Notorious restaurant critic Jay Rayner pans Pineapple Lumps video

David White

Journalist and Food Critic Jay Rayner samples a packet of Pineapple lumps

He's quite possibly the world's most notorious food critic, but in less than 24 hours in New Zealand, Jay Rayner's already managed to eat some of the best duck fat chips he's ever had - and the worst confectionary to pass his lips.

The chips came via room service at his hotel - the Skycity Grand - along with a burger.

"The words 'duck fat fried chips' are one of the greatest come-ons and disappointments," Rayner tells me as he sips on a takeaway coffee (which also got a face between a scowl and a cringe when the first mouthful was supped) in a basement dressing room at Auckland's Aotea Centre.

Rayner's review of his dining experience at Michelin three-star restaurant Le Cinq in Paris, France went off with a "bang".

Rayner's review of his dining experience at Michelin three-star restaurant Le Cinq in Paris, France went off with a "bang".

"Inevitably they're under-fried, they're flaccid, but these turned up in my room - because yesterday I was basically incapable of moving that afternoon [having just flown from the UK] - and they were a joy in every way."

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"To balance things out though, I have already taken the mickey out of their grill restaurant [The Grill by Sean Connolly, where by all accounts those heaven-sent chips also came from].

"I was looking at the menu, as you do when you're standing in the lobbies of hotels, and it turned out they don't have a steak menu, they have a steak library … It's just a bunch of gags waiting to be made isn't it?!

"Your steak isn't overdone, it's overdue ... I didn't 'withdraw' anything, but they did tweet me back this morning, because clearly it went a little bit noisy, that tweet.

"I'm a very bad man, I get very bored and then I tweet bad things."

His breakfast doesn't herald a mention, but lunch, spent at top Japanese restaurant Masu as part of the Auckland Writers Festival, where keen punters paid more than $100 to be regaled by Rayner over sushi and sashimi, was also highly commended.

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Though it may have helped that Rayner is by all accounts a friend of Masu owner Nic Watt.

"I know Nic Watt's food because he was in London for 10 years, and he's still cooking up a storm."

He's also pals with Peter Gordon.

"I've known Peter Gordon quite a long time and he's a major figure in London - I think in a way he had to make it in London before he could bring it all back to New Zealand.

"[He] is a unique figure - I once wrote that fusion cooking was absolutely fine as long as it was done by Peter Gordon and nobody else. He has this instinct for mixing flavours which is quite remarkable, and not everybody can get away with it."

Rayner says he has a couple of restaurant tables booked during his whirlwind New Zealand visit ("though if I told you where I'd have to kill you") but Gordon's The Sugar Club may not be one of them.

"I think that would be a bit strange, to come all this way, when I could eat his food cooked by him in London, rather than cooked by his deputies."

And Kiwi restaurateurs can breath a sigh of relief - he won't be reviewing anything while he's here.

I'm curious about how a food critic as renowned as Rayner is for his brutal, often highly creative, honesty, deals with reviewing the restaurants of those, such as Gordon and Watt, who he likes and respects.

"Inevitably, after you've been doing a job as long as I have - and I've been the restaurant critic for the Observer for 18 years - you do develop friendships with certain chefs, and then it becomes quite difficult to review. So you sometimes just have to remove yourself from that review.

"It happens that I have a colleague back in the UK, Marina O'Loughlin, she reviews for the Guardian on Saturday, I review for the Observer on Sunday and we divide up restaurants between ourselves so we don't double up. And it is one of the remarkable things about the restaurant revolution in the UK at the moment that there are more than enough restaurants to go around, we are not short."

Rayner says he does around 50 reviews each year, and of these, "25 will be positive, 15 or 16 will be middling and only about 9 or ten negative - and I don't go looking for them, they're like colds and car crashes, they happen to me."

But as he openly admits, it's the negative ones that people remember. And none more so than one he published in April this year, of his dining experience at Michelin three-star restaurant Le Cinq in Paris.

"I would be lying if I claimed I didn't know that review was going to have some impact," admits Rayner, "and when I finished writing it I contacted the editor of the magazine and said 'we need to line up our social media tools because I think this one could go off with a bit of a bang'.

"However, I did not predict the scale of it. I've had a few big reviews in my time - I did a place called Beast - normally my reviews get 50-60,000 page views - and Beast got nearly 600,000 and was shared about 25 or 30,000 times online.

"I thought my review of Le Cinq would be of a similar scale and in fact it was 3-4 times as big. It wasn't 600,000, it was two million, it wasn't 25,000 social media shares, it was 110,000 - these are vast numbers…"

"But what was really interesting was the way mainstream across the world picked it up and turned it into a story - that I did not expect. It was headline news in Le Monde and Liberation and I was like, really? Slow news day? What, some big-haired English bloke who was cross about his dinner and wrote a review, that is news? Mind you, it had some good gags in it…

"The review went down in different ways in different places, the French were furious and tried to disguise it by saying, what, we should be taking lessons from the land of fish and chips… Come on, get a grip, it's 2017.

"And the rest of the world seemed to like it…

"There were a few people who were a bit cross with me, the usual one with 'you're not a chef, how dare you?' No, but I'm a diner, and restaurants don't exist unless people sit in them and eat their food, and I'm really good at that."

Despite the potential for such huge influential reach from his reviews, Rayner is adamant that "bad restaurants die all by themselves."

"People often ask me whether I close restaurants. I don't believe I do, I think we're the pallbearers who carry out the coffin, the doctors who diagnose the terminal illness - we're not the killers.

"And what's more, if it's a small and independent operation, which is failing happily all by itself, I won't review, I just pay the bill myself and leave them to it.

"The ones that get me are the massive corporate outfits, like Le Cinq, like Beast, where they are charging an awful lot of money - when that's happening and it's not good enough, I get really, really cross.

"I don't do that kind of thing [negative reviews] casually. I've been a print journalist for 30 years this year, I've covered murders, politics, everything, and I know about the responsibility of mass media to the people you're writing about, so when I cut it rough, I've got a damn good reason."

He has 18 years of critical food writing, including six books, under his belt, and it's his latest book, The Ten (Food) Commandments, which is the subject of his talk at tomorrow night's event as part of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Of his ten food commandments, are there any he's particularly passionate about?

"One that I'm very fond of is 'thou shalt not mistake food for pharmaceuticals'," says Rayner.

"We are living in the 21st century, this should be the age of enlightenment and scientific understanding, and yet our media is full of blather about superfoods. 'Eat blueberries because it will protect you from cancer' - no it won't, it will just improve your breakfast.

"The lack of understanding of how nutrition works, it's absolutely flabbergasting. Cancer UK describes the terms 'superfoods' as nothing more than a marketing tool and there's not a single thing that will protect you from cancer. Obviously you need a balanced diet, but the idea that there's a magic bullet that will protect you from all diseases, lying in your fruit bowl, is just such utter, utter cobblers.

"Obviously I adore all my food commandements, but another one that is quite close to my cholesterol-drenched heart is 'thou shalt choose thy dining companions bloody carefully', because if there's one thing guaranteed to ruin a night out, it's a really awful dining companion."

As a parting note, and since he won't be writing about any of our restaurants while he's here, I ask Rayner if he'll give us a review of what is surely one of our small but proud nation's most beloved food items - the Pineapple Lump.

And to his credit, he obliges. While the initial reaction is "Oh, that's disgusting!" before comparing it to a child's pineapple-flavoured antibiotic, ever the professional food critic, Rayner balances his scathing first reactions with the admission that if he was drunk enough, he would probably sit and demolish a whole bag.

"I am, after all, only human."

 - Stuff


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