, at which point it stops being about food production, and becomes about culture. Then they might as well be crafting sculptures out of papier-mâché or making hand-sewn handbags as smoking hams.
On high-fructose corn syrup: Mike Bloomberg tried to introduce the “soda ban” several years ago. Any thoughts? I do think one of the interesting things is that anybody who travels America a lot knows that New York is quite a thin city. It’s a walking city. So if you took most European people who haven’t been to America before and drop them in the middle of New York, they’d go “people don’t seem to be huge here.” Well actually, you’d have to go to Cleveland or Kentucky or whatever or Las Vegas. So I think it is less of an issue for a city like New York, and possibly London as well, but there is a place for nudge. I was very skeptical when there was a lot of talk about putting calorie counts on menus. I didn’t for a moment think that anybody who went shopping in the kind of fast-food restaurants that they were proposing to target would give a flying whatever about a calorie count on a menu. I was wrong. Turned out people did pay attention.
You testified before Parliament last month on food supply issues, and you said the average consumer will have to pay more in the long run to eat well. You also go back and forth in the book: “supermarkets are evil,” “supermarkets are not evil.” They provide affordable food, while also controlling costs in an irresponsible way. What sort of balance would there have to be between regulating suppliers and changing public habits? First thing to say is that the evidence I was giving to the UK Parliament was particularly about the British experience, which is different to the US experience because we are not self-sufficient in food. The US produces more food than its entire population could eat. I don’t know what the number is at; actually very poor figures are kept on these sorts of things. But we know it’s more than 100%. In the UK, we have seen it decrease and decrease and decrease. If you look at the amount of food we consume that is produced in the UK, it’s about 50%, and that’s a very perilous situation in which to be. The argument I was making is unless we pay a little bit more for our food now, encouraging British farmers to invest more, and therefore produce more, in a few years time, we will have to pay an awful lot more for our food as we become dependent on imports in a very, very competitive global market where China and India are able and willing to pay as much for their food as we are, if not more.
I’m not exactly sure what the proportion of income in the US is, but certainly when people talk about the problems in our food supply system, almost all of them go down to price. If you don’t like large swine factories producing pork, pay more for your pork. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t like meat being produced finished on grain, pay more for your beef so that it’s grass-fed, because it takes longer, and that will cost more. Reduce your meat consumption. You can’t have it always at once.
Now, there have been people who scream “But what about food poverty? What about those at the bottom of society?” I strongly believe that we need to banish the term “food poverty” and just talk about poverty, and stop trying to compartmentalize. Because the food supply system has to be fit for purpose for an entire population across all economic strata. And if you try and engineer it solely for those who are, through misguided welfare or benefits policies, right at the bottom of the heap, you are not going to have a food policy that will be robust enough to survive the coming changes of the next 20 years. Decide what kind of a food system you want, and if you want it better, you’re probably gonna have to pay more for it.
Cronut Line August 2013 (via Instagram)
What’s your experience eating in the US outside of New York? I think it’s fair to say that America mirrors the UK in certain ways. So obviously, there are certain cities with good and interesting restaurant sectors. I’m thinking of Chicago particularly, San Francisco, LA if you know how to manage it. With LA, don’t go upscale. You need to get down and dirty with the local ethnic cuisines. But you could also starve for want of a good meal across enormous parts of middle America. I have travelled America an awful lot, I’d like to think I know this country very well. As a journalist, before I was covering food, I went everywhere. And occasionally you find very good places: Pacific Northwest you’re likely to do a bit better. But then there’s all the open spaces where you pull into a road-top diner and you get a list of terrible food. And it’s a terrible Caesar salad with a terrible char-grilled chicken breast, and a terrible cup of chili which tastes of almost nothing. Yeah, there’s a lot of that around.
Well, very often in New York, examples of that popular American cuisine are replaced by a tacky commodification of it. I assume it’s simply down to bucks and rental space and the value of the rental space, and it’s a tragedy within the context of these things. Try and keep a sense of perspective here. We’re talking about restaurants rather than malaria. And I can see why that would be mourned by the food world. And yet, what’s interesting to me is that in other parts of town, I see particularly in the baked goods, a sort of reimagining or re-mythologizing of America’s food history.
Are cupcakes a thing in London? We’ve had the cupcakes. But that’s a part of it isn’t it? It’s apple pie and mom. Displays of pastry in this town—bakery displays—which all of them seem to hark back to that hearth and home thing, are beautifully done. One of the things this town does very, very well is retail display, much better than London. Food retail display is good, really impressive. That said, I went to the Ansel Bakery, and I’m lost in admiration for a business that can make queuing into a marketing ploy.
That’s another common thing in New York though, Shake Shack is especially good at that, especially when they do promotions. Is lining up becoming a thing in London? It’s increasingly, and I wrote a couple of years ago ranting about it, which is why I’m slightly shame-faced about the fact that I just queued for half an hour for a Cronut. I feel like I have lost my moral compass.
One Cronut won’t kill you. It was a bloody good Cronut.
What flavor was it? Oh, do they change flavors?
Yeah, they change it every month. Well, I’m minded to say it was very vanilla. I think it was pretty straight-up today. (Ed. Note: November’s Cronut flavor is “Caribbean Rum Raisin with Tahitian vanilla sugar and sultanas.”) Unfortunately, I think the queuing in London is an attempt by a certain London foodie to say, “look at us, we’re serious about our dirty food.” So Five Guys opened…
Congratulations! Thank you, I haven’t been. So Five Guys opened, and the queue was endless. But all those people who queued endlessly for Five Guys didn’t quite realize what a massive rollout they’re about to do. And they’re opening 10-15 a year as far as I can see for the next three years. So they’re gonna be all over Britain, and nobody’s gonna be queuing for them ever again. Shake Shack gets its queue, Danny’s smart on that. It’s not a Madison Square Park queue, but it’s got it’s own queuing in Covent Garden. Yeah, you know, people seem to like queuing, I don’t understand it. And happily I don’t do it. Apart from today.
You should have gone to the Cat Café. Cat Café? Is that where cats come and nestle next to you, and you stroke them while you drink your tea?
They separate the food and the cats for health reasons, but essentially yes. Purina was running it for a weekend in April as part of an adoption drive.[Jay puts his head in his hands and begins crying]
It was a six-hour line, there were furries and a weird family wearing matching tracksuits. Really? Well you know, that’s always a good part of the carnival of city life, isn’t it? I have nothing else to add.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.