RESTAURANT REVIEW: RobandRoms, Canary Wharf, London: ‘Please hail me a taxi away from the devastation.’
For their most recent Sky series Rob & Romesh Vs… those titans of British Comedy Romesh Ranganathan and Rob Beckett were challenged to open their own restaurant. Along with my dear friend and colleague Grace Dent I was invited to the first night, and then asked to write a review. Doing so was less an act of criticism, than therapy.
Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan have successful careers as stand-up comedians. This is handy. Because if they tried to make it as chefs they would starve, not unlike many of the customers at the opening and, thank God, only night of their restaurant Robandroms. I’d call it a total car crash, but that would do a disservice to accidental pile ups. After all, this was entirely predictable. At least with a car crash the emergency services eventually arrive to relieve the pain and carry off the dead. All I got was a taxi ride away from the devastation.
Firstly, the positives. It is housed in a nicely designed space. This is because it was designed by someone else. The original restaurant went out of business. Now here are Rob and Romesh dancing on the grave of what went before. Into this space they have imported their version of sophistication, and if you were a 17-year-old boy smelling of Lynx Africa you too might think it was sophisticated.
On the table, when we arrive, is a bottle of a sour apple liquor the colour of washing up liquid. It tastes of hate and carelessness and should be banned under certain chemical weapons conventions. There is also a machine tableside, enabling you to pull your own pint of frothy lager. All that’s missing to complete this vision of teenage male loveliness, is an iPad endlessly scrolling Pornhub and a roll of toilet paper.
But this is a restaurant so there must be food, of a sort. They get full marks for keeping the menu short: just one meat or veg starter, and three mains. They lose all those marks for then attempting to cook any of the dishes. Aside from the oil-drenched poppadoms and the bucket of mango chutney which they didn’t make, and the rice which they surreptitiously bought in from Wagamama, Romesh’s sturdy testicle-shaped vegetarian samosa is the best thing of the night. That’s not praise. The bar is set so low you couldn’t post a letter under it. Rob’s lamb samosa is a misshapen monstrosity. It looks like it was born deformed in the midst of a nuclear accident. There can be no filo pastry left in the country. It’s all been used in just one of Rob Beckett’s catastrophic lamb samosas.
For her main my companion, the saintly Grace Dent, orders Romesh’s Sri Lankan aubergine curry with a seabass fillet. The fish is served to her half raw. It’s interesting how close the word ‘hostility’ is to ‘hospitality’. Then again top marks for bravery: trying to kill one of the nations most beloved restaurant critics on your first night is a ballsy move. She sends it back. When it returns the fish is cooked, but everything else is stone cold. I order Rob’s butter chicken. The barely grilled thigh arrives in a lake of sauce the colour of Donald Trump’s face; it has the sweet-sour tang of pure tomato ketchup, the cheap own brand stuff, bought by those who can’t afford Heinz. Given Grace’s terrifying fish, I can’t bring myself to try more than a forkful. I still get to experience the gag reflex in the wild.
At which point there’s a roar from the crowd as a DJ thunders some massive beats around the room. I can feel the bass thumping in my underfed guts. I’ve had enough. If I had wanted to feel old and desperately uncool while listening to music so loud my ears bleed, I could have stayed home and had the piss taken out of me by my kids. I decline to stay and try Rob’s balls for desserts because, unlike Beckett and Ranganathan, I have my pride. The best thing about a night at Robandroms? The gentle hiss of the door closing behind me, on the way out.
Rob & Romesh vs is on Sky One. You can catch up with the series here.
Response to Vice.com
Late on August 21 the Guardian press office received a request for comment from Ruby Lott-Lavigna, a journalist for Vice.com, for a piece that they were preparing on diversity in British food media. It is a serious issue and worthy of examination. She asserted that we had run no reviews of black-owned restaurants between January 2019 and January 2020. Her email said:
“For the purposes of the investigation, we defined the restaurant “owner”/”owners” as the majority shareholder of the business, and/or who were identified publicly (press, social media etc) as the owner. If a restaurant had multiple owners, but one of these owners was Black, we counted this as a “Black-owned” restaurant. If a parent company owned the restaurant, we looked at the owner of that parent company.
The piece details that:
– Between January 2019 and January 2020 the Guardian and the Observer published no reviews of Black-owned restaurants (a Jay Rayner visit to Bluejay cafe with Stormzy is referenced, but not counted as a “review”).”
I sent a lengthy response, which is included at the end of the piece. It’s also here:
“During the more than 20 years that I have been reviewing restaurants for The Observer I have never looked at the ethnicity of the shareholders in the businesses I review so cannot speak to the criteria you set.
I can say that Stormzy commissioned the Bluejay piece as a restaurant review and, while it was not a standard review, if I had not thought it worth writing about, I would not have done so. Just a few weeks before the period you have examined, I reviewed Restaurant 1251 which belongs to chef James Cochran who is of black Jamaican descent and whose food reflects that heritage.
During the year you focus on I also reviewed restaurants serving the food of, and cooked by members of, communities from Sri Lanka, India, Kurdistan, and a variety of provinces of China among others. Over the lengthy time I have been a restaurant critic I have reviewed restaurants variously from across the Caribbean and representing the African American experience and referenced others. Africa has clearly been completely under represented although in my broadcast journalism, both on radio and television, I have featured food projects involving various of the UK’s African communities. There are clearly serious questions around diversity of ownership and representation within the restaurant industry itself which, inevitably, media coverage, including my own, reflects.
If the issue is raised to question my commitment to racial diversity and equality I must reference my work as a general reporter: my major investigation, for example, into the death of Michael Menson in the late 90s, which contributed to the reopening of the police investigation in to his killing and the eventual conviction of his murderers; my journalism covering the murder of Stephen Lawrence; my involvement in the campaign to secure the release of Winston Silcott, and my detailed analysis of the geographic spread of race crime in Britain, which was subsequently requested as a submission for the House of Commons library and which resulted in a nomination in the Race In The Media Awards. There is also my journalism covering the rise of the Far Right across Europe and in Britain which, as a high-profile Jew, resulted in death threats and the involvement of the police.
As a resident of Brixton, South London, for almost 30 years I have long been a part of the multi-ethnic communities in which I live, including a period as a patron of a local charity providing opportunities for socially excluded children from those communities. Most recently I was involved in the campaign to save Nour Cash and Carry, a vital resource for many of Brixton’s BAME communities.
Representation of diversity in the media is a serious and complex issue; all aspects of the media obviously need to do a better job of representing that diversity. I regard myself as having been a part of that work for the more than thirty years that I have been a journalist, but inevitably it is a work in progress. While it is possible to reduce the argument to a head count from within a single calendar year and category, my lengthy experience tells me that it will never provide the full story.”
DRINK FROM ME, WEAR ME, WIPE UP WITH ME.
Yes. I have OUT TO LUNCH merch.
Hello fabulous listeners to Out To Lunch, or what I like to call THE BEST INTERVIEW PODCAST IN THE UNIVERSE AND I’LL PUNCH ANYONE WHO ARGUES. For those who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, where have you been? Have a precis: I interview brilliant people over brilliant food. Pre-lockdown that was in a restaurant; right now it’s over a video link and a take-away. I’ve talked to a glorious array of guests from Richard E Grant to Dita Von Teese, Kathy Burke to Romesh Ranganathan, Gary Neville to Mel C. Have a link.
Each episode lasts around 40 minutes. But now the Out To Lunch joy has been extended, courtesy of some proper quality merchandise. There’s a sturdy cooking apron in hard-wearing denim, embroidered with my name so you can wear me on your hip. There’s a travel mug so you can stop wasting those throw-away coffee cups, while displaying your love for me at the same time. And there’s a tea towel so you can wipe your finest kitchen wear dry with me. What more could you possibly want? Seriously. What else could you possibly want. You can find it all here.
So there you have it: proper well-made merchandise, branded to your favourite podcast. Buy these items because you love me, or because someone you know loves me, or because someone you know detests me and it would really piss them off. Honestly, I don’t mind why you buy them. And once you have bought them why not tweet me a pic of these fabulous, bespoke items in use. Over there I’m @jayrayner1. Meanwhile have another link to the sales page.
Love, Jay x
My Last Supper: One meal, a lifetime in the making. The menu
The cover image of my new book, below, is BIG for a reason. It’s designed to fill the whole of your screen, be it mobile, tablet or desktop so you can’t see the text below it, unless you actively scroll down.
Why? Because this page has been designed for those who’ve already read My Last Supper: One meal, a lifetime in the making, know what every dish is and now want to get their hands on the ingredients.
Reading it before you’ve read the book won’t exactly ruin the experience, but I do think it’s more fun this way. So… if you’ve finished reading and now want to know about the good stuff, scroll down.
And the rest of you, read the book. To which end, let me help you.
MY LAST SUPPER: One Meal a lifetime in the making
Andrew Rooney’s Oysters, from Kilkeel, Northern Ireland
Thunderbird Blue Label
Escargot de Bourgogne
after a recipe by Simon Hopkinson published in The Prawn Cocktail Years by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, Macmillan Books, 2005.
Country White Sourdough by Brick House Bakery
Salted butter by Abernethy Butter
Montes Reserva Chardonnay 2017
Bacon sandwiches made with back and streaky bacon from Hannan Meats,
Moira, Northern Ireland.
Chips made using Pierre Koffman’s Potatoes for Chefs
Salad of Cos lettuce and Spring onions dressed with Kressi White Wine Herb Vinegar
Available from terrawines.co.uk
Henry Harris’s Mont Blanc
Blood and Pus
(Advocaat and cherry brandy)
MY LAST SUPPER: One Meal, A Lifetime In The Making – brand new live show
TO GO STRAIGHT TO THE LIVE SHOWS PAGE WITH TICKET LINKS, CLICK HERE.
Imagine you are about to die.
You have one meal left.
What are you going to have?
It’s the question I have been asked most often by audiences across the UK. I’ve been asked it so often that finally I decided the time had come to investigate the concept of the last supper and why it intrigues us so. Is it because of the opportunity it presents us with to let our appetites run riot? Or is it because it’s a greedy way in which to tell the story of our own lives? And if so, what would a man like me who, for two decades, has made a living eating out in restaurants, choose to put on the menu?
In this cracking new show, based on my new book of the same name, I’ll dig deep into our fascination with last suppers and tell the stories of the killer dishes that would end up on my table: how I was introduced to oysters by my late mother; how I almost burnt down a hotel because of my love for snails in bubbling garlic butter; of the many ways by which the mighty pig has fed me over the years. There will also be something in there about a Dutch brothel, a bubble bath, and a decision made on the roll of the dice. It’s complicated.
Plus, I’ll get you, the audience, to design your own last meal.
The tour kicks off in London on September 9, 2019, with a premiere in association with Guardian Live, at the mighty Cadogan Hall. After that I’ll be in Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham, Bury St Edmunds, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast (with a show in Gateshead in December as part of a new literary festival, To be announced). For all ticket links go here.
Join me, as we sit down together at the table, for the meal to end all meals.
My Last Supper: One meal, a lifetime in the making. it’s a show to die for.
This live show is a companion piece to my new book, My Last Supper: One Meal, a lifetime in the making, to be published by Guardian Faber on September 5, 2019. You can pre-order that here. Meanwhile, feast your eyes on the cover.
Getting a manicure from Lorena Bobbit.
Next month Amazon Prime drops a new documentary series about Lorena Bobbit, an American woman who became famous 25 years ago because she was convicted of slicing off her husband’s penis. The series is promising to look in detail at the story. It is certainly worth investigating, because it was always much more complicated than it it was portrayed in the tabloids, where it played out as some dark, brutal comedy about a man having his penis excised. It wasn’t that; it was a story about spousal abuse. In early 1995 I was sent by Night and Day, a relatively new supplement of the Mail on Sunday, to Las Vegas, where I (kind of) interviewed John Wayne Bobbit. Later, I flew to Washington DC, and arranged to have a manicure with Lorena who had recently returned to her old job in Arlington, Virginia, just outside DC. This was in the earliest days of the web and certainly the Mail on Sunday was not then online. I have therefore posted the piece in a series of scans of my own cuttings.
A couple of things. I am open in the piece about the subterfuge I used to get to spend time with Lorena. Looking back now it’s not something I’m proud of, and is definitely not something I would repeat today. I apologised to her at the time. All I can say is I was in my twenties, and those were different times. Secondly, for those slightly baffled as to why a Guardian group lifer was working for the Mail on Sunday, a little bit of newspaper history: back in the early 90s the MoS had reached a sale of well over two million and concluded that if they were to expand further they would need readers from the broadsheet market. They decided that they did not know how to do that. Hence, they hired a young former Guardian journalist and rising star called Jocelyn Targett, then at the Sunday Times, to launch an upmarket supplement. He phoned a bunch of us up at the Guardian and asked if we’d like to join him. My response was that I couldn’t write for a Tory rag. He told me that there would be no interference from the rest of the Mail; that I could carry on writing Guardian style journalism but that I would be paid Tory money. So it proved. I firmly believe that Weekend Guardian Would happily have published this piece.
(Statement of obvious: read both columns on each two column scan, before moving on to the next.)
A SLICE OF LIFE.
She’s a manicurist. He’s a rising star of porn films.
They’re married but live 2,500 miles apart.
Which – since they are Lorena and John Wayne Bobbit – suits them just fine…
By Jay Rayner
First published in Night and Day of the Mail on Sunday, March 19, 1995.
ANNOUNCING: a new collection of my scorching reviews of terrible restaurants. Publ October 4 (perfectly timed for Christmas). Price: £5.
‘Jay Rayner isn’t just a trifle irritated. He is eye-gougingly, bone-crunchingly,
teeth-grindingly angry. And admit it – that’s the only reason you’re here, isn’t it?’
I’m delighted and thrilled if not contractually obliged to announce that, on October 4, Guardian Faber will publish Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights, a second collection of 20 of my most negative restaurant reviews. Some might argue that this is a dark and disobliging move, which adds little to the sum of human happiness. I would argue that you’re all horrid people who adore reading the utter shitbaggings much more than anything else, as the success of the first volume, My Dining Hell, proves. I could, of course, have published a collection of my most positive reviews but who among you would have bought that?
This one includes my accounts of dinner at Beast, The Farm Girl Cafe and, of course, Le Cinq in Paris. There’s an introduction which describes the aftermath of the publication of that review of the Parisian Michelin 3 Star, and I look at what happened after each of the other reviews. It is a beautifully crafted volume and you’ll want to buy copies for every member of your family this Christmas. Or I’ll sulk. Look, it’s only a fiver. What have you go to lose?
Incidentally there are 10 tickets left for My Dining Hell, my show about lousy restaurants and why we like reading about them. Crazy Coqs, London, tomorrow night, Sept 5. Tickets HERE.
There are more tickets available for The Ten Food Commandments, also at the Crazy Coqs, on Sept 11. Tickets HERE
All of my other shows, both comedy and jazz, are listed HERE
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SELL WASTED CALORIES AND RUINED NIGHTS?
With both My Dining Hell and The Ten Food Commandments we found that there were a whole bunch of non-traditional retail outlets for books which did very well with these small but perfectly formed volumes which sit beautifully by the till: think delis and cafes, butchers and B&Bs. If you would like to stock this new one please email me at [email protected] and I will put you in touch with the right sales person at Guardian Faber, who will sort you out.
Last time I did this Michael Gove got weirdly cross about it. But then it was just before Christmas, and I think the spirit of the season had got to him. I’m hoping that, now he’s back in government and very important, he’ll be too busy to have a go.
Oi you! Yes you! The one whingeing about the cost of the restaurants I review: READ THIS. (A one-size-fits-all response).
Each week beneath my restaurant review in the Observer, somebody posts a comment complaining about the cost of the meal reviewed. Perhaps this week it was you. It happens literally every week, and every week some of us make an effort to respond. But I’m very bored of doing so. Hence, I have written this one-size-fits-all response to those crass, ignorant, virtue-signalling self-serving comments about price. For anybody who has ever whinged about the cost of meals in restaurants, this is for you.
The comments come in a variety of forms.
1. I could make that at home for a tenth of the price. (Along with ‘I could feed my family for a week on that’ and ‘only an idiot would spend that sort of money on a meal.’)
2. There is something obscene about spending this sort of money in a restaurant when there are people feeding themselves from food banks.
3. I could never afford to spend that in a restaurant. How dare a so-called left-wing newspaper like the Observer give column inches to such things.
I will go through them in turn.
- I could make this at home for a tenth of the price.
Firstly, unless you are a professional chef, you probably couldn’t. And if you actually were a professional chef you wouldn’t begrudge the cost of it. In any case if you made it at home, you wouldn’t have the 20% vat, plus the costs of the building, the utilities, and the staff both to cook it for you and to bring it to you. Presumably, as you care about cost, you want the people who work in restaurants to be paid a reasonable wage for their labour. Presumably you want quality ingredients not the cheapest of the cheap? Despite what cynical people like you think, restaurants are not a license to print money. They are brutally tough businesses, as the number of closures early in 2018 has proved. One of the major problems is British consumers like you who begrudge paying a reasonable amount of money for the experience.
As to being able to do it at home, if you really do feel like that perhaps you could just stay there and shut up while the rest of us get on with leading bigger, more interesting lives.
- There is something obscene about spending this sort of money in a restaurant when there are people feeding themselves from food banks.
No there isn’t. Poverty is a terrible thing. I’ve written about it in detail. I’ve talked to people who use food banks, and their stories are awful. But the fact that some people who are not on the poverty line eat in restaurants does not make the situation worse for those who are. Poverty is a function of an unequal and dysfunctional economic system. That’s what needs to be sorted, not the price of a rib-eye steak in a restaurant. The fact is this. Some people have disposable income. They are entitled to spend it how they wish. I’ve pointed out before that, while people may complain about the cost of tickets to see premier league football teams play, nobody complains about people choosing to pay the price. Spending money to watch sport is somehow seen as authentic and real whereas spending it on dinner is degenerate. What utter bollocks. Some people like to spend their money on the opera or cars or holidays. Why the hell shouldn’t they? Who are you to tell them what they should spend it on?
What’s more some people on low incomes save up so they can afford to treat themselves. It’s their right. How dare you judge them for it.
- I could never afford to spend that amount in a restaurant. How dare a so-called left-wing newspaper give column inches to such things.
I’m sorry you don’t earn enough to visit all the restaurants I write about. I love the thought of hand-made shoes and flying across the Atlantic first class. I don’t earn enough to be able to afford either of those things, but that doesn’t mean I immediately believe they shouldn’t exist. A lot of people can’t afford all the restaurants I write about but they still like reading about them. It provides vicarious pleasure. As to the view that the Observer is betraying its values by reporting on things that aren’t all dirt cheap, again – what utter bollocks. Does that mean we shouldn’t write about cars or holidays, theatre or fashion or new tech? Or is that different?
Let’s be clear. Some restaurants do take the piss money wise. And when they do, I say so. But there is a great difference between price and value. I have paid £400 of my own money for a meal that I thought was worth it. I purchased memories. That may not be the kind of memories you want but they are what I want. But I have also spent £20 on a meal that I thought was a rip off and I have said so. The issue is never the spending of money on food in restaurants. It’s always what that money buys.
Now do us all a favour: stop whingeing and leave the rest of us alone so we can carry on with the pleasurable business of discussing restaurants.
The Jay Rayner Quartet’s first live album is now available for pre-order (with freebie track).
As the headline says, our first live album, A Night of Food and Agony, recorded live at the Crazy Coqs inside London’s Brasserie Zedel, is now available for pre-order. It will be released on September 8, but if you order it now from iTunes you will immediately get our version of the brilliant blues number Black Coffee, by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster. Take its big throaty roar as our declaration of intent.
You can pre-order the download here
But maybe you want to know what you’re getting into before ordering. I get that. So we’ve also made Black Coffee available to stream over on Spotify. You can find it here.
And of course, if you want the actual CD, and a beautiful object it is too, you can pre-order that from Amazon here.
If you want to read a little more about the album, go have a look at the announcement from a week or two back.
And we will be having a major gig to launch the album at London’s Cadogan Hall in November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Tickets for that are here.
If you decide to buy we hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed making it.
Michael Gove asked me to a meeting to share my expertise. I declined. Instead, I’ve given him a piece of my mind.
A few weeks ago, I was approached by an official at the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. She told me the Secretary of State was holding a round table discussion for ‘innovative thinkers’ on July 25 to give him ‘food for thought in the early days of the new job’. He had asked for me to be invited.
The Secretary of State is Michael Gove. I found this peculiar. Just before Christmas, when he was in the political wilderness following his calamitous attempt to secure the Tory leadership post the Brexit vote, he trolled me on Twitter. He accused me of behaving in a dodgy manner by offering to retweet photographs of my book being sold by retailers. He said it was a journalistic conflict of interest, despite the fact that none of them are retailers of the sort I review. He also accused me of failing to offer myself for public service (by implication, as he had). Hilarious: at the time, he was taking a six-figure salary from Rupert Murdoch to write for The Times when he was also employed as an MP.
It was a bizarre episode which you can read about more fully here. (I understand Gove was motivated by my having taken his wife, Sarah Vine, to task for attacking Ed Milliband over his two kitchens. I pointed out that she and Gove bought theirs using more than £7000 of public funds which they then had to return during the expenses scandal.)
And now here he was, as Secretary of State, asking me for advice. Michael Gove, the man who railed against too many experts during the Brexit referendum, was looking for my expertise. (For those wondering why he cared what the bloke from Masterchef thought, in 2013 I published a book about food security and sustainability in the 21st century).
After much hard thought, I have concluded I am just not grown up enough to play the game of British politics and sit in a room with a man of whom I think so little.
Yes, he may have done good by bringing in free school meals while at Education. Yes, he made positive moves while at Justice.
But since then he has disgraced himself. He was one of those who continued the £350 million-a-week EU lie and led us down the disastrous path to the utter folly of Brexit. He has been revealed to be a plotter and a conniver and all-round rather nasty piece of work. No, I cannot sit in a room with him and make talk, small, large or otherwise. Sorry. I’m just not that guy.
But god knows he needs advice, because our whole food supply chain has been imperilled by the Brexit vote. I have therefore decided to put my thoughts into a written submission, which I am also posting here. It should be noted that this was written prior to his announcement on reform to subsidies of today (July 21). His comments chime with what I say below, which itself is a repeat of what I said in an interview for Farming Today, broadcast in March 2017.
Some might regard this as self-aggrandising. Of course, in one sense this is true. Newspaper columnists are by their nature self-aggrandising. We believe what we have to say is worth hearing. Michael Gove can tell you all about that. No surprises there.
But I would add that, if drawing maximum attention to myself were really my aim, I would have tried to get my newspaper to publish a version of this, and earned some dosh along the way. I chose not to do that and am publishing it on my website instead.
And there is a final key point. Michael Gove has never before shown any interest in the important job he has been given. Theresa May only appointed him because she needed his support following the disastrous General Election result and the loss of her majority. He only took the job for political reasons, not because he cares about food or the environment. Politicians in these circumstances are usually found out quickly and I expect this will be the case with Gove. I don’t imagine he’ll last more than a few more months in the job before being shuffled off. Frankly, I didn’t want to waste all this effort on someone who will soon not even be there. His successor will be able to read the report too. And you, if you like.
It should also be said that writing this took a lot more time than sitting in a bloody room with him.
I emailed the document below to Gove’s office just before posting it here.
WRITTEN SUBMISSION FOR MICHAEL GOVE MP, SECRETARY OF STATE AT THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS
By Jay Rayner
In the early 1990s Britain’s self-sufficiency in food reached its highest in modern times. We were producing just over 70% of all the food we were eating. Since then the story has been one only of decline. We now produce 60% of our own food, but because of exports only around 50% of the food we eat is actually produced here. There are a number of reasons for this, but key among them is the dominance of the supermarkets. In the late 80s and early 90s a series of changes to the planning laws allowed for the building of large out-of-town hypermarkets on previously greenfield sites which in turn encouraged the boom in the supermarket sector. That created the food retail landscape we have today in which fewer than a dozen companies control over 90% of the food retail market.
The supermarkets used that dominance to drive prices ever lower, and with drastic impacts. This is no knee-jerk negative response to the concept of supermarkets. They have their positives. They have kept pace with social change, shortening the length of time it takes people to get the shopping done, thus enabling the two-job households required to keep pace with the cost of living. They have been a prime driver of food culture in the UK, providing a ready source of the ingredients consumers have been introduced to via the media. They have enabled huge economies of scale.
However, they have also imperilled whole sectors of agriculture, including the dairy and pig business. Enormous numbers of food producers have either gone bust or simply left the business because it was no longer viable. We are no longer in a position to feed ourselves adequately. And all of this is against a swiftly changing global situation.
THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
In 2006 DEFRA produced a paper on food security which declared it was not an issue for an industrialised developed nation like Britain; that the supermarket sector had the financial heft to buy us out of any problems. It was nicknamed the ‘leave it to Tesco’ report by many in the food policy world.
It was a naïve and short-sighted report which failed to understand changing global demographics. The huge expansion of a vibrant middle class in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere has challenged the conventional wisdom on the flow of produce around the world. For many years the British supermarkets had free range over the produce from the southern hemisphere. However, many of those producers have increasingly chosen to trade with China and India. In 2000 14% of the world’s middle classes were in Asia; by 2050 that will be 68%. We no longer have unfettered access to the global larder. Given the fall in our self-sufficiency, this means we are now at risk from global shocks including exceptional weather events (which, courtesy of climate change, are becoming less exceptional), disease, war and disturbances in the commodity markets. All of this was exemplified by the huge price spikes of 2008 – caused by multiple events, including bio-fuel policies in the US, drought in Australia and typhoons in Bangladesh – which saw many countries banning exports of grains.
The importance of food price rises around the world should not be understated. The Arab Spring of 2010 was, for a long while, described as some spontaneous uprising in pursuit of democracy. In truth it was a response to food price rises and the increasing inability of authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East to subsidise those costs, which had been used as a tool to keep populations in line.
BACK TO THE UK
And so now the UK sits with dwindling self-sufficiency, in a stormy world in which food has become one of the great economic battlegrounds. Added to that is the appalling folly of Brexit, forced through by a cabal of ideologues happy to trot out falsehoods about the sunny uplands of economic joy that leaving the European Union would bring.
Instead it has resulted in a devaluation of the pound, making imports more expensive and the exporting of our food more attractive.
If, as many fear, a bad deal is done for Britain resulting in huge tariffs and penalties on trade, food price inflation is going to be in double digits for years to come. That’s if we can get hold of food at all. The people who will suffer the most, of course, are those who already have the least. For them the buying of food will use up a massive proportion of their expendable income.
There are major implications for the nation’s health and therefore, over the long term, for educational attainment and class division. The state of our food supply post Brexit has within it the great potential to make Britain an even more unequal society than it already is.
I make no apologies for being a Remainer. The implications for this country of leaving the EU are appalling. It is a project which should be abandoned.
IMPROVING PRODUCTIVITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
There is an imperative for Britain to become more self-sufficient, not for reasons of petty nationalism or to fulfil some agrarian fantasy of localism but because, without it, in the current political climate, we risk not being able to keep ourselves fed. There are a number of levers that can be pulled.
The consumer and price
British consumers have become too used to food being sold too cheaply. In an age of austerity when many are struggling it is a tricky argument to make, but the fact remains. We need an agriculture sector in a position to invest in its base to help improve our productivity and therefore our self-sufficiency. The 10% of income (down from 20% in 1970) that we spend on food does not enable that. Many may find this unpalatable but the fact is this: unless we improve our self-sufficiency, we will be at the complete mercies of those international markets. Unless we pay a little more now, we risk paying vastly more later. This is an argument that farmers, retailers and the Government needs to engage with.
It does not conflict with my own belief in the EU that I also believe the current EU farming subsidy regime to be extremely flawed. The same view is held all over Europe, and the CAP was always going to be reformed, regardless of whether we stayed or left. Either way it needs to change.
It is a mystery to me why farmers voted in such number to leave Europe. I assume they believed the false promise that the money based on acreage would just keep rolling in after Brexit. I also assume they hoped it would free them from environmental protection legislation. Certainly, both parts of the regime are flawed.
At present we pay farmers not according to outcomes but based on what they have done. It doesn’t matter if buffer areas around farms haven’t encouraged greater biodiversity; it just matters that farmers have created buffers. A new set of environmental protections are needed in which farmers are paid on outcomes: cleaner water, better soil quality, higher biodiversity. They are custodians of our landscape; more of them need to be encouraged to follow best practice and behave as such. There could be a series of front-loaded grants to pay for work needed to produce the outcome, but what is required is the outcome not the activity.
Included in this should be an encouragement away from monocultures and into as diverse a range of agricultural activity as the landscape will allow. Too many of our calories come from too few a set of crops.
Single Farm Payment
This is the greatest blight on British farming. It has enabled inefficient farms to stagger on and, as a result, blocked a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers from coming into the sector. There is anecdotal evidence that Single Farm Payments based simply on acreage have encouraged the rise of the ‘slipper farmer’, which is to say farmers who put their feet up, slippers on, and simply do not farm but collect the subsidy.
The Single Farm Payment was designed for a post-war Europe that wanted to secure a continuous and stable supply of food as a way to stave off conflict. It was there to even out the risk faced by farming be it through disease, weather issues or price fluctuations.
As risk in agriculture is the issue, resources should be directed at managing that through the sort of state-backed insurance scheme used in North America. Farmers should get the support when they need it, rather than in some chronic manner which embeds poor practises and inefficiencies.
In food policy circles the oft-repeated mantra is the need for ‘sustainable intensification’: the ability to produce more food while having a smaller impact on the environment. It’s an exceedingly tricky bit of calculus. Gains made in one corner can lead to losses elsewhere. Large-scale livestock farms can, for example, have a much smaller carbon footprint per kilo yield than bespoke organic farms, but the impact on the water table can be dire.
So carbon footprinting is a blunt tool, but it still has much to recommend it (when combined with environmental subsidy based on outcome, as per above). Anecdotally, producers have told me that the process of engaging with it, and therefore of trying to enable a smaller carbon footprint, has led to greater efficiencies across the food chain. Examining one element of environmental cost leads to an engagement with all of it. The expertise behind carbon footprinting is now widespread. The Government should introduce a wide and easily accessible set of grants for producers both big and small, wanting to engage with the process. A lot of work has been done on this by the equivalent of DEFRA in the Republic of Ireland – Bord Bia – which has carbon footprinted the entire beef industry. There is much the UK can learn from this.
SUSTAINABILITY AND THE CONSUMER
As ever the agricultural sector will, in the end, be led by the consumer. And for the consumer what matters is knowledge. It is my firm belief that, over time, some form of sustainability rating should be introduced on food. We expect to see energy ratings on white goods like fridges and washing machines; why not on our food, given that we spend so much more on it? Such ratings would need to cover two points: the comparative sustainability of a product within its own category, and against others. You need to know which chicken product is the most sustainable AND that chicken is much more sustainable than beef.
Producers would be incentivised to get as good a rating for their food as possible; part of that would be a reduction in waste, and that has to be a good thing. Extending sustainability ratings to retailers themselves would again be an encouragement to reduce waste. It need not be mandatory, but those who refuse to participate would be telling their own story when it comes to the environment and their commitment to it.
Many in the food world, embracing a committed anti-corporatism, will argue for a food policy which encourages localism. There are arguments in favour of sourcing your food from as nearby as possible. In rural areas it is a way of supporting your local economy and your neighbour’s. It also ensures short supply chains. It provides a strong and engaging narrative.
However, do not be fooled by environmental arguments around localism. What matters most when judging environmental impact of food production is the full life cycle: you need to look at the carbon (and other inputs) not just of the trucks getting produce from field to fork, but in the farm buildings and machinery, the fertilisers and the workforce. It involves a large and complex set of metrics. When you do that the proportion of the carbon footprint caused by transport falls to between 2% and 4%. What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 25% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happen to be closer to you.
(The same arguments extend to both urban farming and ‘grow your own’. They are interesting educationally. Allotments are good for mental wellbeing and general fitness. But the carbon footprint of the food produced tends to be appalling.)
Light-touch regulation has, in effect, allowed a set of huge corporations to become custodians of our food supply chain. Scandals like that involving horsemeat suggest it is one to which they are not suited. In July 2013 I interviewed Philip Clarke, then Chief Executive of Tesco .
He made serious and compelling commitments to openness and to his suppliers, recognising that he was running more than just a business. At the very same time, the public was unaware that a criminal investigation was under way into gaping holes left in Tesco accounts and the way they were dealing with their suppliers. In short, the supermarket sector still has to prove it is up to the job it has been given.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator
In a shameful display of political cringing in the face of large corporations, every political party resisted the introduction of a grocery ombudsman to police the dysfunctional relationship between supermarkets and suppliers. Eventually, in 2013, one was introduced and the incumbent has attempted to do as good a job as possible within the regulations as drawn up. But they were written in an extremely naïve manner which showed little or no understanding of the food supply chain.
By restricting themselves just to the relationship between supermarkets and direct suppliers, they ignored the fact that farmers are often at the mercy of the supermarkets at second or third hand (or more): their produce often becomes the raw ingredients for manufactured products then supplied to the supermarkets by one or two or even more links in the chain. And all of those links can be victims of supermarket pressure on price, which pushes down to the farm gate, exacerbating the crisis in British self-sufficiency. It makes no sense. If we are going to protect farmers from short termism then the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator should be extended to the entire food supply chain: i.e. whoever farmers sell their produce to and upwards from there – not from the supermarkets down.
CONSUMER HEALTH AND FOOD CULTURE
The writer Bea Wilson, writing in the New Yorker, made a compelling argument for the health benefits for the British population as a result of EU membership, and the opening of trade in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Even allowing for the horsemeat scandal (which affected the UK food supply chain more than any other), the EU has provided a strong regulatory system which has ensured safer food and higher animal welfare than is the case elsewhere in the world.
By leaving the EU the UK will be forced to open itself up to food production practices that are far less healthy, palatable or even safe. Likewise we may end up importing much more meat produced at a much lower welfare standard than we are used to. In short, Brexit risks exposing UK consumers to much lower food standards than we have come to expect.
Suggesting EU membership has been responsible for a more vibrant food culture is, to my mind, less relevant. Yes, freedom of movement must have made the UK a more open country but, in an increasingly globalised world, it’s likely this would have happened anyway. Shortly before the referendum vote, a round-robin letter was circulated by the writer Paul Levy, and signed by many big names from the food world, which argued we were imperilling our increasingly cosmopolitan society. Compared to the risks of not being able to feed ourselves adequately, the possibility that we might have less access to well-made focaccia is an irrelevance.
Access to a labour force from elsewhere, however, is not an irrelevance. I refer you to my Observer piece on the challenges of getting the harvest in if the free movement of labour comes to an end.
Industry experts including Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation estimate we will need somewhere in the region of 500,000 worker permits a year if we are to keep our current food production active. However, there is evidence that increasing suspicion of xenophobia in the UK, encouraged by the toxic rhetoric in support of Brexit, is dissuading migrant workers from coming here. Why come to Britain when you could go to Spain, and be paid in euros, a much stronger currency which is only likely to become increasingly so?
One of the arguments for staying in the EU given by many in the niche and aesthetic end of the food world is our ability to remain in the scheme that protects traditional products through designations based on geographical origin or recipe.
While I’m obviously a part of that same food world, in the grander scheme of things, these protections seem to me an irrelevance. I am well aware I am in a minority for holding this view, but any certification which codifies a recipe – say, for a Cornish pasty or a Melton Mowbray pork pie or a particular type of cheese – fails to understand the drift of food history: that there is no such thing as an official recipe for anything; that all recipes change both over time and even within our own kitchens. Likewise, defining a product as coming from a particular area is entirely arbitrary. A brilliant Stilton could just as easily be made in Yeovil as in the precisely delineated area that a Stilton must currently come from.
I can see that these are important issues culturally but this, to my mind, is how they should be regarded: as issues of culture, to be passed out of DEFRA to the DCMS.
I find it extraordinary that, in the correspondence inviting me to the meeting of food experts called by you, your colleague Fiona Gately said that Brexit would not be part of the discussion. She later retracted that verbally; said it was of course something we could discuss. The point I made to her then and I make now is that, where our food supply is concerned, Brexit is the only subject. It is implicated in every single aspect of our food supply chain and risks imperilling the very health of the nation.
A few years ago, when discussing food security in the UK, Lord Cameron of Dillington – a farmer and first head of the Countryside Agency – said Britain was just ‘nine meals from anarchy’. It would take just three days of empty supermarket shelves, just three days of meals missed by hungry children and despairing parents, for the country to descend into massive civil unrest.
When I first heard that statement I regarded it as an interesting and diverting piece of hyperbole. Now it feels to me like a prediction.
Of all the things that were said to me when I was researching my recent an article on the importance of migrant labour to our food supply chain, the one that stayed with me most came from Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation: ‘If you can’t feed a country you haven’t got a country’.
Amen to that.
Please Note: Many of the points above are a summary of those in my 2013 book A Greedy Man In A Hungry World.
BIG NEWS. The Jay Rayner Quartet releases its first live recording.
A Night of Food and Agony will be available from 8 September, 2017.
I’m delighted to announce that, after five years of playing our way around festivals and clubs, everywhere from Bath to Ronnie Scott’s, from Pizza Express Dean Street to Cockermouth in Cumbria, making filthy jokes and getting away with most of them, the Jay Rayner Quartet is to release its first live album (a follow up to a slim EP we’ve been selling at gigs over the summer). You can listen to the first track of the album here courtesy of the page for the EP.
A Night of Food and Agony, recorded at the glorious Crazy Coqs inside London’s Brasserie Zedel, captures the atmosphere of our live gigs as I examine the relationship between jazz and two key themes in my life: food and drink, and growing up with my mother Claire Rayner, the renowned agony aunt and sex advice columnist. After all, the lyrics to so many songs sound like letters to an agony aunt. Accordingly, the stories I tell between songs are sharp, and not entirely clean. Or, as Times Jazz critic Clive Davis said in a review of our show, I am ‘the perfect communicator. Sidling up to his audience with a ragbag of jokes and family anecdotes, not to mention an imaginative repertoire’. Apparently I convey ‘the sheer joy of playing and exploring the music’ I love.
It was in The Times; it must be true.
I’m accompanied on bass by Robert Rickenberg, a brilliantly inventive player who rose to prominence with the Sheena Davis group and who has accompanied jazz greats such as Will Gaines and Mark Murphy, as well as pop diva Kylie Minogue. On sax is the highly-regarded Dave Lewis who has played with the likes of Lamont Dozier, Bryan Ferry and Eric Clapton, and leads his own thrilling jazz groove outfit, 1Up.
But what completes the show is the compelling vocal performance from Pat Gordon-Smith, who gets right inside every lyric. In addition, there’s a chemistry between us which isn’t surprising given we’ve been married to each other for 25 years. This isn’t mere nepotism; it’s good fortune. In short I sleep with the singer. Unless she chucks me out for snoring. Pat has been singing longer than I’ve been playing, and trained with the legendary jazz singer Liane Carroll.
Our set lists switch between jazz classics and hidden gems; tracks include ‘Black Coffee’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ and a jazz arrangement of ‘Food Glorious Food’ from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!
The album will be available both as CD and on all download formats.
See the next announcement on my blog for details of our big album launch gig.
Jay Rayner Quartet announces biggest gig to date.
Join us, and special guests, at Cadogan Hall, London on 17 November 2017
So, we are releasing our first live recording, as announced here. And that demands a bit of a celebration. Ours will be at our biggest gig to date, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, at the glorious Cadogan Hall, close to London’s Sloane Square on 17 November 2017. Like the recording it will be a raucous night of food and agony: of songs from the food and drink repertoire and others that draw on my experiences of growing up with a mother who was an agony aunt and sex-advice columnist – because the lyrics to so many blues tunes sound like letters to a problem page.
We’re also thrilled to announce that we’re supported by the brilliant trumpeter and singer Pete Horsfall, a key figure in the renowned Kansas Smitty’s, and an extra-ordinary performer, with a bitter-sweet voice to lift your heart.
Tickets are on sale now, so please buy early and often. We would love to see as many of you who have followed us to this point there as possible. Until November…
There’s more on the album, released September 8, in the post above this on my blog.
Spot the difference: the food pics supplied to The Observer by Le Cinq in Paris, as against mine.
In this week’s review of the Michelin three star Le Cinq in Paris I describe a 70€ dish of gratinated onions as being ‘mostly black, like nightmares’. Have a look at this picture of the onion dish, which ran with the review. It was supplied by the restaurant.
Weird, isn’t it. That’s not black, or at least not entirely. It’s golden, like amber, and rather beautiful. Now have a look at this picture which I shot during the dinner on an iPhone 7, using their available light.
That looks more like the thing I was describing, doesn’t it.
Here’s the thing. When I review a restaurant I book under a pseudonym. They do not know I’m coming until I’m there and sometimes still don’t clock me. I leave, I write my review, and then we send in a photographer to shoot pictures of all the things I ate. Why don’t I just shoot them on my phone at the time? For two reasons. Firstly it would draw attention to what I’m doing there and secondly, while an iPhone 7 camera is good, it’s not good enough for the needs of a quality newspaper and nor am I. We get a professional to do the job. Occasionally the food the photographer shoots looks slightly different to that which I’m writing about, but it’s never been a major difference. (Step inside these parentheses a moment. It’s worth adding that the Observer’s photographer has no idea whether the review they are illustrating is positive or negative and therefore they have no agenda. Many years ago I used to file my whole review to the picture desk, who would punt it on to the photographers. It transpired that the photographers were being hassled by the restaurant when they turned up to shoot as to what the review was like. The photographers didn’t like this and said they’d prefer not to know so they genuinely couldn’t answer. Now I just send a list of dishes.)
This week, though, really is completely different to that which I ate. Why is that? Because the great Le Cinq refused to let us shoot their food.
Apparently, it was too expensive for them to make these dishes just to be photographed. Instead they offered to send us their own PR shots. We felt we had no choice but to accept this offer. As the review has a number of critical things to say we did not wish to give them the opportunity to suggest that we had set out to show them literally and figuratively in a negative light. But hey, I have this website and it seemed a good place to point up the differences.
For sake of clarity I am in no way suggesting that le Cinq did this to deceive anyone, or to gainsay my review the contents of which they had no prior knowledge of until its publication. (I pity the person who has to translate it.) But I do think the difference between the way they portray their dishes and the one I ate is interesting.
And in case you think I just did a very bad job, here’s my companion’s pic of the same dish, also shot on an iPhone 7.
While we’re here, have a few more pictures.
Finally in case anyone is wondering, the Observer has not suddenly had a massive increase in its budgets. Which is to say, the paper did not pick up the entire 600€ bill.
I was due to be in Paris and had not eaten in one of the city’s full on Gastro-Palaces for almost ten years. I was curious. The suggestion of Le Cinq came from my friend in Paris who had eaten there a few years ago, under a different chef. She paid her own bill. I paid half of mine and the Observer picked up the rest (which is roughly at the top end of what he paper would cover on one of my usual reviews).
As you’re here why not have a look at my live shows page. I perform live – both stand up comedy and jazz – all over the country.
Why Michel Roux Jnr may not quite be the anti-Christ
The picture above is of a grotesquely exploitative institution; a living hell, where serfs labour daily and are fleeced of their wages. The presiding overlord, Michel Roux Jnr, should be dragged through the doors and burned at the stake in nearby Grosvenor Square before a braying mob. For good measure I should be tied up next to him.
That, in summary, is my Twitter feed these passed 12 hours or so after I decided to post something supportive about a man I have known for a while, have worked with and like very much, and who has been criticised over his working practices. The reception was not, shall we say, positive.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Twitter is not a place for nuance. It is about black and white. They’re a saint, he’s a sinner and so on. (If you’re interested in the subject of Internet rage try Jon Ronson’s brilliant book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)
The real world, the one outside Twitter and, dare I say it, newspaper headlines, doesn’t work like that. It’s full of murky, smudgy greys; its not just black and white. And personally I think we’re all smart enough to deal with a few of those. So I’m going to give it a go with this story.
Last month the Guardian reported that some of the kitchen staff at Le Gavroche had been paid less than minimum wage. I was head-in-hands when I read this. The month before I had published a column about this precise issue, pointing out that restaurant goers whinge about the cost of eating out while young cooks get paid criminally low salaries. What’s more I had used Roux as an example of a good employer; one who was actually reducing the working hours of his staff to help retain them and improve working conditions. And now…
Nobody should ever be paid less than the minimum wage. I’d go further and say nobody should be paid the minimum wage, but that’s a bigger battle. Roux put his hand up, admitted it had happened in a very small number of cases and that he was making sure that they would be seen right.
Was Roux in the wrong? Yes.
Was it a valid story for a newspaper to cover? Absolutely.
Was Le Gavroche the right target? I don’t think so.
Which is where the shades of grey kick in. What happened at Le Gavroche, if you take Roux’s word for it (which I do), was small scale and accidental. However in restaurants all over Britain it’s systemic. Head chefs give their cooks contracts for 40 hours then rota them for 68 hours knowing they’ll never be paid for it. My email inbox was full of terrible stories when I wrote that column. Note the massive glaring silence from the rest of the industry. They’re all terrified of being found out. No, that does not excuse what happened at Le Gavroche. At all. But if you make Roux the target you’ll be missing the real story, which is an industry full of much worse practices.
Which gets us to the second story: the news that the service charge on the bill at Le Gavroche does not go direct to the staff. The Twitter response is clear: if it’s a service charge it MUST go to the staff and if it doesn’t it’s theft. I have an awful lot of sympathy with that as I made clear when I wrote this piece calling for all service charges/ tips etc to be wrapped up into the bill, as it is in France, Japan and Australia and where the system functions brilliantly. Then staff can be paid a proper wage.
I’m going to put the next bit in caps because people seem to ignore it, almost wilfully: THIS WILL MEAN THE COST OF DISHES ON MENUS GOING UP SO STAFF ARE PAID THAT PROPER WAGE AND ARE NOT DEPENDENT ON OUR MOOD FOR HOW THEY ARE REWARDED. IT REQUIRES A HUGE CULTURAL CHANGE. Please read the whole tips piece linked to above.
What’s clear is that diners have no idea what the term ‘service charges’ means, and who that money goes to. Roux’s argument is that it’s all revenue from which he pays salaries ie that in the end it DOES go to the staff, that he wasn’t robbing anyone. Indeed he’s now going to change the system so the menus say ‘service included’.
The Twitter mob may not like this explanation. As I’ve said repeatedly the whole damn service charge thing is as clear as mud. Could it have been clearer to diners? Of course. But I also have to say this: while I do not know how much Le Gavroche pays its front of house staff, I do know that they have had many who have worked there literally for decades. In a booming restaurant market there are choices and they’ve chosen to stay there. Which is where those shades of grey kick in again. We know that there are restaurant operators who are much, much worse than Le Gavroche, who are systemically ripping off their employees.
But Le Gavroche, being an extremely expensive restaurant (though the lunch is still one of the best value for money in town), is a very easy target. Everyone can vent their fury in 140 characters at a joint that charges £200 a head and feel a smooth burst of rightful indignation. But that’s not the same as hitting the right target.
As I said in one of my tweets that aroused such indignation, I know Michel Roux Jnr to be a good employer. That doesn’t excuse the cock up over low wages or confusion over service charges. But I really do think there are better targets out there. And I decided to be supportive to a mate, because I know exactly what it’s like when the Twitter mob descends. If you disapprove of me for that, I’ll just have to live with it.
Full disclosure. I have been fed for free twice at Le Gavroche. Once in the early naughties by Michel’s father, Albert, when I was writing a history of the restaurant for the Observer, and once a few years ago at a private party. I have paid for every other meal there.
Give the gift of ME this Christmas. It’s what Jesus would have wanted.
As a biblical prophet I am often asked what to give loved ones for Christmas. Even though I am very much Old Testament and therefore pre-date the whole ‘away-in-a-manger-follow-yonder-star’ business.
I recognise that my position as the voice of an almighty that does note exist, except as vehicle for my jokes, comes with responsibilities. It means I must take this enquiry seriously. Therefore purely in the interests of shedding light in the darkness, and not out of some self-serving desire to get as big an audience as possible for my gigs, I thought I would recommend that you buy tickets to my shows for those you love. There are a bunch shortly after Christmas which will be just the ticket. As long as you buy one. And so, in date order:
On January 20, 2017 I’m bringing 10 Food Commandments to Tonbridge, Kent. Tickets here
On January 22, 2017 It’s songs of Food and agony with Jay Rayner Quartet. Tickets here (scroll down to the date.)
On Feb 2, 2017 It’s 10 Food Commandments at the watermark, Ivybridge not far from Plymouth. Tickets here
On March 9, 2017 I’m back at the Acapella studio, Cardiff for My Dining Hell. Tickets here
On March 30, 2017 It’s 10 Food Commandments, in Bristol. Tickets here
There are a v few seats left for each of the 10 food commandments shows on Dec 9/10 at Brasserie Zedel. Tickets here
Er… that’s it. Go forth my children and make it a very happy Christmas.
Why I have had to cancel my upcoming appearance at the Russian Hospitality Show.
I would like to apologise to anybody who was hoping to see my Ten (Food) Commandments show at Russian Hospitality Week in Moscow, over October 17/18. I have had to cancel my trip for reasons breath-takingly beyond my control.
Although I was due to be paid for my work, the company that had booked me believed it would be entirely fine if I slipped in to the country on a tourist visa. As someone who has both written pieces critical of the Putin government, and expressed concerns in public over the current state of democracy in Russia, I considered it less than wise of me to enter the country on anything other than exactly the right visa. Lying to Russian border officials has never exactly been high on my bucket list. By doing so I would also have risked causing major problems for my journalist colleagues on the Guardian and Observer working within Russia. I tried to get the organisers to deal with the issue, but they responded in an extremely half-hearted manner, and made scant effort to supply me with even the most basic information I needed to apply for the correct visa.
This is a long explanation for why I won’t be in Moscow, but I did not want anyone thinking it was a decision I took lightly. All I can say is that if you happen to be travelling from Russia to London at any point in the future do keep an eye on my Live Shows page where you’ll find details of my performances here in the UK.
Landlord that’s trying to rob state primary school of playing fields sees assets rise in value by 20 times rate of inflation.
At some point over the past couple of weeks The Dulwich Estate, the vast south London landowner with charitable status which gives 85% of its expendable money to three highly exclusive private schools, published its accounts to March 2016. The most revealing detail is the graph above, with its accompanying narrative. It shows that in the preceding calendar year the value of Dulwich Estates assets went from £262.5 million to £293.2 million, a rise of £30.7 million or, more importantly 11.7%. That’s almost 20 times the current inflation rate of 0.6%.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I live in the neighbourhood impacted upon by The Dulwich Estate. I have pointed out that its business practices as a landlord, with tax free status, have done huge damage to the local community. You can read my first piece about it here. I focussed on the fact that the chief beneficiaries of the estate are privileged fee paying schools; ones which proclaim a commitment to the local community in which they are located, but which seem incapable of doing anything to stop it being damaged by the charity which keeps hosing them down with cash.
More recently I described how The Dulwich Estate was working to take outdoor space from a state primary, the Judith Kerr School in Herne Hill. I made the point that their only justification for doing this was the commercial imperative of working their assets to the full. You can read that piece here. It inspired a letter to the head teachers of the beneficiary schools, launched by a former Alleyn’s pupil, which has since been signed by nearly 200 pupils and parents, both former and current. You can read that here.
TIME FOR THE RUBBER MALLET: just how bloody wealthy does Dulwich Estate need to become? If its assets are appreciating by nearly 12% a year – or £30 million – does it really need to cash in by robbing a state primary school of its playing grounds? Especially to fund exclusive independent schools? I keep asking the head teachers of those schools what they think about all this but they refuse to comment. Tomorrow is A’ level and AS’ level results day. All three head teachers will be present. Perhaps current pupils and parents would like to ask the question.
Those wishing to defend The Dulwich Estate will point out that the appreciation in the asset is mostly down to rising property prices, over which they have no control. There are two points to be made. Firstly, by ramping up rents they are directly influencing those property prices. And secondly, even if we accept they have nothing to do with it – which I don’t – the fact still remains that their assets are up by 11.7% across the year. No one could ever accuse them of not having worked in the commercial interests of the charity, regardless of whether they take away the play area from the Judith Kerr.
Anyone wishish to look at the accounts for themselves will find them here (PDF). The graph is on page 6 and a detailed breakdown is on page 13. If anyone with a bit more accounting knowledge than me notices anything else of interest please do get in touch.
Headteacher of Alleyn’s gets lesson from his own former pupils, as they rally to the cause of the Judith Kerr Primary
Last week I explained how the Judith Kerr school, a state primary in Herne Hill, South London, was threatened with losing its outdoor playing area in a deal which was designed to benefit three prestigious fee paying schools, Alleyn’s, Dulwich College and JAGS. You can read that piece here.
I wrote to the head teachers of all three schools asking for their response but none bothered to reply to me. Well perhaps they might want to reply to the letter below. It is addressed to Dr Gary Savage, head teacher of Alleyn’s, and is signed by around 100 former pupils (plus a few current pupils and a handful of parents).
The letter makes its case exceedingly well. Meanwhile… if any current or former pupils (and teachers; well why not) of any of the three schools want to add their names to this letter, feel free to use the comments section on my site.
Simply put the word ‘Signed’ and then your name. I’ll get them up as quickly as they come in.
Dear Dr Gary Savage,
I am writing to you as a result of an article I have read which explains how the outdoor space at Judith Kerr Primary School is being threatened by Dulwich Estate (you can read the article here). Open spaces are such an important part of life for growing children, with play contributing so much to effective learning.
At Alleyn’s we were afforded the privilege of having ample space at our disposal. I am distressed to read that our former school could financially benefit from the same charity that may deny other children this right. I am therefore writing to urge you to publicly support the Judith Kerr Primary School Green Space Campaign and to challenge Dulwich Estate’s plan to offer this space to Dulwich Almshouses.
Though I absolutely recognise the value of the Almshouses, I strongly believe that the Dulwich Estate’s considerable property portfolio could offer alternative solutions. Alleyn’s, Dulwich College and JAGS nominate 2 Dulwich Estate trustees each, so out of the 11 nominated trustees in total, the 3 schools nominate 6. If the schools worked collaboratively I am clear that they would have a significant influence over the Estate’s decisions.
Failing that, Alleyn’s should release a statement in opposition to the actions of the Estate. As former Alleyn’s students we feel strongly about the impact our school has on the wider community, and believe it is our duty to ensure that the privileges Alleyn’s students are fortunate to receive do not hinder others’ opportunities.
I look forward to your response,
Asha Verma (School Captain, Duttons, 2011)
Samuel Bailey (Ropers, 2011)
Peter Morton (Duttons, 2011)
Katie Laurence (House Captain, Cribbs, 2011)
Cecilia Clark (Tysons, 2011)
Liz Laurence (House Captain, Cribbs, 2010)
Andy Laurence (Parent)
Nina Anderson (Cribbs, 2010)
Daniel Watson (Browns, 2011)
Lizzy Kinch (Spurgeons, 2011)
Jonathan Mayes (House Captain, Duttons, 2011)
Luke Clayton Thompson (Tulleys, 2011)
Crispin Kenney (Tulleys, 2011)
Martha Day (Hockey Captain, Browns, 2012)
Sam Allen (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2011)
Phoebe Praill (House Captain, Spurgeons, 2011)
Calum Montell-Boyd (Senior Prefect, Bradings, 2011)
Ania Muras Struglinski (Ropers, 2011)
Tommy Emrich-Mills (Vice House Captain, Tulleys, 2011)
Daniel Forde (Senior Prefect, Football Captain, Cribbs, 2011)
Sophie Wyburd (Tulleys, 2012)
Anouska Cope (Senior Prefect, Vice Netball Captain, 2012)
Jamie Baptiste (Browns, 2011)
Zephyr Penoyre (Tysons, 2011)
Sophie Collis (Senior Prefect, 2011, currently a teacher at a state school who sees the need for green spaces)
James Aylward (House Captain, Tulleys, 2011)
Naomi Garratt (Vice House Captain, Tulleys, 2013)
Aaiza Ali (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2010)
Ben Stephens (Ropers, 2011)
Fola Evans Akingbola (Sports Scholar, Tulleys, 2012)
Thomas Morton (Duttons, Current Student)
Claire Hall (Cribbs, 2011)
Faith Locken (House Captain, Ropers, 2011)
Jonah Calkin (Cribbs, Current Student)
Angeli Jeyarajah (Spurgeons, 2009)
Maya Peilow (House Captain, Browns, 2010)
Jamie Miller (House Captain, Tysons, 2011)
Jono Anderson (Ropers, 2011)
Ella Shanks (Spurgeons, 2011)
Jenni Le Pard (Senior Prefect, Cribbs, 2011)
Yasmin Jeyarajah (Vice House Captain, Spurgeons, 2011)
Samuel Young (Cribbs, 2009)
Rosemary Harris (House Captain, Duttons, 2010)
Chris Harris (Parent)
Annie Harris (Parent)
Daniel Unwin (Spurgeons, 2010)
Gabriella Russell (Tulleys, 2010)
Claire Charnock (Tysons, 2010)
Charlotte Sandberg (House Captain, Tulleys, 2010)
James Lawton (Vice Swimming Captain, Lower School Prefect, Bradings, 2010)
Camilla Craker-Horton (Lower School Prefect, Browns, 2011)
Ben Browett (Sports Captain, Spurgeons, 2011)
Hattie Smart (Browns, 2013)
Shadi Brazell (Vice School Captain, Browns, 2011)
William Bissett (Cribbs, 2011)
Jude Mack (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2013)
Jacob Rowe (Vice House Captain, Cribbs, 2014)
Jaleh Brazell (Senior Prefect, Browns, 2016)
Khalil Thirlaway (Vice House Captain, Cadet CSgt, Browns, 2007)
Vera Vorobyeva (Current Student)
William Damazer (Head of Politics Society, Duttons, 2008)
Laura Kelly (House Captain, Spurgeons, 2016)
Anna Broughton (Senior Prefect, Cribbs, 2016)
Connie Castle (Lower School Prefect, Ropers, 2016)
Lucy Peters (Vice House Captain, Ropers, 2016)
Louis Knight-Webb (Bradings, 2016)
Alice McKimm (House Captain, Tulleys, 2016)
Penny Young (Lower School Prefect, Duttons, 2016)
Justin Mann (Tulleys, 2011)
Isabella Robertson (Vice House Captain, Duttons, 2016)
Theo McCausland (Vice House Captain, Bradings, 2012)
Joe Wilson (Vice House Captain, Tulleys, 2016)
Clara Collyns (2011)
Millie (Lower School Prefect, Tysons, 2016)
Ruby Welton (Vice House Captain, Ropers, 2016)
Sophia Dembitzer (Tulleys, 2011)
Alexander Marshall (Cribbs, 2016)
Kim Stallard (Senior Prefect, Browns, 2012)
Joshua Keeling (Senior Prefect, Hockey Captain, Bradings, 2016)
Anna Mymus (Tysons, 2016)
Holly Gimson (Senior Prefect, Spurgeons, 2016)
Audra Chukukere (Parent)
Andrew Mackenzie (Parent)
Lucie Davidson (Duttons, 2014)
Phil Morton (2014)
Josh Bailey (Ropers, 2014)
Lauren Meisner (Lower School Prefect, Tulleys, 2014)
Alabama Calkin (Lower School Prefect, Cribbs)
Haroun Hameed (Vice House Captain, Spurgeons, 2014)
Noah Forbes (Ropers, 2014)
Leo Dutton (House Captain, Duttons, 2014)
Claire Noble (CCF RQMS, Cribbs, 2014)
Emma Waldegrave (Lower School Prefect, Spurgeons, 2011)
Sam Hoiles (2014)
Lucy Morton (Parent)
Sylvie Markes (Vice House Captain, Duttons, 2014)
Brittany Johnston (Spurgeons, 2014)
Catherine Hindmarsh (Senior Prefect, Ropers, 2014)
Rachel Everitt (Bradings, 2011)
Adam Heaton (Bradings, 2009)
Charlotte Ody (Senior Prefect, Tysons, 2011)
Why a state primary school may lose its playing fields to fund Dulwich College (and Alleyn’s and JAGS)
Back in February I wrote about the impact of Dulwich Estate, the huge South London landlord with charitable status, upon the neighbourhood in which I live. It is in the process of ripping the heart out of my local community in pursuit of commercial imperatives that enable it to pay millions of pounds to three well-known and well heeled private schools, Dulwich College, Alleyn’s, and JAGS. I pointed out the irony that all three schools claim a commitment to the local community on their websites. You can read that piece here.
In that piece I briefly mentioned the plight of the Judith Kerr School, a relatively new state primary, which looked like it would be the next to suffer greatly at the hands of Dulwich Estate. That situation has reached an acute stage and is worth looking at in detail.
The Judith Kerr, named after the brilliant writer of The Tiger Who Came To Tea and (many other titles) was established in 2013 on land and in buildings in Herne Hill owned by Dulwich Estate. The landlord has since ‘offered’ a massive slab of the school’s paying fields to another local charity, The Dulwich Almshouses, which wants to build new sheltered housing for the elderly. Dulwich Almshouses, which currently has buildings in Dulwich Village, say they have been looking for a new site since 1931, a mere 85 years.
I have put the word ‘offered’ in inverted commas because it’s quite difficult to work out where the Almshouses end and Dulwich Estate begins. Dulwich Almshouses, which receives over 40% of its funds from Dulwich Estate, operate from the same building as them. Their administration is dealt with essentially by officers of Dulwich Estate. Certainly it was Dulwich Estate who suggested that the land currently occupied by the Judith Kerr be the site of the new Almshouses, should Southwark Council give planning permission. The kids at Judith Kerr currently have only 50% of the recommended minimum outdoor space. If this plan goes ahead it will reduce the amount of open space to just 19% of that minimum.
And why are Dulwich Estate pursuing this plan? They have always been clear that everything they do is designed to realise the greatest commercial return from their assets. They say they are obliged to do so. In short they want to give the land to the other charity to build upon because the financial return is better than leaving it in the hands of the Judith Kerr. And where does that money go? As explained in the first piece, 85% of it goes to fund three private schools.
So just to thump the message home: the plan is to deprive a state primary school of its playing fields to fund three fee-paying schools. Delightful.
Obviously the schools argue that the Dulwich Estate money goes to fund bursaries and scholarships for those who can’t afford the fees. Chapter and verse is in the original piece but a) funding a charitable good is not an excuse for depriving others and b) at least two of the schools use the money for other things.
In June 2016, Joseph Spence, head teacher of Dulwich College, put his name to a letter to The Times, defending schools like his from charges of elitism. The letter claimed that ‘almost all independent schools work with their local communities in a wide variety of ways, sponsoring academies, creating free schools, sharing teachers and facilities, and running programmes in maths, science, languages, sport, music and drama that enrich lives and raise aspirations.’ All very noble, but somewhat at odds with benefiting from a charity that is depriving a state primary school of outside space.
I wrote to the head teachers of all three schools asking them whether they thought the plan was okay, and whether they had expressed their opinion directly to Dulwich Estate. None of them replied. The cruel assumption is that they simply don’t care about the welfare of state-educated children on their patch. Given the silence, the unwillingness to engage, let’s go with that. The alternative is cowardice: they can’t bring themselves to challenge Dulwich Estate because they want the dosh. Maybe you think I’m being unfair. Perhaps I am but nowhere near as unfair as Dulwich Estate trying to deprive the Judith Kerr of its outdoor space. If they do decide to contact me in response to this piece I’ll let you know what they say.
For their part Dulwich Estate claims that they are doing nothing illegal; that the rights to give the land to another body for development were enshrined in the 2013 contract when the Judith Kerr was established. This is true. The Department of Education and the bodies that founded the school did an awful job of negotiating the contract with Dulwich Estate.
This is not a defence. Just because you got away with shoving onerous clauses in a contract doesn’t mean it’s okay to do so. It doesn’t make everything fine. Arguably Dulwich Estate should have seen providing the nascent Judith Kerr with land and buildings as part of its corporate social responsibility. Dulwich Estate are not just landlords. They are custodians of a whole corner of London. They have a responsibility to think broadly about everybody on their land. They shouldn’t just wander off shouting: ‘we are within the law; we can do what we like’.
What of the Dulwich Almshouses? Surely that’s a deserving cause? Well yes, of course, but it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. Indeed, there is a site in the centre of Dulwich, close to shops and amenities. The S G Smith site behind the car showroom already has planning permission for a bunch of town houses. They could develop that site and leave the school playing fields alone.
But then Dulwich Estate wouldn’t make so much money, would it. And the three private schools would, in turn, get less. And that would never do.
Jay Rayner, SE24
Newbury: an apology.
Tomorrow night I bring my show about lousy restaurants, My Dining Hell, to the Corn Exchange in Newbury. I am very much looking forward to it. Tickets are available here and at the link below.
While ticket sales are now well into a healthy three figures, I understand some potential audience members may have been put off by what are regarded as disobliging comments I made about Newbury in an article published on the Guardian website in 2011. Newbury does not forget.
The piece was actually an appreciation of the Swiss cheese, Emmental, which I described as ‘The Newbury of cheeses: it’s solid, workmanlike, but very, very dull. Everybody knows it’s there but few think they have any reason to visit.’ This did result in a few newspaper headlines at the time, and a certain outrage online. Or as my agent put it recently, when they came to marketing the current show, ‘Why the hell couldn’t you just have been rude about Slough? They’re used to it’.
You can read that original article here. I want to say now, and for the record, that the article was not meant as an insult to the kind and interesting people of Newbury. I can also see now that using the word ‘dull’ to refer to Newbury – a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis, with a cultural life to challenge that of Renaissance Florence – was completely and utterly wrong.
I apologise unreservedly.
Apart from anything else I was clearly out of date, a terrible failing for any journalist. As Jeremy Holden-Bell, chairman of the Newbury Society, told the BBC at the time: ‘Historically possibly Newbury was dull, but it’s changed a lot in the past two years. We have our Parkway development opening next month which will bring a lot more shops to the area. We don’t think Newbury is dull at all.’
In my defence, further on in the article I went on to point out that my use of the word was just a first impression and wrong both for Emmental and, therefore, Newbury. While some misguided fools might regard them as lacking a certain glamour, both are industrious work houses, where real work gets done. In Newbury’s case it is a hub for the British tech industry. That, after all, is why Vodaphone has made its home there. In the case of Emmental, it is the ballast upon which that brilliant Swiss dish cheese fondue is built. Without Emmental, a fondue would be nothing.
And so, to say sorry to Newbury, I am today publishing here my recipe for fondue from my forthcoming book, the Ten (Food) Commandments, which will be published in June.
I’m not a total idiot. I don’t think a fondue recipe can really make amends for the great hurt I have caused the good people of Newbury over the years. But I do hope you will take it as a token of my respect and regard. Can I also encourage you to come to the show. As well as taking you on a journey through truly awful restaurant experiences, I will offer the audience a number of opportunities during which they can call me a self-regarding, up-him-himself, snobby, London-centric tosser to my face. Indeed, I would welcome it.
More than anything, I’m just so bloody sorry. Newbury, please forgive me.
RECIPE FOR CHEESE FONDUE
One clove of garlic
300ml good dry white wine
1tbsp kirsch (or other white firewater like Poire William. You could, at a push, use vodka. But DON’T use gin. That would be a terrible thing to do.)
Dijon mustard if wanted
One egg (for later).
Bread cut into pieces.
- Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the cut side around the inside of the fondue pot.
- Gently heat the wine in the fondue pot. Turn down to a low simmer.
- Slowly mix handfuls of the cheese into the wine, pausing to stir until each batch is melted. This could take 10 or 15 minutes.
- In a small glass mix the cornflour into the spirit so it forms a paste. Dollop all of it into the fondue mix, and continue to stir over a low heat. After five minutes it should have thickened. If by any chance it hasn’t, add another half a teaspoon of corn flour (in another half tablespoon of spirit).
- Get a lackey to light the fondue burner on a medium flame.
- Time to season: you can do this with just salt and pepper to taste, though a teaspoon of Dijon mustard (or more if you fancy) will punch it up. It’s your call.
- Transfer immediately to the burner, and eat by spearing lumps of bread on to the fork and dredging. We generally eat it standing up. It’s so much easier to see what’s going on over the rim.