Grilled: Jay Rayner, food critic, The Observer

PRWeek features editor Alex Benady talks to the food critic about covering a murder and shameless celebrities

Jay Rayner
Jay Rayner

What are your feelings as you come into work?
Going to work generally requires me to go upstairs. My overwhelming feeling is usually that I’ve managed to avoid going to meetings yet again.

Why do you do this job?
I regard myself as a writer first and foremost. I don’t eat for a living. I eat for free and I get paid for writing. I am most happy when I am making sense of the world. So I am still really a reporter and could still cover a murder if I wanted to.

As a child I wanted to be…
An actor. I wanted to be on stage but I was terrible. Ironically that’s what I do now.

What is the worst time to pitch to you?
PRs are on me the whole time. I get hundreds of releases but most of them are useless. They are extremely unlikely to influence my choice of restaurant to review.

What is the best time to pitch to you?
Where I am PRable is in the news bites section (of my page). I am after unique, slightly quirky exclusives that are not obvious.

What makes a great story for you?
They tend to be personality led. I want something bey­ond a list of dishes. I need a story or angle that will sustain 1,100 words of narrative. So I need a back story and an angle.

What is your view of PR professionals?
Because I now do live stage work I have a number of PRs selling my work. Whatever anyone says, social media can’t replace a good PR.

Do you have a favourite PR person? Why?
They are all my children. So it would be invidious to make a choice. But good PRs think like a journalist and know what a story is. They also think strategically about placement.

What one thing gets in the way of you doing your job?
My brilliant colleague Marina O’Loughlin (The Guardian restaurant critic) getting to restaurants before me. She’s better at spotting small openings than me.

Is there any subject that you find so boring or offensive that you just won’t give it oxygen?
I had a rant recently on my website about the shameless use of celebrities by PR agencies trying to work a charity angle for free.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction in your job?
As a restaurant critic, it is finding a small, unknown restaurant doing a brilliant job at a great price. It happens maybe two or three times a year. As a reporter it is giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice themselves.

What is the greatest pressure on you?
Marina O’Loughlin, Giles Coren and AA Gill (rival critics). I am in a very competitive and robust industry. Some people just read restaurant reviews. I know that if I am not good, my readers will desert me.

What is your management style: shouter, weeper or supportive friend?
I don’t have to manage an awful lot but I like to think I would be a supportive friend.

Which outlet do you most admire for its news coverage and why?
Right now it’s BuzzFeed UK. I am intrigued by the way it is re-engineering itself to do serious journalism.

What’s in your lunch box?
Warm salad made with leftovers of yesterday’s roast chicken. And an apple. I don’t get to eat out every day.

What is your greatest career fear?
That I will be forced to get a proper job that requires me to go to meetings.

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