Life & Culture

An appetite for life

Food writer Jay Rayner may love treif, but his attitude to eating is very Jewish


Long before lockdown — when we used to break bread with our friends — food writer Jay Rayner hosted a banquet. The meal consisted of the foods that he liked most in the world.

His journey to the table had been a long one and inspired his most recent book, My Last Supper. Although it was published more than a year ago, his publicity tour was held up by the pandemic and he’ll be talking about it at Jewish Book Week on February 27 with me and food historian Pen Vogler.

The feast was a reaction to being asked endlessly what he would choose for his final meal. He introduces the book by saying the basic premise made no sense: “You eat to keep yourself alive … if you knew your death was imminent, the basic reason for the meal would have gone.”

Even a greedy man, he surmised, would have trouble tucking in under those circumstances. So the book sees him planning the perfect meal to enjoy with his handpicked guest list.

The treif-heavy menu is not one, I suspect, that many JC readers would contemplate. Pork and oysters are key components but alongside are his perfect bread, chips, salad, sparkling water, booze and dessert. The research is meticulous. He travels to San Francisco for sourdough and even locates his ultimate version of French classic pudding, Mont Blanc, in a Japanese outpost of French tea room, Angelina.

Rayner, who grew up in North West London, has never been coy in his restaurant writing about his passion for pork and soft spot for shellfish. Nonetheless he feels the need in the book to explain the dietary divergence: “I like identifying as a pork-eating Jew. It forces people who haven’t thought seriously enough about the subject to understand that Jewishness is an identity which goes beyond a bunch of blunt dietary laws. Understand that I am both Jewish and eat pork because there is no God and you understand a few very basic things about me.”

Yet, to him and his family, food was a major part of their Jewish identity. He wrote recently, in a review of Claudia Roden’s magnum opus, The Book of Jewish Food, that his late mother, agony aunt, Claire Rayner, identified as a “pantry” Jew. “My dear, late mum did occasionally make gefilte fish — both fried and boiled — according to a recipe she got from her beloved grandmother. She hated her mother — I think that’s well known —but loved her grandmother. She taught her to make gefilte fish and she occasionally made that.”

And his father, Des Rayner, who passed away in 2014 always loved a salt beef sandwich which, Rayner writes in his book, “linked him to a kind of Jewish community all but lost”, that of his East End childhood.

To him, it’s not just about the actual food, Rayner tells me. “A lot of it’s a sensibility, isn’t it? One of the reasons we all got so excited about dear old Maureen Lipman’s TV ads was because they were so true. That moment of opening the fridge and saying, ‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have got something in’ — and it’s packed! We always had a box of matzah in the cupboard as well. I assumed it was not through any cultural relevance but because we liked it.”

“We didn’t do Friday night. We never did Chanukah. There was a bit of Pesach knocking around for a few years until even my mother acknowledged that it was rather an odd thing for us to be doing, and that fell by the wayside. But I’d done it enough as a child to know what it was — to understand the rituals around it.”

Nonetheless, he’s recently turned his hand to frying gefilte fish — “the boiled, I hated” — knocking up a batch as part of his Observer review of Roden’s book; also producing her now classic (and much-copied) orange and almond cake plus a plate of golden, crunchy-looking latkes.

The review attracted a torrent of antisemitism when it was shared on the Observer’s Facebook page. Rayner isn’t keen to discuss it directly but says: “One of the things that the antisemitism furore of the past few years has done… is to remind you that you’re Jewish. And I am. I’m comfortably Jewish. If you saw me in a room you’d know. If you saw me talking, you’d know. I am me. The fact that I don’t go to shul or believe in God or put on a kuppel…I’m a Jew — it’s obvious! And if you’re so ignorant as to go, ‘But you eat pork, so what does that mean?’ then get a grip and understand that there are subtleties. And I may be Godless, there is no God in my universe and I don’t have much time for religious ritual.

“A few years ago, I concluded that people go on about tolerance and respect and I always say that I’m absolutely with you on the tolerance thing. I will tolerate enormous things but I don’t necessarily respect them. And don’t ask me to. But I will tolerate you. That’s where I am with religion. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t cultural markers for who I am and where I’ve come from and what my cultural reference points are.”

The Roden piece was part of a series on what he terms “the great classic cookbooks”. It’s a second re-engineering of his restaurant review column while he waits for any eateries to re-open their doors.

He enjoyed being in the kitchen. “I like cooking — I like the process and find it calming. You’re locked in the moment and you’re bending ingredients to your will and that’s important.”

He has conquered new areas too: “I never used to do ‘pastry’ in the broader sense (ie: baking) and now I am and it’s rather fun. I made Gary Rhodes’s custard tart and I was pleased with that.”

The results are great for feeding his sons, aged 17 and 21 with whom he and wife, Pat Gordon-Smith, sit down to dinner with at 7pm each day. “They like their food — they’re my sons — and it’s important that we chew things over and talk properly.”

Despite much of his work having been ‘live’, pre-pandemic, he has managed to adapt to lockdown confinement. His Radio 4 food show, The Kitchen Cabinet now takes place online (“I’m exceptionally proud of what the whole team has done — we found a tone that really works”); and his podcast series, Out to Lunch, in which he sits down to chat to a guest over a meal, has morphed into In for Lunch, with takeaways being served to guests at home.

“I’m doing it from my desk, which has its advantages because by doing them on Zoom and sending a takeaway we can have guests from anywhere.”

The podcast was the invention of co-producer Jez Nelson of production company Something Else. “I said really — will anyone listen to that? It became clear he was right when the pilot with Richard E Grant was a brilliant listen”.

It’s now downloaded by around 65,000 people each week, and has restaurateurs lining up to invite Rayner and his lucky guest to eat their food.

He’s picky about his dining partners: “I avoid actors with no hinterland. I’ve been offered some really big names. We’ve looked at their work and their stories and realised that what it comes down to is, ‘Ooooh – what’s it like being an actor’ and that they haven’t got much to say. So if they’re an actor or director, they better have something else going on in their life or be well known for being an outrageous raconteur — like Jason Isaacs.”

His ideal guests will have had therapy. “It gives them the language of disclosure. And I absolutely hold by that — they know how to talk about themselves.

“The element of food is not an incidental — it’s brilliantly distracting. We can have astonishingly intimate conversations.”

The book tour planned to promote My Last Supper has been moved twice already. He’s hoping to get back to it in the autumn. As an appetiser, though, there’s our JBW session entitled Fresse, with a live broadcast from Kings Walk with food historian Pen Vogler, who he describes as “brilliant”.

“I don’t do many of these things to be honest” he says. “Jewish Book Week is the only literary festival in a classic format I will do, as generally they come to me with suggestions for nice events. As simple as that.” The festival also gets a mention in the book — for giving him his first gig playing piano with what became the Jay Rayner Quartet.

My Last Supper isn’t just about food. He shares anecdotes about his upbringing — near death experiences and a suspension from school — as well as his more recent struggle with sleep apnoea. There’s even a tale from his schooldays involving class mate Patrick, now head of a Jewish school. And there’s pathos.

When dad, Des, lay dying in hospital, complaining about the food, Rayner sought for him the best salt beef sandwich he could find. It’s a tale which gets to the essence of his Jewishness.

“It was specifically there when I tried to feed my dear old dad as he was on the way out. And in a way, that illuminated the whole point for me. I don’t think it’s accidental that so many of the people who have written about food are or have Jewish connections. It kind of feels right. It’s like, you know, we have appetite. We’re match fit — with the skill set for this job.”

The salt beef sandwich went uneaten. “Des didn’t want it. In truth, he didn’t want to be here anymore.” Which is why Rayner didn’t want to wait for his last supper. 

My Last Supper is published by Faber

Jay will be discussing food with Pen Vogler and JC food editor, Victoria Prever online at 18.45pm on February 27 as part of Jewish Book Week. Tickets are available at

On March 13, he is teaching an online class about column writing. For more information, visit



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