Jay Rayner on journalism

Jay Rayner is an award-winning writer, musician, journalist and broadcaster. He has written on everything from crime and politics, through cinema and theatre to the visual arts, but is best known as restaurant critic for the Observer.

He has also written four novels and seven works of non-fiction with an eighth, Nights Out at Home, on the way. We sat down with him to discuss his career, his writing, his upcoming book and the current landscape for journalists.

What inspired you to follow your mother’s footsteps into journalism?

When people talk about my privilege, the real privilege was that jobs that seemed unobtainable to other people, to me just looked like the thing you did. My father, Des, had been an actor, painter and writer, while my mother was a novelist, broadcaster, sex advice columnist and a journalist. All of these things might look unobtainable to other people, but to me they were just things that you could do.

At the age of 14, I would read Dermot Purgavie’s America in the Daily Mail, which was a column of miscellany from across the US. And I remember thinking “well this is fun, to write about this stuff you have to see it.” And that just struck me as a fun way to make a living. It wasn’t so much a literary impulse, although it later became so, it was about the business of being one of those people.

How did you first get into journalism?

I began my writing career as a student journalist. I chose the University of Leeds specifically because it had one of the biggest, if not the biggest, student newspapers in the country and the editorship was a full-time job, elected by a cross-campus ballot. I thought that if I can get elected by a bunch of cynical students, I will never be accused of getting to where I am through nepotism. It didn’t work. Even now, I still get accused of it, and my response is “why having a mother who was an expert on premature ejaculation should get me a job on Masterchef, I do not know.”

After graduating, I spent a year editing a tabloid student newspaper. In the late 80s, the national press had decided that if they could grab readers when they were students, they’d have them for life. So they all started publishing student supplements, and all of us who had significant student newspaper editorships got the call. As I came to the end of my editorship, I was being phoned by all the national newspapers.

How did you make the transition to food critic?

In 1988, I had landed a ridiculously high-profile column on the Observer. I had been taken on as a researcher, they sacked the diary columnist and gave the job to me. I only did that for a few months, but it was a turbo-charged start. After a period of freelancing and stints at the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday, I rejoined the Observer in 1996 as a general feature writer, writing about absolutely everything (except sport).

In 1999, I went out for lunch with the Observer Magazine editor, who said the then-restaurant critic, Kathryn Flett, was moving on to write the TV column. I put my hand up and said “well that’s a job you can’t apply for, but I would like to do it.”

I had no sense that that was what I wanted to do, until it was raised at that lunch. I’ve always been a big guy who has liked his food. People sometimes say “look at what the job has done to you”, but no, I’ve always been like this. It was part of the family culture, and what I was able to say was that I’m a reader of restaurant reviews, I go to restaurants, this may well be my specialist subject.

What do you think it is that draws people to your writing?

Well, obviously the shimmering brilliance. But apart from that… I have always treated it the same way I treat any other form of journalism. The first question I ask myself is “what’s the story here?”. The essentials, the table, chair, plate, knife and fork, they don’t change. If you’re just writing about that, that’s going to be boring. One of the first things I say in the class I teach is “nobody has to read a single word that you write, not even your mother”. Your job as a writer is to give them a reason to keep reading. You have to think about the reader, be entertaining, and work out what the point of your piece is. It’s never top-of-the-head-stream-of-consciousness with me, very clear thinking has always gone into what I write.

Has your writing changed over time?

I think I’m a little less florid than I used to be, probably a bit cleaner. I went through a period of referring to dishes through emotions; it tastes of sadness, it tastes of happiness, it tastes of disappointment. The main issue I find is repetition, and readers tend to spot it. Somebody had complained on a discussion board that I had used the word “punchy” 11 times in six months, which was excruciating. I publicly announced I was retiring the word.

Can you tell us a bit about your new book Nights Out At Home?

Come September 2024, I would have been a restaurant critic for 25 years. One of the things I’ve often done over those years is reverse engineer dishes. As in, you eat something, think that’s a good idea and go home and try to cook it. The book is a celebration of my favourite dishes of the past 25 years. With the blessing, and occasionally the help, of every chef involved. We’re describing it as a memoir-in-recipes, so it can very much live on your bedside table as well as in the kitchen.

What advice would you give to any aspiring journalists?

If you decide to do higher education, do not do an undergraduate journalism course. They’re of no use to us. Newsrooms are full of people who know about journalism. But what we need are people who know about things. So go and do a first degree that interests you and afterwards you can train as a journalist. Because it’s very helpful to have people in the office who have a particular expertise.

Secondly, it is a job that requires some form of training, whether that’s through work experience or formal education. But the key thing is to write about anything and everything. Write about as many subjects as you possibly can. It drives me nuts when people say, “I like food, how can I get your job?”. I say, “well, can you write?” and most of them can’t. It is about learning to write, learn the essentials and maybe further down the line you’ll get the job you actually want to do. But it’s hard, it’s not going to be like crossing the road.

We’re currently campaigning for better conditions for freelance writers. As someone with experience freelancing, do you have any thoughts on the current landscape?

In real terms, freelancers are being paid less and less, which is shocking. But the key thing is how long they’re being made to wait. I sometimes employ musicians, as I lead a band. I don’t hire anybody unless I have the money to pay them. Every publication should pay their freelancers within a decent period of time. There are far too many unscrupulous editors who don’t pay their freelancers on time and treat them appallingly, and it drives me insane.

There is also the issue of rights. I’ve fought throughout my career to maintain the rights of the writer to own their rights. The Guardian have now enshrined in their freelance contract that they have exclusivity for a few months and then the rights are shared with the writer. And that’s exactly the way it should be. If you want to own the rights to my work in perpetuity, you had better pay me an enormous sum of money.

Jay Rayner’s upcoming book Nights Out At Home will be available from 5 September 2024. You can find details of how to pre-order here.