Who the Hell Is Jay Rayner?
On June 10th Bravo will premiere Top Chef Masters, a cooking competition that pits celebrity chefs against each other in a battle to win a $100,000 donation to the charity of their choice. A decidedly more professional show than its predecessor (don’t hold your breath for any furtive chef on chef action between Wylie Dufrense and Anita Lo ) the producers have rolled out a new group of food professionals to make up the panel of judges: Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland, former New York Magazine critic Gael Greene, and token Brit Jay Rayner. Wait, who?
We’ll start by setting your mind at ease. Jay Rayner is not Toby Young. He’s not Marco Pierre White. He’s definitely not Simon Cowell. He's a well balanced, if at times sarcastic and blunt, restaurant reviewer for the London Observer. In a recent interview with The Feedbag, Rayner said, “we all thought we were hired to be the bitchy one. But this is a different culture from Top Chef. On this show we’re dealing with people who have serious reputations. This isn’t a one-time thing; we want to do it a few times, and the chefs have to feel it’s worth their while. We don’t brutalize them.” But that doesn’t mean he’s a kitten of a judge.
Jay Rayner, the son of legendary UK advice columnist Claire Rayner, began his career in journalism at Leeds College where he was the editor-in-chief of the school paper. When he graduated in 1988 he had political journalism in mind but, luckily for UK foodies, was put to work at The Observer as the restaurant critic instead. His sarcastic wit and liberal use of lowbrow vocabulary (his reviews are studded with words like "bloody," "sodding" and "bollocks") have made him a well-known character in the world of British food media and a much feared critic. Apart from his restaurant criticism, Rayner has also become known for his novels: The Marble Kiss (buy at Amazon), The Apologist (buy at Amazon) — known in the US as Eating Crow (buy at Amazon), and the recently released The Man Who Ate The World (buy at Amazon), in which he circles the globe looking for the perfect dinner.
Top Chef Masters won’t be new territory for the sardonic Rayner. He made regular appearances on Masterchef, a Top Chef-esque cooking contest — he wrote up his experience for the Guardian in a post titled "Confessions of a food TV whore." He was on the panel of critics on Eating with the Enemy, in which home cooks competed to impress some of the country’s top critics. He also was involved with The Great British Food Fight, a show that examines the “true cost of cheap food.”
Rayner’s sensibilities lean towards the simple. In an interview with Gourmet Traveler he complained about fancy dining establishments and called for a return to the essentials: “a table, a chair, a knife and fork and good things to eat with them.” (Take note all gastronomically inclined chefs: go easy on the science, stick with the simple. We’re looking at you Mr. Dufrense!)
He is also a notorious meat lover. During a week-long experiment with veganism, Rayner wrote, “It’s not that I actively seek the death of an animal. But hell, a little light slaughter does seem to make things taste better.” Of the vegan-friendly restaurant Saf he wrote that he was happy that vegans had places to go but then again he was also happy that “fully grown men who like to wear nappies and pretend to be babies have clubs they can go to indulge their desires, too.” The experiment only lasted five days before Rayner gave up and went back to a steady diet of “light slaughter.”
Also of note is Rayner's piece for the Observer detailing his visit to a "top male hair-removal spa."
While his quips are not Toby Young-style grandiose insults (thank god), we should look forward to witty, observant humor — and yes, it’s often at the expense of others. Though we may not be familiar with his work here in the US, he is more than familiar with our culinary culture, and comes armed with an arsenal of knowledge. After risking his liver’s well-being by spending a night out with Mario Batali he described the Croc-sporting superstar’s look as “big round head, long sandy hair pulled back into a pony tail, a close-cropped beard shaped as if to define where soft chin ends and neck begins - shouldn't be attractive, but to his massive audience of fans it is. Women love Batali, in spite of the fact that his footwear of choice is bright orange Crocs, and throughout the summer he insists on wearing shorts that show off calves the shape and size of baby seals.”
It seems that America may have finally found a Brit worth listening to: poignant, intelligent, and witty in a way the other UK judges of the past have failed to be. Hopefully the draw of a large US audience won’t go to the critic’s already large head (sorry, had to get a physical jab in there somewhere).
Video: Jay Rayner Visits El Bulli
Rayner’s visit to El Bulli: “I chalked it up, alongside the flight on Concord and the threesome with Cameron Diaz and Dita Von Teese, as something that was NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.”