Jay Rayner’s My Dining Hell
September 5, 2015

Jay Rayner doesn’t like baked beans.

That’s one of the many useful things I learned when I toddled along to Worcester to listen to the restaurant critic, TV man and as it turns out a rather good public speaker last week.

I like the way Jay Rayner writes. He’s one of those people who has a way with words that I dream of one day having, but am pretty sure I never will. He’s the guy who isn’t scared to diss the restaurants that people are queuing up to dine in, the man who has to book under a pseudonym, and the person who even recently had a go at wedding food which, however much we might agree with, we all know is like walking into an arena full of angry bridezillas. In short, I think he’s pretty cool.

So when I saw he was touring around the country talking about some of his worst reviews I thought I’d quite like to hear what he had to say. After all, there’s plenty my humble blog could learn from a pro – and not just his likes and dislikes when it comes to tinned goods. So after a two-hour rush-hour dash from Lichfield followed by a quick Chicken Cottage dinner (decided that one wasn’t blogworthy I’m afraid), my darling mother and I settled down in Worcester’s rather random Huntingdon Hall to hear what he had to say.

My Dining Hell by Jay Rayner

My Dining Hell is a short book that is home to a collection of some of his worst reviews. Rayner says himself that it’s not meant to be a guide of where not to eat, but more an illustration of the public’s appetite for a bad review – the ‘take down’ as he calls it. And he’s right. You only have to look at the popularity of his negative reviews compared to somewhere he likes to see what people want to read more.

Amid sound effects, video snippetts and some handy illustrations, he took us through some of the places, but more interestingly (for me anyway), gave a bit of an insight into how he does his job. And how he does it well. Unfortunately for me, some of it has highlighted what I DON’T do well on Eat with Ellen but hey – we’re all learning I guess.

For this restaurant critic, it’s not really about the food. What? Not about the food? How can that be? Well of course it’s about the food to a certain extent, but the point he makes is that his job is predominantly about writing a column that people want to read. It doesn’t really matter how much he knows about food if he can’t write in a way that keeps people coming back for more and more. And who can argue with that? Certainly not me.

‘Blogger blackmail’

There’s words he hates in menus (and presumably food writing) – sumptuous, homemade, pan-fried. ‘Bollocks’, thinks I, as I mentally try to run through how many times I may have used those words in the more-than-100 posts on this blog. He also doesn’t like endlessly having his wine topped up. I’m with him on this one, although for him it’s because it interrupts the conversation, whereas for me it’s because I then end up off my face and sick the next day. At least we’re in it together though hey. His talk also included a fair bit of criticism that he’s received for his own work, as well as the stuff he’s meted out himself, a good move for those of us feeling slightly dispirited at the realisation that our own writing basically fits the description of everything he hates.

And then we got on to the really interesting stuff. In the Q&A after the interval, someone asks Jay Rayner what he thinks about the ‘blogger blackmail’ furore. You probably didn’t hear about it. I did. As did many other bloggers. Basically a blogger went to a posh shop, was offered some macarons to reviews, wanted more (about £100 worth), and thus ensued a massive row. Stuff was written by the shop, stuff was written by the blogger. The shop claimed ‘blogger blackmail’, the blogger said it wasn’t out of order to ask for fair recompense for hard work.

I wrote a little bit of something about my feelings on the row over on the UK Blog Awards blog. And in it I addressed how difficult it is to stay objective if you’ve been offered something free. There’s this social psychology thing called reciprocity which means it’s pretty much a given that if you get something for free, you feel like you owe someone. You can’t help it, it’s a human thing.

My argument was that bloggers try to be straight up about this – they (me included) write disclaimers saying what they got, then add on a little line saying the blog is their honest view (something some people think is horsesh*t or self-delusion). What I was trying to get across was that I think most bloggers really do try to keep it real. Even if we’ve had something free, we try to look at things as if we haven’t. It’s hard, but can you just about stay objective if you really really really try?

No such thing as a free lunch

For Rayner, the answer to that question is a big fat no. And he’s unmoveable on it. Just no. You can’t review a restaurant if you’re there for a free meal. And he never does. He pays for it all (well, his bosses do). And he often has to send back ‘complimentary courses from the chef’, or get things added to the bill that have been mysteriously left off. This is a must, if you’re going to be a serious restaurant critic, he says. And with this, it gives you the freedom to say what you really think, without the constraint of that feeling of ‘owing’.

Obviously this made me think about my own writing, and I guess I’m inclined to agree. On a recent blogger’s event, I decided not to take the free stuff and to pay my way, and it felt rather good. Actually, I had a look back through my blog, and there’s only a handful of things I’ve had for free, but when I look really closely back at them, I wonder if I worded things in a certain way because I felt I couldn’t go all out. I ‘owed’ them.

Then again, I’m not a restaurant critic. I’ve never claimed to be. All I tell you guys is that I’ve been somewhere and what I think of it. And if somewhere is bad, I’ve pretty much said that, even if I’ve buffed up my rough words into a slightly smoother criticism. I also don’t have someone else paying for my meals out, so you’d see far less on this blog if I never accepted any freebies. Or maybe that’s okay? What do you guys think? I’d be interested to hear your views.

Anyway, deep stuff done, we learned lots about Jay Rayner. How he chooses restaurants (the places that pique his curiosity, not just the swanky, trendy places), what he thinks of the foodie scene outside of London (still lagging a bit behind), and whether it’s likely that insects will become a source of protein in the future (yes, probably, they’ll have to). He’s also pretty serious about the issue of food security, something I’ve looked into on this blog and elsewhere when I’ve posted about global food waste.

I finished up the night saying hi, getting my book signed, and accusing him of ruining this blog. To his credit, he didn’t tell me to bog off and sort my life out, and was rather charming.

Oh, and one more thing I learned about him. Not only does he cook himself, but he does the washing up too ;-).

To finish off, here’s a slightly out of focus picture my darling mother took as I grinned like an idiot next to him.

Jay Rayner

In case there’s any doubt – I paid for mine and mum’s tickets to Jay Rayner’s My Dining Hell. No freebies here.

3 thoughts on “Jay Rayner’s My Dining Hell

  1. Really enjoyed reading this. I love jay rayner – wish I’d have heard of this tour. I agree with the difficulty over blogging honestly with freebies, we all try our best but it’s sometimes why I turn down a lot of review oppertunities for chains and such where I am wary from
    Previous visits purely to avoid having the dilemma. It’s also why at blogger events such as the one you paid you way at I will
    Often agree to write about it but not review it as such, so I will say what we had and what the place is like etc but not review the food. It’s also why I don’t agree with ‘touting’ for work and would never approach a brand or restaurant directly! Wow long comment sorry!!

  2. A tricky business but I personally think – bizarrely – fewer freebies add value to a blog. And as long as the blogger is up front and honest about any freebies then no one us under any illusion.

    As a journalist I’ve done my fair share of restaurant, bar and hotel reviews and because something is given to you gratis, you’re already thinking ‘Ooh! Lucky me!’ Plus you generally have a PR relationship to maintain. Whereas if you are parting with hard-earned cash – like a regular punter – you can afford to be a bit more critical. But financially speaking that’s difficult for bloggers to do. Much easier to have a big, fat expenses account at a national paper ?

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