In every series of Masterchef comes the day when the nervous amateur contestants are told that they are to cook for restaurant reviewers. A regular in this slot is is Jay Rayner, the Observer’s critic. He and his fellow critics walk in, steely eyed, to pronounce on the efforts of the contestants. Sometimes they are encouraging and occasionally scathing of the food which is presented to them.
Now Rayner is himself discovering what it is like to step out of his comfort zone. Later this month he will be the amateur presenting himself to the audience as he plays jazz piano at JW3 in Finchley Road. Rayner has played piano in public before — most notably at Jewish Book Week and at the Ivy Club. His self-deprecation masks a decent level of confidence in his musical ability.
“My default position is to talk down my piano playing talents,” he says. “But if I was being honest I would say that I’m good, solid and competent. I used to joke that if you know nothing about jazz piano, then I’m absolutely brilliant and if you know anything at all, well, thanks for listening. Then I found I got into trouble with the musicians I played with because if you are talking yourself down that’s a bit unfair on the people who are paying to see you.”
True to his calling as a food writer, Rayner will be playing a selection of jazz numbers on a food and drink theme. He says there are plenty to choose from, perhaps inspired by the fact that jazz musicians would usually be playing in bars, cafés and clubs where food and drink is served. “We play songs like Black Coffee, One for My Baby, which is the ultimate drunk’s song, Save the Bones for Mr Jones and The Lady is a Tramp, which has very foodie lyrics. I like a good tune.”
He adds that the music and food worlds have a definite meeting place. “A lot of the musicians I play with read restaurant reviews because they are always travelling and wondering where they are going to eat when on tour. In fact, the world they move in is dominated by food opportunities.”
The same can be said for Rayner. In fact this will be his second professional engagement at the JW3 — his first was to check out Zest, the highly regarded restaurant at the Jewish cultural centre. “I went along to review it because I’d heard good things about the [Zest] guys from when they were at the Roundhouse in Camden.” He feels the restaurant, with its Sephardi references, signifies a sea change in Jewish food as eaten in this country. “Things have definitely changed. There are various people to be thanked for that, chief among them probably Yotam Ottolenghi.”
Rayner retains a love for traditional Ashkenazi food despite the fact he knows that by all gastronomic standards, it is neither sophisticated nor healthy. “I have a strange relationship with the Ashkenazi tradition,” he reflects. “I love it while accepting that it is terrible. My non-Jewish wife does remind me that it is a truly awful combination of deep fat frying and salt.”
Those who turn up at JW3 will see the two sides of Rayner. For while the second half of the evening sees him at the piano with his musician buddies, the first half will be based on his book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, subtitled How (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About Food is Wrong. The book, and the talk, investigates the issue of food security — how the world can best feed itself in the future as population explosion, climate change and the new affluence of countries like China puts massive pressure on the supply chain.
“It sounds like a dry, pointy-headed subject but I try to make it as entertaining as I can,” Rayner promises. “I didn’t want to write one of those dry, hectoring tomes. Goodness knows there are enough of those. Rather I’ve attempted to explore the subject through memoir, reportage, whimsy and polemic.”
His conclusion is that we have been led up the garden path (and into the vegetable patch) by earnest but wrong-headed campaigners. “We have been led to believe that the route to true sustainable eating is actually very simple. If we eat local and seasonal and organic, everything will be fine. I would go so far as to say that we’ve been fed a lie.”
As an example of why buying locally might not be good for the planet, Rayner cites the example of lamb and fruit produced in New Zealand, which despite the long journey, has a lower carbon footprint than the equivalents produced in this country, simply because growing conditions are more favourable there and shipping contributes only two to four per cent of the total carbon emitted in the process.
He adds that if your sole concern is for the carbon footprint, the last thing you want to do is grow your own vegetables. “The carbon footprint of your potatoes would be vast. On this level, it’s a terrible way to produce your food. If you have your own garden and buy loads of tools to work a very small area for a very small yield, it doesn’t make sense financially or environmentally. But there are caveats. Growing your own is brilliant for other reasons. It promotes well-being, social cohesion and education.”
Far better to concentrate on things that would make a huge difference. Rayner also thinks we are going to have to get used to eating less meat as population pressure forces the prices up and makes us think about more ecologically sound alternatives. “We are going to have to reduce the amount of meat we consume and I say that with a tear in my eye. We have meat-free days in my house now, partly because, as my wife says, if you’re going out there with this book you need to take your own advice.”
So is there a conflict between sampling three-star Michelin cuisine and preaching against wastefulness? Rayner thinks not. “Nobody would see a contradiction between a Shakespearean scholar who also had an interest in basic standards of literacy.” A slight pause ensues before he adds, laughing: “Of course I’m not a Shakespearean scholar any more than I’m a top jazz pianist.”
An Evening of Food and Jazz with Jay Rayner is at JW3 on March 25. www.jw3.org.uk