Breakfast was granola, blueberries, yoghurt and a bucket of coffee (white, no sugar). By day's end, he had consumed sausages, burgers and two salads. Also four brands of cornflakes, four types of baked beans and four packets of supermarket salmon. Jay Rayner is a greedy man. He says this on the phone from his home office in Brixton, South London, and it's reiterated it on the cover of his book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World. In 2007, he outlined his avaricious approach to dinner more simply. He was The Man Who Ate The World. What would he eat in New Zealand? The Observer restaurant critic, award-winning food journalist, MasterChef judge, radio host and jazz pianist is a man who thinks bigger than lamb and lamingtons. "I'm possibly stuck in some old myth of Pacific rim and fusion that Peter Gordon has slapped us around the face with, repeatedly, for years. Although I imagine a certain element of that is still the case?" Here, Whanganui-born Gordon is Bellota and The Sugar Club. In London, he is The Providores and Tapa Room. Rayner has, of course, eaten at the latter. In 2001, Rayner told readers the restaurant's name was odd and convoluted and only just on nodding terms with the English language - which, at least, reflected the contents of the menu which was equally odd and convoluted and also only just on nodding terms with the English language. He continued: "Normally I would treat such logorrhoea on a menu with huge suspicion. It smacks of special pleading before the thing it describes has even arrived on the table. 'Hey, look at all the stuff we've cooked for you. Forget the quality; feel the width.' But here, I think, it's a good sign." Whew. Rayner likes us. He has never been to New Zealand. "I failed to do so as a young man and it got to the point where I said 'I'm afraid I'm not coming until someone puts me at the pointy end of the plane'." In May, he will buckle up for Emirates, the airline whose business class passengers are currently eating a pie "filled with braised free-range New Zealand lamb and rosemary", smoked duck salad and a chicken schnitzel sandwich devised by Sydney chef Neil Perry. His ticket is courtesy of the Auckland Writers Festival. Rayner will speak at a lunch at Masu, and, on May 19, deliver a one-man show based on another of his books, The Ten (Food) Commandments. It's a slim and very funny volume of essays, outlining his rules for eating. Things like the worship of leftovers, the celebration of the stinky and the enthusiastic consumption of fat. The commandments extend to the careful selection of dining companions. Slow eaters, for example, should be avoided. They don't like food enough. "No one with a real instinct to feed and be fed can ever eat slowly," writes Rayner. "Call those of us who rampage through a plate of food like floodwater through a sluice gate greedy if you wish, but if fast eating leads, in turn, to lust and then sloth, well, that sounds like a bloody good night out to me. "Greedy people are enthusiasts. They are there to suck the marrow from the roasted thigh bone of life. We recognise our appetites in all their forms and, unlike the buttoned up, repressed, spank-me-now-and-call-me-Alice slow eaters, we are not ashamed of our true natures." As a child, Rayner picked the bones clean, "the curious, hard ankle on the leg of lamb with its overcoat of skin that I punctured with my teeth so the juices could run"; at age 6, his parents let him order snails - "fat, black garlic-buttered-drenched punctuation marks". As an adult with a solid journalism career ("I've covered everything - murders, politics, terrorism, you name it") he was asked to review restaurants. "Editors do not employ restaurant critics because of how they eat. They employ us for how we write and I've been doing it now for, God help me, 18 years. If it was just listing a bunch of dishes, and whether they were correct or not - nobody would read that." But you can't eat out every week for 18 years and not learn some things about food. Five years ago, Rayner worked on television documentaries about rising food prices and the truth about cheap food. They led to a weekly show that, he says, resulted in "spending an awful lot of time standing in muddy fields". He became "unusually aware" of the farming industry. Greedy Man in a Hungry World is about food security and the definition of sustainability. "Certainly I am of the view that how we feed ourselves in the 21st century is going to be the defining issue of the next few decades," says Rayner. "We've got a rising, global population ... at the beginning of the century, 14 per cent of the world's middle classes were in Asia, and by 2050 it'll be 68 per cent and they're eating as those of us in the developed world have been doing." He points to increased meat consumption in China, "from 10kg per person per year in 1975 to where it's going to be 69kg per person by 2030" and says statistics like that will impact enormously on the likes of Britain, which increasingly relies on imported food and will soon be competing for that food with larger, hungry markets. "There are going to be wars over food. In many ways, you could say there already have been. The Arab Spring was not a spontaneous uprising for democracy - it was a response to rising food prices and the inability of the autocratic governments to maintain their population's ability to get food as a reasonable price." Don't get him started on Brexit. Last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Rayner was a "remainer".
Call those of us who rampage through a plate of food like floodwater through a sluice gate greedy if you wish, but if fast eating leads, in turn, to lust and then sloth, well, that sounds like a bloody good night out to me.
"I could bore for Britain on this. Starting with how the hell are we going to get the harvest in? People born in Britain do not seem interested in working in fields, so our harvest is being brought in by a brilliant band of very hard working Poles and Czechs and Latvians and, what's more, they also run most of the food units that produce the food once it's been pulled from the fields." Will there, as speculated by some, be economic opportunities for New Zealand? "We look like we're going to screw up, courtesy of our current government, every relationship we've ever had with Europe, so we're going to need to make deals elsewhere and there is, however you want to describe it, a cultural history with New Zealand." Plus, says Rayner, New Zealand is good at exporting food. He says one of the most controversial moments in his Greedy Man
book was when he cited a 2006 study that showed lamb, apples and dairy shipped from here to there had a smaller carbon footprint than equivalent products produced in the United Kingdom (it's on page 176, in a chapter called "The curse of the spaghetti marrow". Even when he's citing academics, Rayner is readable). He was in his mid-teens when he worked out he'd like to be a journalist. Earlier, he thought he'd be an actor but "then I realised I was awful, which was quite useful". The plan was to attend Leeds University, because it had the biggest student newspaper in the country. The editorship was an elected position. Winning that election would put paid to any accusations of nepotism - his mother, Claire Rayner, was also a journalist and, for a time, the most famous agony aunt in the country. "She was famous in the way that you could be famous when there were only three TV channels. So very, very well known." Up to four newspapers a day came into the house. Rayner suspects his mother just didn't want to talk to anyone over breakfast. "She would sit with the papers and read them and I thought that looked like a fine, fine career." He went to university, he got elected as the student newspaper editor, and "the bad news is it did nothing for the accusations of nepotism which go on to this day. You will find them on Twitter right now. Though how having a mother who was an expert in premature ejaculation could get me a job on MasterChef
, I do not know . . . " In Britain, Rayner is now about as famous as you can be when you're one of just a handful of national restaurant critics and a judge on a reality television cooking competition. This means many people hate him. Tabloid newspapers call him the "posh nosher".
When he (positively) reviewed a restaurant in Cardiff, the population took exception to his wider views on the Welsh city. He was scheduled to perform a show there the evening after his interview with Canvas
. What would he eat in Wales? "I'm going to drop my bag off at the hotel in Cardiff and then get back on the train and go to Bristol and review there instead ... because I know they're going to ask me this question in the evening, and I want the best answer possible." Rayner says readers prefer bad reviews (he has a book and a show on that too - My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out
) but he says fewer than a fifth of his are negative. Sometimes, he doesn't have to try very hard - the urinals at one restaurant he famously skewered were in the shape of women's red-lipsticked mouths. He's happy to reprint reader criticism ("Jay Rayner ... a face like a monkfish genitalia and so ugly it makes you gasp") but is paid to be an opinionated man of appetite, and that's what he delivers. On restaurants that don't take bookings: "What a wonderful act of self-confidence that is." (Though he adds that if the system is well-managed - say, you get a text when your table is ready, and you treat your wait as a pre-dinner drink - then diners benefit, because a consistently full restaurant can generally keep its prices down). Shared plates don't bother him. "We've been doing it in Chinese restaurants for decades, so why shouldn't we do it with other cuisine styles?" Kitchens that send food out in random order: "They can all die." A menu, says Rayner, is a joyous, rhythmical thing. "It has ups and down, it has a language of its soul. It has a grammar and if you're just going to send dishes out in any old order, that grammar is broken. And it drives me nuts." Other things that drive him nuts? Small tables. Granola as a main course. Unsalted butter on your bread. Well-done steak. "The well-done steak is not simply a personal foible, like preferring pepperoni pizza to a margarita. It is the mark of a life unlived, of a childish world view retained. Of a distinct fearfulness." Rayner wrote that in 2010. He is aware that the most famous current advocate of juice-free meat is also the leader of the free world. "But I have to tell you, that if you were drawing up the charge sheet against Donald Trump, the fact that he has his burger well done is going to be so far to the bottom of that charge sheet. I think the fact that he is a racist misogynist who terrifies the living daylights out of me is somewhat above the fact that he has his steak well done and pours tomato ketchup over it." That said: "I would take it as a mark of character. I would want to say that had I known Trump took his steak well done, I would say, 'well, Christ, nobody should vote for him'. But there are greater charges on his charge sheet." Rare meat, says Rayner, is a quick route to a good meal. Another safe bet is pig. In a world nearly always made better by bacon, this is not such a surprising proclamation. Except Rayner is Jewish. "I am a pork-eating Jew," he writes. "While there is no God in my universe, I cannot deny my Jewishness." It manifests "in a certain noisiness and expansiveness" and the fact that he is rubbish at sport. "But these are all secular, cultural associations, and the dietary laws are religious." "Honour thy pig" is Rayner's 10th food commandment. "They are just remarkably edible. There is no other animal you can eat more of. From front to back, top to toe, from the skin to the trotters to the spleen and the heart. You can mince everything up and put it through its own intestines. "No other animal provides crackling in the way a pig does. The charcuterie tradition is based on pork because of the particular malleability of pork fat. They are simply very adaptable. It also happens that they are quite clever, which creates an interesting moral dilemma." He worked on a pig kill line to better understand where the pork belly that he is "powerless" to resist comes from, and subscribes to the view that it is okay to kill a pig, so long as it has lived a good life. Is there anything he won't eat? "A baby panda's probably off the menu at the moment. What we know to be endangered shouldn't really be consumed. I have problems with blue-fin tuna." But eating is his job. Occupational hazards specific to his fame include unordered extras and discounted accounts (he will send food back and checks every bill). Also, the competitive nature of the food industry. "You go to some big-name restaurant and they throw every weapon in the armoury at you. So if the normal-tasting dish is seven, they do just the 13. It becomes a battle of politeness and will. I remember one guy in America, who came out after 26 courses and said 'did I win?' "I'm aware that complaining about this is a bit like 'oooh, my diamond pumps are pinching'." And so, to today's very un-elite menu. Four brands of cornflakes, baked beans and salmon, he says, because he was doing a tasting for a TV project, looking specifically at cheap food. In his Food Commandments
book, Rayner exhorts us to eat the stinky: "The best foods in life smell lightly of death." He loves durian fruit (rotting flesh and garbage) and andouillette sausage (old sweat and fresh leather, in his book; excrement in others'). But there is one food that definitively, unfailingly, triggers his disgust mechanism. He would like to think that today, during filming, he was a pro. "Mine, believe it or not, is around Heinz baked beans. I hate them. I find the texture, the flavour, everything about them repulsive. The only other thing is salt-fermented sea cucumber. But that's less of an issue." Jay Rayner appears at two events at the Auckland Writers Festival. • LUNCH WITH JAY RAYNER, WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY NIC WATT, MAY 18, noon-2.15pm. Diners enjoy a two-course meal and complimentary glass of wine, $120. • THE TEN (FOOD) COMMANDMENTS. Is it ever OKAY to covet a neighbour's oxen, eat with your hands, or excise the fat? MAY 19, 8.45pm-10PM. $40. ASB THEATRE, AOTEA CENTRE. For details see writersfestival.co.nz.