Jay Rayner: ‘It drives me nuts that Ella Woodward and the Hemsleys have sold loads of books’

Jay Rayner's Ten Food Commandments offer 'moral guidance'

Jay Rayner's Ten Food Commandments offer 'moral guidance' - Credit: Archant

Jay Rayner talks to Zoe Paskett about his new book and one man show, The Ten (Food) Commandments

Jay Rayner gazes with bewilderment at the tea set in front of him. He picks the hourglass meant for optimum leaf brewing off its wooden tray, looks at me, then back down at his hand. He only asked for a peppermint tea.

Had I been the café on the receiving end of a Rayner stare like that, I’d have avoided the Guardian food review page for at least a month.

Thankfully he’s not writing about this place and conversation turns to his early career days writing for the Ham&High.

“It was disastrous,” he says. “I resigned after two months and was gone after three.”

His subsequent success as an award-winning journalist and much feared Masterchef judge is undoubtedly due to these character-building few weeks and must be the reason for his involvement with the Ham&High Literary Festival.

“It was an obvious thing for me to do, especially with a book called The Ten (Food) Commandments.”

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The self-appointed culinary Moses has re-imagined the commandments to create his own food consumption rules, ranging from “thou shalt not cut off the fat” to “thou shalt eat with thy hands”, culminating in a necessary guide for any discerning gastronome. Or at least the ones with good personal hygiene.

Researching his book, Rayner looked to 12th century Torah scholar Maimonides for guidance over kosher food rules.

“There is a clear section of these: from unkosher maggots to the sinew of the thigh, they’re very particular.

“It’s clear that these make a code of civil law that is created for reasons of social cohesion for a tribe of people taken from their context. But it doesn’t mean I can’t take the p***.”

And that he does in abundance – but it doesn’t undermine the book’s studious aspect.

The 160-pager is essentially a collection of essays, with each chapter backed up by literature reviews, academic studies and recipes of Rayner’s own concoction.

The pimped granola, which includes honey, syrup, vanilla fudge and salted dark chocolate, is something to salivate over.

Braised shoulder of lamb, onion tart, Swiss cheese fondue; without the chapters in between, this would make a gluttonous, if a little erratic, cookbook on its own.

“The point when I concluded that it needed recipes was somewhat worrying because, as a food writer, I’ve never done recipes before.

“It’s a very complicated business; the reader is putting a lot of faith in you when they follow your recipes.”

Rayner never intended this to be a cookbook, but found the recipes rose organically from each subject.

Holding huge respect for the people who do it well – he’s a Nigella, Delia and Jamie fan – he also expresses his distaste for others’ tendency towards “fingerwagging”.

“Generally I like to think that the public is a good arbiter of what’s got quality to it and don’t buy crap. But then they’ve bought into the Hemsleys and Ella Woodwards of the world.

“The idea of clean eating infuriates me. It tends to be based on an absolutely bogus understanding of science.

“It is particularly this idea that there’s a morality to the way you eat – if you don’t eat clean, you’re a dirty person.

“It does drive me nuts that they have sold lots of books. It suggests there’s a hunger for moral guidance – well, they can get that from me.”

While readers have been turning to Rayner for years for guidance (most likely not the moral kind), they’re also attracted to his no-nonsense approach.

His book My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways To Have a Lousy Night Out, featuring 12 of his worst ever reviews, was so popular that he created a one man show, his second after A Greedy Man in a Hungry World.

“As I finished [writing A Greedy Man in a Hungry World] I concluded it was fodder for discussion panels at literary festivals.

“I hate them, I hate being on them. I think they’re reductive. So I came up with the idea for a one man show.”

The Ten (Food) Commandments’ appearance on the bill at the Ham&High Literary Festival is pregnant with contention due to its host being JW3.

“The fact that I’m taking the commandment ‘Honour Thy Pig’ into the Jewish cultural centre…It makes me laugh and if anybody’s offended, why in god’s name did they come?”

Jay Rayner’s one man show at the Ham&High Literary Festival is on Sunday, September 25 at 8.30pm.

Tickets: https://www.jw3.org.uk/event/ten-food-commandments#.V78tMcR4WnM