Restaurant News

A Bite with The Man Who Ate the World

Gourmet Traveller features editor Pat Nourse ran into Jay Rayner in London and thought he’d ask the piratical-locked Observer restaurant critic a few questions about his new book, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner, and the business of being a restaurant critic.

Do you think your 'Man Who Ate the World' status is going to be questioned by readers who notice you've never been to Australia? I haven't been to Gabon or Laos either. However, if you plot my journey on a globe you will see that I did fully circumnavigate it. Tragically, certain fine, fine cities didn't make it on to the itinerary. Perhaps next time.
As a hired fork of some eight years standing and of world-wide experience (we'll let the Sydney-Melbourne thing slide for the moment), what are you hoping to see more of in restaurants, and what are you hoping will go away?
I want to see more informality and less stupid posturing. I hope never to be followed to the toilet by a waiter ever again. I wish they'd stop pouring my bloody wine for me. I wish they'd stop filling my water glass in a blatant attempt to flog more mineral water. It all just needs to be cut back to the essentials: a table, a chair, a knife and fork and good things to eat with them.
How did you choose the cities for your perfect-dinner search?
I was very clear that the book couldn't just be about me sitting on my sizable arse filling my belly. Each city needed not only to have great restaurants, but those restaurants also had to be a way in to another story about the city. So Las Vegas is actually about the creation of an adult theme park. Moscow is about the end of communism and the rise of the mafia, and Dubai is about the building of a city from nothing. Clearly other cities could have made the cut: Hong Kong, for example, or Shanghai. But in each case, I felt the story they might tell – post-communism, the clash of East and West – would be told better by another city. The fact is, choices had to be made or the book would have been absurdly long.
Which of the experiences detailed in the book would you most like to revisit?
I would love to be back with Mr Suzuki, the sushi master in Tokyo. The Japanese capital has some of the smallest luxury restaurants in the world, serving perhaps just four or six people. I found my way to the very smallest, because Mr Suzuki's restaurant served just one person that night: me. It was 32 courses of delicate loveliness. We spoke none of each others' language, but we had no problem communicating.
Why do you reckon Europe has taken so long to embrace Japan's restaurant culture? Er, because it's a long way away? It takes 14 hours by air from London, and once you get there nothing makes sense. It's completely disorientating, but it's definitely worth it.
Is there anywhere you'd emphatically discourage your fellow diners from visiting? Yes, Moscow. It's a deeply sinister, brooding, vile, criminal place. And that's just the airport. Visiting it as a tourist only lets Muscovites believe that their city is okay when it's really not. A friend of mine, who has been the Moscow correspondent for my newspaper here in the UK, told me Moscow was 'a troubled place full of undiagnosed psychosis and rage'. He's absolutely right. Plus the food is crap. And nose-bleedingly expensive.
Are you suggesting that maybe being a restaurant critic isn't all it's cracked up to be? I am a neurotic Jew, who can find something to be morose about in any pleasure. And sometimes, just sometimes, eating in luxury restaurants night after night can become a little tiring. However, I also recognise that it's not like I'm working down in the mines, and that some people might want to smack me in the teeth if I whinge too much, so I try to keep it to a bare minimum.
Has restaurant culture changed in the time you've been eating professionally? It has completely globalised, hence the book. The curiosity is that, at the same time, there's a new cult of local food. So on the one hand, you have mega-chefs cloning themselves around the planet like Gucci or Chanel, turning bespoke experiences into off-the-peg. And then there's all these smaller operations popping up, built on entirely the opposite principle. The other change is the move from the fringe to the mainstream of the modernist cookery of the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià. Serious chefs who ignore it do so at their peril. It's okay not to get on that agenda. You just have to make a robust argument for why you are pursuing a more classical route.
"Nobody goes to restaurants for nutritional reasons." Discuss, with particular emphasis on the nutrition afforded by restaurant food.
At home, we make lunch or dinner because we're hungry and we need to eat. We go to the kind of restaurants I write about in The Man Who Ate The World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner because we want to have a memorable experience, something which gives us pleasure. Obviously part of that pleasure lies in feeling fed at the end of it, but we don't go because we're suffering from rickets or scurvy. Plus, of course, some of these places are nutritionally disastrous. A lot of fuss is made about the ill effects of eating McDonald's. The reality is that dinner in an old-school classic French luxury restaurant, where nothing is served unless it has first been drenched in butter or pelted with foie gras, is probably far worse for you.
What's for dinner? A warm bacon salad, made with cos lettuce and parmesan and dressed with a form of Swiss vinegar with which I'm obsessed. I've been packing away a few full-on meals over the past couple of days (of variable quality) and my appetite does have its limits... sadly.
Jay Rayner’s The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (Headline) is on sale now for $35.