Food critic, author and broadcaster Jay Rayner, known for his restaurant reviews in The Guardian and The Observer, heads out on a live tour that reveals his musical talents as a jazz pianist…
Words: Trish Lesslie
He’s an award-winning restaurant reviewer, a successful author, TV and radio presenter, but it turns out Jay Rayner has yet another string to his bow. As well as being a renowned writer and broadcaster, the Herne Hill resident is also an accomplished jazz pianist.
‘I’ve hesitated to out myself, but eventually there comes a point where you do appear to be playing music live,’ he says. ‘I’ve played piano for 35 years, mostly very badly for significant decades of it, but a few years ago I was almost forced into playing with other musicians and it was so thrilling I decided that was something I really wanted to do more of.’
It all began when he went to see an old university friend Joe Thompson, the house pianist at The Ivy Club, one Friday night. ‘I’d done The One Show that night so I’d been live in front of I don’t know how many million people but it hadn’t really moved me. When Joe said, “It’s your turn,” I sat down and played All of Me. It was terrifying, but it was the best terror I’d experienced for a very long time so I kept going back wanting to do more.’
Doing more led to a gig at the legendary London jazz haunt Ronnie Scott’s. Next off he’ll be touring his show A Night of Food and Agony, playing tunes from the ‘Great American food and drink songbook’ with an ensemble of top-flight musicians. He’ll also be sharing anecdotes about the best and worst restaurants he’s ever eaten in, as well as tales of growing up with agony aunt mum Claire Rayner.
Live performance has become a major part of what I do now. I hugely enjoy it. There’s an element of the inveterate show-off in me anyway
‘I made a point that our repertoire would be fixed around food and drink songs. Things like Save The Bones for Henry Jones and Black Coffee, great old tunes that have a food and drink element or that draw on my experience of growing up with a mother who was an agony aunt. A lot of blues songs sound like letters to agony aunts. One For My Baby is both a drunk song and a man pouring out his heart.
‘Live performance has become a major part of what I do now,’ he adds. ‘I hugely enjoy it. There’s an element of the inveterate show-off in me anyway. It happened by default steps but it fits in with the television and radio work and it’s not an enormous leap from presenting a live radio show.’
In fact, Rayner will be touring two shows this spring, the other being My Dining Hell, which will see him examining our love affair with lousy reviews. ‘It’s a sort of stand-up comedy idea about terrible restaurant experience.’
So just why do we so love reading bad restaurant reviews? ‘Because we’re horrible,’ he says. ‘And negative experiences are just much more compelling. If you ask someone what their holiday was like and they say the sun shone, the plane left on time and the hotel was lovely, that’s going to be a few minutes of your life you’ll never get back. But if they tell you the plane almost crashed, there was a typhoon and the hotel almost collapsed, you want every single detail. You want almost to place yourself in their shoes.’
Does that mean he’s tempted to churn out the hatchet jobs? ‘Absolutely not – and for a number of reasons. One is I don’t want to sit through the experience. Awful restaurants are like car crashes and colds – they’re things that happen to me not something I seek. I often get emails saying, “This place is awful and needs your attention”. If they’re already telling me it’s awful, I’m not going.
‘Also, it would be tiresome and irritating and frankly irresponsible if that’s all you did with a column and I don’t think anybody would want to read that week in week out. By far, the majority of my reviews are positive and some are in the middle. The negative reviews are only a fifth of what I do, but they’re the ones people remember.’
Still, there are plenty of places near his Brixton/Herne Hill home, where he’s lived for 25 years, that he’s very keen to visit. ‘I feel like I’m in the epicentre of something,’ says Rayner, 49, who is married with two children. ‘I get emails from people saying, “There’s this brilliant new hole-in-the-wall place that’s doing Mexican and Columbian food in Peckham,” and I’m, “Really? I’ve got to get down there.”. But I need to be very careful about what I choose to review around here. It wouldn’t do if I only reviewed people on my own front doorstep when there’s a whole country out there, but there is something particular about this side of south London that seems to be booming. Really interesting things are opening up.’
One spot that Rayner is keen to see open – or rather, reopen – is the Half Moon at Herne Hill, which has been closed for two years following a major flood. ‘The likes of Billy Bragg and U2 played there earlier in their careers. The landlords were desperately trying to get it turned into flats and we’ve been fighting a campaign to have it restored. Happily it’s now going to reopen as a pub with a live music venue in it, which I think is a marvellous thing.
‘In the age of digital downloads live music has become even more important,’ he adds. ‘The fact is that making your living from recorded music has become harder and harder because prices have dropped and people are willing to hack and pirate music. The one thing you can get that is authentically the musician is their live performance and it’s led to a real resurgence. Live events are really what it’s about.’
A Night of Food And Agony is at Rose Theatre on 23 February