Jay Rayner is a journalist and broadcaster, as well as one of the country’s most well-respected food critics (a job he has done for more than 20 years, “it helps that I’m greedy,” he says). He is also the presenter of a podcast that was called Out To Lunch (the premise being that he interviews a celebrity over lunch) but is now called In for Lunch, for obvious reasons. “We’ve been ordering Deliveroo and eating over video chat,” he explains. Given, though, that he eats in the world’s most illustrious restaurants (and even some of those get panned – he once called the food at three Michelin starred Le Cinq in Paris “the stuff of therapy”), does he mind slumming it with a takeaway?
What is your earliest takeaway memory?
When I was a child there was a very good fish and chip shop in South Harrow – I grew up in Harrow on the Hill – and there was a place called Louie’s. Every now and then – probably about four times a year when my mum didn’t want to cook, and it always was my mum because my dad rarely got involved in cooking – my parents would get fish and chips and I’d get spare ribs. These were, in my memory, extremely good. They were a weird shade of orange and their final cooking moment was a journey through the deep fat fryer. But yeah, they were very good, greasy spare ribs and chips — I was very happy.
What about as a student? Where would you find yourself at 2am?
I was a student in Leeds in the mid-80s and there was a great place, and I actually do think it was great, called Theo’s Charcoal Grill. It was right opposite the student building and it did amazing kebabs, in the Turkish mould, with good salads and chilli sauce. The less quality option was the kebab van that used to park outside the student’s union. Not sure how I didn’t get poisoned but they did good samosas. A couple of those when you were steaming after a night in the bar was a very good thing.
What music was playing at the union?
Well, I was listening to jazz a lot then [and now] it’s become a very important part of my life. But at the union… Alison Moyet, China Crisis and The Smiths. There was quite a big goth movement in Leeds at the time, but it didn’t really do it for me.
Were you any good at cooking at this point?
I was probably better than most but that’s not saying much. I mainly learned to cook in my twenties from cookbooks I bought for my girlfriend for her birthday. She’s my wife now… she’d ask for cookbooks, but I was the one who ended up cooking from them. I’ve still got one, in fact.
It’s a Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Cookery by a brilliant woman called Anne Willan. It’s not really got recipes but it’s got method… technique. I still refer to it now.
What’s your most used method or technique?
Almost certainly meat roasting. Like, the perfect roasting time for medium rare, that kind of thing.
Where’s your go-to local takeaway?
The first thing to say is that my original go-to, the one that I loved, is gone. It was a Portuguese piri piri house on Brixton Hill called The Gallery. Their charcoal grilled chicken and their charcoal grilled ribs were always fantastic. (I’ve always loved ribs.) I did say, at one point, if you were to judge my favourite restaurant based on the one I ate from most often, it would be The Gallery. Unfortunately it changed hands a few times, then there was a fire and now it’s gone. I love a Nando’s but it’s not as good.
My happy place is the chicken wings from Mamalan in Brixton Village. Those chicken wings with the chilli oil and the pork and vegetable dumplings, grilled.
Namban is also very good, the ramen travels very well. And I’ve recently become a fan of Bird, which does fried chicken. I like their pickles and their seasonal salads.
What’s the worst takeaway you’ve ever had?
There was a Thai place I tried in Brixton once. It was awful. I once said in a piece that even bad Thai food is still good but then I realised that I was wrong. All I remember about it was that it featured a lot of boiled carrots.
Do you think that your experience as a critic has changed your views on takeaway food?
No, I think I’m just greedy. And that’s useful as a critic – certainly one that’s going to carry on doing the job for 20 years.
How often do you get takeaways now?
Every Friday, it’s a tradition, my boys – I call them “boys” but one’s 21 and one’s 16 – get to choose. In lockdown I’ve managed to recast that as an economic responsibility to support the restaurant industry. We have had a couple of two takeaway weeks.
Have they persuaded you to try something you wouldn’t normally try?
Well, the younger one does have a Domino’s habit.
Don’t we all…
It has to be said, the thing I love about Domino’s is how spectacularly efficient they are.
Are there any places outside of London that you’re keen on?
Yes, let me see… Lussmanns, they’re a small group of fish and grill restaurants and they have a lovely menu with classics that they do for delivery. There’s also Lunya – they have three restaurants, one in Manchester and two in Liverpool. They’re generally Spanish delicatessens and tapas restaurants but they’re doing some great ready meals. The chef there, Peter, is currently doing a shepherd’s pie that uses his mother’s recipe. There’s also a place called East Pier Smokehouse in St Monans in Fife. It’s one of those absolutely exquisite restaurants, you go there for lobster and chips in a cardboard box. They’re now doing takeaway – fish curry, fishcakes, that sort of thing. If I lived takeaway distance, I’d definitely go there.
Season 3 of Out To Lunch with Jay Rayner starts 28th April and is available on all podcast providers