Nobody has to read a single word of what you write. It’s a narcissistic delusion that just because you’ve chosen to take fingers to keypad that someone should choose to read your thoughts and musings. That’s Jay Rayner‘s journalistic mantra and the very first thing he tells us. If anyone knows the truth of that statement, it’s got to be him. And to learn from the man himself, I’m at Guardian HQ, at a Guardian Masterclass, with other aspiring writers and bloggers, here to attend a class on ‘Staying on topic by changing the subject’.
Now obviously I’d much prefer to believe that since I’ve deigned to share my ramblings, you should be hanging on the edge of your seats waiting to soak up every honey-coated word. But since that’s quite clearly not the case, let’s see what the man has to say for himself.
He’s an imposing character, absolutely oozing confidence, this is a man who is a master of his pen and knows it. The hair is just as out of control as you see on TV and I have a strong urge to whip out my hairbrush, but I doubt he’d appreciate it.
By his own admission, Jay (We’re so on a first name basis now) didn’t set out to become a food critic. The position of one came about and he said he’d like to go for it and bam! But, and he takes great pains to point this out, and point this out often, he isn’t a food critic. He has no qualifications to be a food critic, he’s a writer. He gets paid to write, not to tell us whether the chicken was dry or the steak well done. Sure, that helps, but it’s really just the cherry on top.
He starts off every review considering what he’s going to write. There’s a theme, a story that weaves itself throughout, amongst the more prosaic detail of the food, the decor, the service etc. Consider this, Top Gear is not about cars. Jay’s reviews are not about the food. It is a story. (p.s. Sorry husband, we’re still not going to watch Top Gear)
He tells us that a journalist must never be without a notebook. He treats us to the sight of a ratty looking pad out of his jeans, ‘shaped to his bum cheek’. He shares a brief autobiography of how he got to where he is, up to where he is today, restaurant critic for the Observer, where he reviews one place a week.
He’s an easily recognisable man and I ask how he feels about anonymity. Surely he walks into a restaurant and waiters and chefs alike scramble to give him the very best. Surprisingly he says not. ‘A meal and a restaurant do not suddenly become good just because I’ve walked in the door’. Fair enough then.
They key thing about writing is the introduction. If you haven’t grabbed them within a few seconds, he says, they’re going to turn the page and read someone else’s article and if they do that he’d lose his job. He doesn’t like using questions to open his articles – he is the journalist and he’s supposed to have the answers, not the questions.
It’s easy to listen to him, he is warm, personable and funny, oh so funny. I, and many others in the audience I suspect, could gaze at him adoringly for hours, but the second half of the class is more practical – Jay interviews The Restaurant man Russell Norman and what he himself describes as 7 scruffy restaurants in Soho. I’ve heard and read much about Russell Norman, but in the flesh he’s a unassuming man with a vision. A vision to take people into his restaurants, pick them up, show them a good time and then quietly deposit them back into the real world a few hours later.
He talks to us about inspiration for Spuntino, Mishkins and his new gig Ape and Bird. Our task is to try our hands at weaving a story about one of the places we’ve heard about. I choose Mishkins, a non-Kosher Jewish food establishment and get to thinking how my only knowledge of Jewish food comes from American TV – Tiger Mothers, comfort food, loud mothers, fake orgasms (Katz Deli is the only Jewish deli I know of, and it’s where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally) and how this might compare with the idea of Mishkins, a slice of Jewish food in Soho. I sell my idea into Jay – he gives me a well done and that alone is enough to keep me in blushes for the remainder of the session.
It’s been an inspiring evening, I’ll leave it to you to determine whether my writing has changed for the better, but I feel like I have l learnt a lot, if nothing else than the power of the written word.