Let me introduce my dining soulmate: Trish Deseine on Jay Rayner
My Last Supper, the food writer and critic’s new book, is everything you’d want it to be
Jay Rayner: ‘If you put “Jay Rayner” and “pompous” into Google you’ll get a lot of results,’ he says. Photograph: Levon Biss
Be warned, I am a big fan of Jay Rayner. This will definitely not be an unbiased review of his new book. In fact, I’m such a fan, it cannot really be a review at all. You see, I have eaten with Jay – a few times in London, including dinner at Henry Harris’s wonderful Racine, now closed – Jay had Mont Blanc for pudding, which is important when you read the book – and at Chez Georges in Paris.
I have shared tables with many critics and dedicated eaters over the years, and if there were such a thing as a dining soulmate, well, for me, Rayner is it. He has the same childlike anticipation as he reads through a familiar menu, already eating – if only it were physically possible! – the dishes with his eyes. The same intense attention paid to first mouthfuls, subsiding into complete abandon once the palate has given the green light.
Through it all, vitally, he has excellent, efficient table manners and perfect restaurant literacy – not always a given in his profession. But mostly, I like to think, we share the same love of the fleeting, escapist cocoons of soft light and pleasure that are the restaurants themselves.
Aside from his long career as reporter, broadcaster, MasterChef judge, restaurant critic and food writer for the Observer, his published body of work includes six works of nonfiction with food at their heart, and four novels. He is an accomplished and prolific performer, both with his JR jazz quartet and in the touring one-man-show versions of his food manifestos.
Earlier this year, Rayner launched Out to Lunch, a meaty, often hilarious podcast where he invites celebrities to lunch in order to get them to open up and spill their secrets. And they do. I’m still trying not to think too much about Jamie Dornan’s second-hand modesty pouch.
Rayner is a big man, with big hair, a big public profile, a big appetite and an even bigger ego
There is a lot of Rayner, in every sense. He’s a big man, with big hair, a big public profile, a big appetite and an even bigger ego. He won’t mind me saying this as he says it himself, a lot. Even though I strongly suspect both the allowing of his notorious pomposity/arrogance and his owning of the pomposity/arrogance – “If you put the words ‘Jay Rayner’ and ‘pompous’ into Google, you’ll get a lot of results and it’s almost impossible to challenge that,” he says – are yet more gifts born of male writers’ privilege, the owning of it is still a form of self-awareness I can’t help but find endearing – and rare – in men, and Rayner pushes it to meta levels.
“I am aware that I am a large character in all forms. It may well be that the act of pointing out the scale and shape of my self-regard is in itself massively self-regarding,” he says.
A master of the perfect soundbite, Rayner’s summing up of My Last Supper, in which he painstakingly designs his perfect meal while still alive and in good health and spirit (it makes sense), is characteristically direct. “I go out in pursuit of the ingredients, using memoir to explain why they are significant, musing on mortality as we do in our middle years, and telling a few other stories besides.”
The resulting meal is a raucous, joyous celebration of life, family and friendship, laced with music, butter, wine, deliberately good and bad, pig-related culinary suspense as taut as a MasterChef final, and a bittersweet, bordering on dark, aftertaste.
Pleasingly, it also contains a disproportionate amount of Northern Irish ingredients, and Rayner confesses a growing regard for, and interest in, our food culture. Abernethy butter, Rooney Fish Millbay oysters and Peter Hannan bacon all play starring roles.
“It took me a while to start reviewing in Northern Ireland, though I think I’ve done well by it since then, going back once or twice a year since,” he says. “For a certain generation – let’s say the under 35s – there is a craving for normality, and food culture is a totem of that.”
It is Rayner’s writing on his parents and close friends that is the most emotional and affecting
Gastronomically speaking, however, Rayner freely admits that his Last Supper – comprising bread and butter, oysters, snails, booze, pig, salad, chips, sparkling water and ‘The Sweet Spot’ – is a “mess”.
“The whole thing is, I do not hold up my choices as an exemplar of any kind. And I hope that everyone’s would be different and they would also be a mess because the last thing a last meal should ever be is some kind of Platonic ideal of gastronomic perfection. God save us from that.”
Even if the book itself attempts to be as structured as a Montparnasse brasserie menu, at times it feels like a large Christmas dinner plate – an unlikely hotchpotch of playlists (pretty much Rayner’s musical CV), medical case history, extremely touching childhood memories, raunchy anecdote, discussion of mortality, and nerdish foodie details which, ultimately, just like turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day, is at once everything you’d expect and want it to be.
Among all these elements, it is Rayner’s writing on his parents and close friends that is the most emotional and affecting – particularly when he describes eating in various, often challenging, circumstances with his parents, Claire and Des. For me, these at times gut-wrenching episodes constitute the greatest departure from the lusty brashness of his restaurant reviews. They also make me want to see a Nigel Slater’s Toast-like dramatisation of his colourful, out-of-the-ordinary “pork-eating Jew” childhood with much more of Claire and Des – drama being one of the few genres in which Rayner has yet to dabble seriously.
Rayner agrees that even his food writing contains more emotional metaphors these days and lists the work of his fellow Observer columnist and editor Eva Wiseman as one of his great sources of inspiration when dealing with the “geometry of human relationships”.
“There are any number of people in the food-writing world who are more intense and more serious about ingredients and aesthetics of taste, but what really interests me is the way food experiences locate us in time and place and memory. And I think if you ask me what this book is about, it’s about memory. It’s about how food experiences root you to who you are.
“Each of these dishes is the punchline to a story, and that’s the great thing about food.”
My Last Supper is published by Guardian Faber