Is The Kitchen Cabinet smug? Food critic Jay Rayner defends the BBC Radio 4 show

The presenter thinks Jamie Oliver is clever — but is less keen on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. So how good is food on television really?

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The contents of Jay Rayner’s kitchen cabinet are a little disappointing. “It’s just old crockery,” he says, as we peer through the gloom of his south London kitchen to the plates and bowls within.

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On the other hand, Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, Rayner’s weekly show about food – a sort of Gardener’s Question Time for the culinary-minded – is full of things that people like so much that it’s in its tenth series and doing rather well.

Though perhaps not quite as well as the 49-year-old food writer, broadcaster, occasional jazz pianist and restaurant reviewer suggests. “Over two million people listen to Kitchen Cabinet,” he says. “And that’s a conservative figure.”

Two million? “Yes, the Saturday slot gets between 900,000 and 1.1 million. The Tuesday slot 600,000.”  And the other 400,000? “Oh, we get that off-broadcast.” Seeing I’m not entirely convinced, he says, “Radio audience figures are not as brilliantly done as TV. It tends to be little old ladies.”

Before I can ascertain exactly what the little old ladies have to do with it, Rayner has moved on to food on TV. He likes a lot of it: “Bake Off: nice people bake cakes, have an emotional time. MasterChef: people cook stuff and nobody dies.”

But not all of it: “That thing when ITV put MasterChef together with Bake Off and came up with Britain’s Best Dish – Simon Cowell’s company did it in partnership with Optimum and it died on its feet. I auditioned for it.” Did you get it? “I had a very lucky escape. It was just awful.”

He’s a fan of Jamie Oliver’s campaigns – “a very clever man” – and supports the sugar tax. He’s less keen on Old Etonian Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: “He’s just too bloody posh to lecture people on low budgets about the amount they spend on chicken.”

Rayner has recorded “close on 200 films” for The One Show but no longer gets live slots. The last time he looked, “There was Nadiya Begum being brilliant and I thought, ‘If I was commissioning editor, I know who I’d have if it was a choice between the assertive woman from a visible ethnic minority a late middle-aged white man.’ ”

Today he looks as good as a goatee-wearing late middle-aged guy carrying a bit of weight possibly can look, but he was once far heavier. “At my biggest, which was about 2007, I got to a 54-inch chest,” he says. “I was 25 stone with a 45-inch waist. Now I’m a 38-inch waist, and that’s fine.”

He’s always been a big eater. His mother, agony aunt Claire Rayner, and father, the artist Des Rayner, were big eaters as well. “They came from a meagre background,” he says. “They didn’t have much, went hungry and were determined that that would not be revisited on their kids, which led to all of us having weight problems [Rayner has a brother and a sister]. The table was always full. It is a Jewish trait.”

Ask him how Jewish he is and Rayner jokes. “I am culturally Jewish. I identify with noisiness and certain outsiderism. At one point I thought I’d only feel comfortable if I moved to New York, then I realised I wouldn’t like it at all – too many Jews.” Although he didn’t grow up in the shadow of the holocaust, as a child he would notice the camp number that had been tattooed on his uncle’s arm at Auschwitz.

“My mother talked very little about it until later, when I became more interested,” Rayner says of the Holocaust. “She said that when it started coming out there were extraordinary feelings of guilt among the north west London Jewish community. But it was all very much under the surface compared to some of the other households I knew.” 

The young Rayner went to independent school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s in Elstree, but was thrown out in 1983 for smoking dope and found himself all over the front pages. “It solidified my desire to be a journalist,” he says. Though when he did become a journalist, Rayner systematically destroyed any reference to the incident in the cuttings files of every national newspaper he worked at. “The Telegraph, News International, The Guardian, the Mail… everywhere. It’s shameful, isn’t it?”

As well as presenting The Kitchen Cabinet and everything else he does, Rayner is the restaurant critic for The Observer, providing a dyspeptic counter-note to the custard sweetness of Nigel Slater’s cookery pages. “Nigel is warmth and emotion,” Rayner says, as if those adjectives are not to be entirely trusted.

Like The Kitchen Cabinet itself, Rayner can sound wilfully metropolitan. As when, for instance, we discuss whether the British food revolution has reached the North yet. “Ask someone in Selby if they’ve heard of balsamic vinegar, and they’d give you a slap now,” Rayner says of the Yorkshire town. “You’d have to get quite obscure, sort of, ‘Do you know what kombu is?’*, before they didn’t have a clue what you were talking about.”

Rayner defends his show against my charge of smugness. “I don’t think it is. We have endless conversations about tone. One of the obvious things is taking the idea of non-meat cookery seriously [he doesn’t like using the word ‘Vegetarian’]. We regularly have to say to each other, ‘We can’t just take the piss out of this.’ ”

He does take the piss out of some food fads. “Superfoods,” he spits. “What a load of b******s that is.” And he has what sounds like a feud with fellow Radio 4 foodies The Food Programme. “They won’t have anything to do with me.” Why not? “Because I’m not with the project. That kind of mythologised version of food production where small is beautiful. Well, that’s not going to feed the world.”

Given such concerns, whether people eat or not, it must be hard to hold a heartfelt view about the correct consistency of crème brûlée. “No! It’s good to be fascinated by things that are not a matter of life and death,” Rayner says. “If we are angry about sausage rolls or, and this is my personal hobby horse, people serving food on slates rather than plates, then clearly we don’t have that much to worry about. Though, obviously, we do.”

(*We had to look it up. It’s an edible kelp.)

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The Kitchen Cabinet is on Saturday 10.30 am on Radio 4, then again on Tuesday 3rd May at 3pm on Radio 4