Hunting for a perfect dining experience is a constant pursuit for Jay Rayner.
The Observer restaurant critic, Masterchef guest judge and author has travelled across the country from his home base in London, experiencing the best – and worst – that the United Kingdom has to offer.
And his appreciation for Highland ingredients led to one of his longest trips – a 1400-mile round trip back in 2003 all the way to the Drumbeg Hotel in Sutherland based entirely on how beautifully the menu read to him.
Unfortunately, it was not one of his best trips – leading to a scathing review in the Observer. “I had a miserable time, and then got in lots of trouble with a very fierce woman!” Jay laughs.
The hotel has changed hands since then – “I take no responsibility for it, they were working very hard to close themselves” – but Jay’s passion for Highland flavours persists.
“I hope what that trip indicated was my enthusiasm for the ideas of the food that’s available,” he said. “The produce that you have up there is so extraordinarily good, you have to work very hard not to eat well.”
His love of Highland food is set to be celebrated when he makes his visit to Inverness this weekend – Jay hosts this year’s Highland Food and Drink Awards on Friday night at the Kingsmills Hotel. “Obviously I’m really looking forward to the awards,” he said.
“I’m privy to a certain amount of information – it’s an amazing line-up actually of producers and manufacturers and food suppliers and what-have-you, so it’s going to be a fun night.”
However, his love of dining in general – and particularly his idea of what a good dining experience could and should be – is what he’ll be discussing the following night, when he brings his stage show The 10 (Food) Commandments to Eden Court.
This is the third one man show of this kind he has written and performed – after A Greedy Man in a Hungry World and My Dining Hell. “When I wrote A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, I knew it was fodder for those discussion panels they love doing at literary festivals – and I hate them,” he explained. “I hate being on them, I hate sitting in the audience of them – they bore me.
“And so I thought the only way I could get out of doing discussion panels was if I came up with my own one man show, and that’s what I did!
“This one [10 Food Commandments] was the first time I wrote the book and the show at exactly the same time. It lent itself to a show – you’ve got 10 food commandments, which gives you 10 distinct elements to the show.
“I use audiovisual stuff on stage as a kind of second performer, so I’m bouncing off video and images and pictures and what have you.”
The show – described by Jay as “stand up for unusually greedy people” – is 55 minutes of him discussing the 10 things he feels are the most important rules to follow in order to get the most out of today’s food, followed by a QnA section.
He looks at a variety of topics – such as ensuring you choose your dining companions carefully, the joy of eating with your hands, and making sure not to mistake food for pharmaceuticals.
He also asks the audience to give their own food commandments. “It’s interesting, sometimes people are just having a rant about the things they hate, and sometimes they come up with ones that are very specific and bang on.
“Sometimes you get people basically bitching about their partners. So, ‘Thou shalt not steal food from my plate because you like what I ordered more than your’s’ – that’s a classic, that one!
“A regular one is, ‘Thou shalt serve thy food on a plate, not a slate or in a slipper or in a mini-wheelbarrow’, which people always approve of because the rise of non-food items being used as serving items have seriously got out of control – I could have done that as a commandment, but I didn’t!”
The main reason that he didn’t is due to the nature of his commandments – in the book, each one is a 5000-word mini essay that mixes its observations with a depth of study. “Even in the one about choosing your companions wisely, there’s a bunch of research on how we respond to people when we’re eating together, so there’s a lot of academic stuff backing that up.
“And actually there weren’t an enormous number of other ones, apart from that plate one, that come to mind as making the cut for the book. The 10 that are there are there for a very good reason, because they really did have more depth to them.
“I have to say, I’m still an old reporter at heart – there’s always a notebook in my back pocket and I needed to feel that there was something to report, let’s put it that way.”
Jay Rayner’s 10 (Food) Commandments comes to Eden Court on Saturday. For more information, go to www.eden-court.co.uk