Obviously food is about taste and texture. But it’s also about the language used to describe it and, more to the point, the way language is violated and trampled upon in the service of a tiresome agenda. On March 3 I bring my show about awful restaurant experiences to The Alban Arena. During My Dining Hell I talk about many things, including menu language (before being joined in the second half by my jazz quartet for songs of food and agony). Ahead of that I thought I’d share a few words used around food – on menus, in its marketing – that really drive me nuts.
Clean Eating – Where do I start? Food isn’t clean, or dirty. It’s just food. It doesn’t have morals. What matters is whether you eat a balanced diet or not. Having a kiwi, kale and avocado smoothie every morning doesn’t make you clean. And it doesn’t make you a good person. It just makes you rather annoying.
Proper – as in a ‘proper pie’ or a ‘proper hamburger’. So help me here. What’s an improper pie? One that tries to put its hand up your skirt while you’re eating it? It’s a meaningless word. What you’re trying to say is that your pie is better than everyone else’s. But presumably you’ve always thought that your pie was better or you wouldn’t be trying to sell it.
Honest food. Another utterly meaningless term. Again it’s an attempt by the food manufacturer or the chef to claim virtue for themselves. As in ‘All we serve is good, honest food’. So tell me: what is dishonest food? Is that the carrot on your plate which keeps you occupied while the rest of its mates nick your car? Tell me about the dishonest salmon. Does it have a criminal record? Arggh.
There are more, many more, and I’ll go into that during My Dining Hell. In the second half it’s time for my jazz quartet, with songs of food and agony. And some truly filthy stories of life growing up with a mother who was a sex advice columnist. What’s not to like?
Being a restaurant critic teaches you to hate. Right now it’s teaching me to hate whacky serving plates. On February 23 I bring my show about appalling restaurant experiences to the Kingston Rose. Ahead of that performance of My Dining Hell, part of my night of Food and Agony, I thought I’d share with you my top five most hated ‘inventive’ serving items. These are generally pressed into service by chefs and restaurateurs who think that using one of them will distract from the fact that the food isn’t actually very good.
And so, in reverse order:
No 5. Cocktails served in old jam jars. Apart from the fact that it’s unpleasant to have your lip locked around something with a lid groove it’s an absurd pose. When the drink inside costs anywhere from £7 to £14, posing as some poverty stricken joint that can’t afford proper glasses is just plain annoying.
No 4. Chips served in mini-chip pan fryers, both round and square. Stop it. JUST STOP IT. I am not four years old. Dolls-house sized versions of big things do not improve the quality of the chips. It certainly doesn’t fill me with glee.
No 3. Bread served in flat caps or slippers. Yes, really. I’ve experienced both of these. The flat cap thing was at a restaurant in Yorkshire, ‘cos of course all people in Yorkshire wear flat caps. All I could think was ‘who’s head has been in my bread basket?’
No 2. Buckets for anything. I’ve had chips served in teensy weensy buckets. I’ve also had spare ribs served in small versions of a household galvanised dustbin. Because, you know, it’s dirty food. Food isn’t dirty. It’s just food.
No 1. Anything at all served on slates. Roof slates are brilliant on roofs. They keep out the rain. They are nasty to eat off. Sauce dribbles off the edges. Your cutlery makes a hard scratchy sound against them. They are terrible at retaining heat. And they make life hell for poor waiters. Oh, and they look absurd. Please just serve food on nice round plates, with rims. They function brilliantly.
Blimey, but I feel better for that. If you want to join the campaign for normal serving items you could follow @WeWantPlates on Twitter. Meanwhile I’ll be talking about all of this and more in My Dining Hell. In the second half I’ll be joined by my jazz quartet for songs of food and agony and telling a few filthy stories of life growing up with a mother who was a sex advice columnist. We’ll sing the blues. Given the things that sometimes happen in restaurants, there’s lots to sing the blues about.
In the meantime, am I wrong? Are these serving items just a bit of fun or the devil’s work?
Add again, if you want tickets click on the link below:
A piece about the jazz singer Ian Shaw, and the work he is doing in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. As it says he launches a charity single on Wednesday.
By Simon de Bruxelles, December 12, 2015
It was dawn, and Ian Shaw was running the gauntlet of riot police surrounding the Jungle refugee camp as he tried to get a badly injured Syrian teenager to hospital.
He had been called by a friend after police had refused four times to call an ambulance for the 18-year-old migrant, who had been hit in the face with a CS gas grenade and a riot shield and was bleeding heavily. His jaw was broken in two places, three of his teeth had been smashed and his lip was split wide open.
As Mr Shaw drove him to get medical treatment the wing mirror of his black Peugeot was smashed with a baton and his passenger seat drenched with blood. The teenager, called Osai, is still recovering in hospital in Lille.
The next night, Mr Shaw was performing at a private party in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, accompanying Sir Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood and Jeff Beck as they sang Christmas carols.
The award-winning Welsh singer is leading a double life, spending half the week on stage at venues such as Ronnie Scott’s, in Soho, and the rest in the mud and squalor of the Jungle.
The unofficial camp is home to about 7,000 migrants and is growing by the day. Refugees, most of whom have fled wars in the Middle East and Africa, arrive to find themselves in the midst of another one.
Hope that they will find sanctuary in Britain turns to despair when they find their journey halted by razor wire, riot police and tear gas.
Mr Shaw, who was twice named vocalist of the year at the BBC Jazz Awards, is angry and frustrated.
He first visited the Jungle in June this year, partly out of curiosity. “I can see the Calais lighthouse if I stand in my bath. I thought I would go and visit this place I’d read about,” he said. Appalled by what he found, he organised fundraising concerts and collected instruments so that the migrants had some way to pass the time. He set up a restaurant providing free food and performed two concerts in the camp. For the past couple of months he has been spending all his free time there.
He said: “I move in the most ridiculous circles at the moment but I can tell you where I want to be the most, even though it is cold and when it rains the whole place is reduced to a fetid mud slide.”
He was there when a fire started by a candle swept through the camp on the night of the Paris massacres. More than 100 tents were destroyed and many of the migrants lost the few possessions they had.
Each week he fills his car with shopping and he has set up a first aid station manned by a refugee doctor in a caravan. He is frustrated that there is no mechanism for the refugees to claim asylum in the UK without first getting here illegally.
“We need a humane way of processing the ones that are most in need, and the ones who are most in need are those who have ended up living on a rubbish tip in Calais, not the ones living in the safety of a refugee camp in Jordan or Lebanon,” he said. “It would not have to be expensive or time-consuming.”
On Wednesday he is releasing a charity single entitled My Brother, because that is how the refugees greet him in the Jungle.
The Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner has launched a scathing attack on PR agencies that use spurious charity tie-ups to secure free celebrity involvement with their promotions – including one recent example involving TV personality Mary Portas’ agency.
Rayner, who also appears regularly on television, used his personal blog to lambast what he called “a less than appealing attempt by some (happily small) parts of the public relations industry to work the charity angle in the service of their clients”.
In the blog post he criticised an agency – which he did not name – that he claimed recently asked him and fellow restaurant critic Giles Coren to make an appearance on behalf of a shopping centre client.
“I am approached by the agency for a major UK group of shopping centres,” he wrote. “They are asking baggy-arsed celebs like me to come down to one of their sites to take part in a skating competition on the rink that is always installed there at this time of year. The winners get to make a donation to the charity of their choice. And because the people involved are recognisable there will be lots of PR opportunities, which will happen to include the shopping centre where the skate-off is taking place. Who are of course the agency’s client.”
He told PRWeek: “I regard it as a clumsy and self-serving attempt to put a veneer of self-righteousness on what is simply a commercial transaction. I notice they never said how much they would actually give to charity.”
In his blog, he gave another example of an approach to host a charity dinner at a lap-dancing club. “The charity knew nothing about it and wanted nothing to do with it. Neither did I,” he wrote.
He argued that such approaches actively damaged charities in the long run because celebrities had finite time available and frivolous approaches reduced their ability to support their chosen causes, telling PRWeek: “CSR is a legitimate business activity, but the acid test of whether a charity-celebrity tie-up is legitimate is whether it is primarily about charity or commerce.”
While Rayner’s blog did not name Westfield as the shopping centre in question in the ice rink example, the centre’s agency Portas has confirmed to PRWeek that it was the company involved.
Approached for comment by PRWeek, the agency said in a statement: “Westfield supports a number of charities throughout the year including long-term partners. This year, as well as supporting Save the Children, we have been exploring a skate-off challenge that would see the winning participant receive £5,000 for their nominated charity and would deliver much needed funds and awareness to charities this Christmas.”
Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, agreed that the practice could damage charities. “If Jay Rayner is correct in suggesting that many charities are often not even aware that they are being used by PR consultancies in this way, then they obviously won’t have the opportunity to have a voice on the event that is taking place in their name, and this could actually be quite damaging to their brand,” he said.
Some mistake, surely? The big, bearded bloke from MasterChef? Is he a jazz pianist too? Well, it’s true that no one would mistake Jay Rayner for Oscar Peterson, but that isn’t the point of this engagingly laid-back show.
The jazz world is awash with stamp collectors and train-spotters, those well-intentioned folk who know the catalogue number of every bebop record made since 1946. What it really needs is people who can engage with a public that is terrified of the j-word and assumes that listening to a Duke Ellington tune must somehow be the equivalent of sitting an A level.
Rayner, a restaurant critic and boulevardier, is the perfect communicator. Sidling up to his audience with a ragbag of jokes and family anecdotes, not to mention an imaginative repertoire, he conveys the sheer joy of playing and exploring the music he loves.
Sensibly enough, he keeps his solos short and brisk and has signed a couple of accomplished sidemen in the double-bass player Robert Rickenberg and the saxophonist Dave Lewis. Rayner’s wife, Pat Gordon Smith, takes care of the vocals. Even if she came slightly unstuck on a daring, bare-bones arrangement of Love and Affection — a Joan Armatrading ballad that would tax even the best vocalists — she was a throaty, bluesy presence elsewhere.
Peel Me a Grape, Dave Frishberg’s droll portrait of uptown ennui, sat alongside the vintage treat Save the Bones for Henry Jones. There were risqué tales, too, of Rayner’s mother, the late agony aunt Claire Rayner, whose daily postbag could give any teenage boy enough neuroses to last a couple of lifetimes.
Herbie Hancock’s hit Cantaloupe Island may have had only a tenuous connection with fine dining, but the band gave it a suitably funky treatment. Rayner is taking the show on the road in the new year.
Settle down. Get a cup of tea. I’m going to have an embittered rant about what I regard as a less than appealing attempt by some (happily small) parts of the Public Relations industry to work the charity angle in the service of their clients.
But first, some background. If you have a public profile eventually you are likely to be approached by the charitable sector looking for help with their cause. This makes sense: people are more likely to get involved with a campaign if a person they recognise is also involved. Sometimes they don’t even have to like them. If they’ve seen them on the telly that will do. Different well-known people deal with this in different ways. Some decide they’d rather not make their charitable work public, which is their right. In my case I was getting so many requests from so many equally deserving causes, big and small, I decided the best way forward was to find one charity – in my case the brilliant foodchain.org; please do click on the link – and dedicate almost all the time I have for fundraising to them. You will see me tweeting about them regularly.
In my experience, direct approaches by charities are always above board, the intentions and motives completely transparent.
But there is another kind of approach, by Public Relations companies on behalf of their clients (businesses rather than charities) which are far less so. It is an attempt to use a charity angle as a means of getting free ‘celebrity’ involvement with an activity and thus, in turn, generating cheap PR for a client.
A couple of example of approaches I’ve had: a new restaurant app is being launched. Will I come and host a charity auction at the launch? Obviously, as the auction is for charity, I will not get a fee. That way they’ve got the involvement of a ‘face’ – not a very pretty one, to be fair; god knows who’d already said no – for free, and they can shift PR pictures to the media which otherwise they would not get. The launch of the app is mentioned in the coverage. Hurrah!
On another occasion I was approached by a lap dancing club. Yes, really. Would I host a dinner at said lap dancing club for a hunger charity, so they could send out lots of PR pics from the event? The charity knew nothing about it and wanted nothing to do with it. Neither did I. Frankly I wouldn’t want to sit down in one of those places, let alone eat off the tables.
And then today, another one. I am approached by the agency for a major UK group of shopping centres. They are asking baggy-arsed celebs like me to come down to one of their sites to take part in a skating competition on the rink that is always installed there at this time of year. The winners get to make a donation to the charity of their choice. And because the people involved are recognisable there will be lots of PR opportunities which will happen to include the shopping centre where the skate off is taking place. Who are of course the agency’s client.
Now then why would a shopping centre want cheap PR, involving famous faces, in the run up to Christmas? Incidentally in their pitch to me the agency did not say what sum would be paid to the charity of my choice. Well of course not, because this notion didn’t start with the charity angle did it. It started with the PR angle. And I wonder: how much will the agency be getting for running the campaign?
Businesses have long been involved in making donations to the charitable sector and so they should. A robust Corporate Social Responsibility policy is an important part of any reputable business’s involvement with society. But they shouldn’t be doing it because it’s good PR. Or at the very least they shouldn’t be doing it with the PR angle first and foremost in their minds. They should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do. The vast majority of PR companies recognise this. They understand what constitutes reasonable behaviour.
But too many do not. So here it is: trying to strong arm people with a public profile into involvement with a campaign because there’s a small pay off for charidee is just plain cheap.
We’ve got to that point in the year when we start to count off the lasts. For us it’s the last JR Quartet gig of 2015, back where so much of it started at the Crazy Coqs, the cabaret venue inside Brasserie Zedel off Piccadilly Circus. Obviously I’m be a fan, but if you haven’t been you really should, if not to see us then to see someone else. It’s a genuine cabaret/ jazz room in the old style. Elbow to elbow it seats no more than 90. The sound’s terrific and the performers are all but sitting on your lap. Except for me, because I know how much I weigh. I sit by the piano.
Start with dinner in Brasserie Zedel, which I regard as a gift to London. Here’s what I said about the place when it opened in 2012, before they’d paid me a penny piece to play their jazz room. Hell, the soup is still less than £3 and there’s a three course menu for £12.50. Follow that with the late show. We’re on from 10.30pm. We do food and drink songs, and I tell filthy stories. One involves my mother and a life size carving in wood of a fan’s penis. Don’t judge me. These are the events that have made me the man I am. In case you’re wondering what we sound like, here’s a recording of Black Coffee (or click on soundcloud panel below).
In the new year we’ll be playing all over the country and you can find out more over on the live show page here.
I’ve just learned that the eBook of my novel, The Apologist, is at a bargain price of just 99p for a few more days. You can get it by going to the books page and clicking on the cover
Meanwhile, here’s some stuff from the original press release, issued at eBook publication last year.
It was the book that predicted a whole political movement, imagined a field of academic study that became a reality and inspired an internet craze. Now the 10th anniversary of the cult novel The Apologist, by acclaimed restaurant critic Jay Rayner, is being marked by its publication for the first time as an eBook.
For politicians the past ten years have been the sorriest decade: Tony Blair said sorry for slavery; Gordon Brown apologised for the treatment of code breaker Alan Turing; Barack Obama asked forgiveness from Guatemala for the way prisoners there were used by the United States in medical tests; and David Cameron apologised for almost everything, including the Tory Party’s demonisation of Nelson Mandela, the homophobic Section 28 and even an ageist remark to an elderly Labour MP.
For award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster Jay Rayner, this outbreak of official penitence was a case of fact aping fiction. His 2004 novel had predicted it all. The Apologist follows the adventures of restaurant critic Marc Basset, who never said sorry to anyone until a chef to whom he gave a bad review kills himself. Wracked with guilt he apologises to the man’s widow, and discovers he enjoys the experience so much that he decides to apologise for everything he’s ever done wrong. He’s so good at it that his talents come to the attention of the United Nations which appoints him their Chief Apologist, to travel the world apologising for the sins of slavery, apartheid, the holocaust and much else besides. This he does by cooking luscious meals – so the book is not just political satire but a foodie romp.
At the heart of the novel is the irascible Professor Thomas Schenke and his academic papers expounding his theory of Penitential Engagement. It was supposed to be satire but in the years following publication Jay discovered that official penitence had indeed become an academic discipline, producing papers with titles like The Age of Apology: Facing up to the past; The Role of Apology in International Law; and Official Apologies and the Quest for Historical Justice. What’s more, many of those papers referenced Jay’s novel.
‘The idea that saying sorry, the thing our mums taught us to do, could become an area of academic study was meant to be a joke,’ Jay says now. ‘But in the past decade it’s become a serious business, with numerous academics building their whole reputations on it.’
The new eBook edition comes complete with an afterword that traces the origins of the novel in the hit US sitcom Friends, the way it launched a cult ‘apologising’ website where thousands from around the world said sorry for their own misdeeds, and how Hollywood attempts to bring the story to the screen were scuppered by the great Brad Pitt–Jennifer Aniston-Angelina Jolie love triangle. ‘Most satirical novels capture a precise moment in time,’ Jay says. ‘But The Apologist managed to be ahead of the curve and predict a whole political movement, which is why I’m delighted that, for its 10th birthday, it will finally be available as an eBook.’
Praise for The Apologist
‘A very funny book about apologies by someone who has a lot to apologise for.’ Anthony Bourdain
‘Worthy of a standing ovation.’ The New York Times
‘It is a brave writer who apologises for his novel in the preface, but Jay Rayner has apology taped … the timeliness of the novel is a terrific coup.’ The Independent
‘Laugh-out-loud funny.’ InStyle
‘It’s difficult to imagine why anybody wouldn’t like The Apologist.’ The Guardian
‘A darkly humorous satire about the emotional state we’re in … like all the best comedy, the novel has a serious point to make.’ Time Out
So the 12th series of BBC Radio 4s Kitchen Cabinet starts recording again next week and as ever we need audiences. The first one – to be broadcast on December 19 for the winter solstice – will be recorded in the Visitor’s Centre at Stonehenge. Tickets are free but you do need to apply for them.
And if you don’t know what I’m talking about – WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
The Kitchen Cabinet is culinary panel show a bit like Gardener’s Question Time, but with slightly looser bra straps. Our panellists are food writers, cooks and generally greedy people; the likes of Andi Oliver, Tim Hayward, Rachel McCormack, Tim Anderson and Robert Owen Brown (and many others). We also talk food science with Professor Peter Barham and food history with Dr Annie Gray. You can listen to a previous episode, From Hampton Court, here . But only for two more days.
During the rest of this series we will be at Tintern Abbey, Reading University, Stoke-on-Trent, Audley End, Sevenoaks and Billingsgate Market in London. I’ll attempt to post ticket info for all of those too.