With eating out embedded in our DNA, food critic Jay Rayner advises restaurateurs on how to improve their game.
The Book of Exodus contains very little advice on how and what we should be eating now, if you don't include the whole "manna from heaven" business, which frankly I don't. No wonder my Jewish brethren are stereotyped as a greedy bunch who attempt to elicit love from their children through overfeeding. We carry within us the dismal cultural memory of 40 years in the dessert, being fed nothing but flaky white stuff. Who can blame us for overcompensating with salt beef sandwiches the size of our own head and a pronounced Danish pastry habit?
The lack of Old Testament guidance on matters culinary is unfortunate because boy, do we now need it. In the 21st century, food has been elevated from being that thing we did three times a day to keep us alive, to the status of new religion. A self-appointed priesthood of chefs, adjective-happy food columnists and wellness gurus spouting nutritional cobblers gathered from the planet "superfood" constantly assault us with advice: on what to eat when, on how to have a colon as shiny and new as Gwyneth Paltrow's, on the correct recipes for dishes you didn't realise you had been doing wrong all your life.
Eventually I concluded this priesthood needed a new recruit: me. And why the hell not? After 18 years as the Observer's London-based restaurant critic and, more importantly, 50 years of being seriously bloody greedy, I know a thing or two about food. Not all of them are useful, but I know them. Thus, I have appointed myself your culinary Moses, here to lead you to the edible promised land. There, you'll get a whole lot more than just milk and honey, I can promise you.
I've had some really cool robes made, which do rather flatter the fuller figure. I've fitted myself out with tablets of stone. They're just pizza boxes with the words "Do As I Say" written on them, but they'll do. And then I've knuckled down and written my Ten Food Commandments. Both the book and the one-man show, which I'll be performing in Brisbane and Melbourne in May, deal with the really important stuff. There's a commandment instructing you to eat with your hands where ever possible, because it brings the sense of touch into play alongside those of sight, smell and taste. Plus, eating with your hands is a mark of good character. If ever I see anyone eating a chicken wing with a knife and fork I know we'll never be friends.
There's another on the importance of worshiping leftovers, a relatively modern concept brought about by both the invention of the fridge and the cheapening of food. Once upon a time, food was so expensive that anything not eaten at the first meal was treated with reverence. Now it becomes that "leftover" meal, the neglected stepchild of gastronomy. Leftovers deserve better. I instruct you to celebrate the stinkiest of foods, to covet thy neighbour's oxen – without coveting what each other are eating, food culture would never progress – and to honour thy pig. While I would never deny being Jewish, I have no interest in a God that's such a picky eater he wants me to forgo bacon, sausages and pork scratchings.
My food commandments are a fiercely argued romp through the landscape of eating. And yet, for all the vital guidance offered there, I barely have space to get to grips with the knotty issue at the heart of modern food culture: restaurants. Eating out has become a key part of our identity. We make reservations, therefore we are. What's more, in the age of Instagram and Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp, when everyone everywhere is feverishly photographing their dinner, the key issues aren't just local or regional. They are global. What's driving me nuts about restaurants in London, is driving you nuts in Melbourne or Sydney and driving them nuts in New York and Paris. Welcome to the modern world, with its glorious opportunities to be livid on a global scale. Something must be done. Here then, as my gift to you, are 10 very important commandments directed at restaurants.
Of course you don't need the endorsement of some huge ego-ed, self-regarding newspaper restaurant critic like, well, me. You can big yourself up via the endorsement of anyone you like. But it should be someone you know something about: the emotionally incontinent local food blogger, that beautifully designed but small circulation food mag, your mother if that's all you've got. But please in the name of all that's holy, not TripAdvisor. Who writes that stuff? As long as the company refuses to insist upon a receipt to prove you ate at the restaurant you're commenting on, we have no idea who it is, whether positive or negative. The reviews posted there are the sound of axes grinding, of keyboard warriors furious at their own impotency banging their tiny fists on the hardware. Don't give TripAdvisor the benefit of your reputation.
Bring back the reservations book. Photo: Jerry Galea
Thou shalt not demand my first name when I'm booking a table
You're a restaurant. I don't want to be on first-name terms with you, and certainly not before I've even eaten with you. Booking a table used to be simple. Now, it's just so much admin. For decades restaurants didn't need first names. They had a big book. They wrote down the surname and the time and that worked perfectly. And don't go blaming the computerised reservation systems and their demands. They are not our silicone-chipped, dining overlords. They're pieces of software that you can programme as you see fit. And don't get me started on online booking systems. Filing a tax return is easier. We're going to be on last-name terms only until I decide otherwise.
Thou shalt not put my napkin on my lap
If I want to spill soup on my trousers it's my affair. I don't want you ferreting about down there. If my napkin's in the way on the table just move it to one side. Unless you are irresistibly drawn to my groin. Just say. Quietly. Under your breath. I will hear you. I will understand.
Thou shalt not sit down at my table while taking my order
We all like informality. Lord save us from battalions of old-fashioned starched waiters referring to you as if you're an austere bishop. But there are limits. Don't pull up a chair at my table to take an order, like we're besties. Because we're not. When complete strangers sit down at my table in restaurants, I get very, very anxious. This is not a great way to start dinner.
A 'classic' cassoulet. Photo: Marina Oliphant
Thou shalt not claim your food is authentic
Authenticity is the biggest red herring in the whole of gastronomy. Firstly, authentic is not the same as good, as anyone who has ever chewed on a plate of braised Cantonese chicken feet will attest. (You like them? Really? OK. You can have mine. Knock yourself out on jellified cartilage.) And secondly, all recipes are completely invented at one point or another and identifying the genuine, original version is impossible. In Toulouse, for example, you may find some agreement as to what should go in a cassoulet – white beans, meat – but after that there will be as many recipes as there are restaurants serving it. Who is to say which one is correct?
It's why recent rows over so-called "cultural appropriation" through food – non-Japanese people making lousy sushi, for example, non-Jamaicans putting unlikely ingredients in dishes with Jamaican names – are so bizarre. It's not cultural appropriation. It's just bad cookery, and that's an entirely different thing.
Thou shalt not serve me my dinner on a slate
What's wrong with plates? Plates are brilliant at holding food. Sauce doesn't dribble off the edge of them, and they're much easier for waiters to pick up. Of course, it's not just slates, is it. I've had food served to me on wooden chopping boards, fries plonked into mini deep fat fryers, cocktails in upcycled – read "washed" – jam jars. In a restaurant in Yorkshire, in the North of England, I was once served bread in a flat cap, the stereotypical hat of choice for a Yorkshireman, albeit one born circa 1875. All I could think was: "Is this a second-hand flat cap? If so whose head has been in my bread basket?" Ask a chef who uses these sorts of desperate serving items why they bother and they'll probably say "It's for the wow factor". Listen chum, if your food needs to be served on a slate to make it look appealing, the problem isn't what you're serving it on. It's the food. Slates are brilliant for roofs. Leave them there.
Though shalt not ask me how everything is, unless you genuinely give a damn
I know you were trained to do this. I know it's there in the manual you were given when you started the job. But it's only worth asking diners how everything is, if you really want to know the answer. And we can see from that dead look in your eyes that you don't want to know; that you're terrified we might have a few things we want to get off our chests. If your customers are locked in an intense conversation with each other LEAVE THEM ALONE. THEY DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU. They are probably trying to talk each other into bed. You could easily screw everything up, which is not the kind of screwing they are after.
Thou shalt not walk me to the toilet door
If I ask you where the toilets are, just point them out to me. You do not have to accompany me there. I am an adult. Unless your restaurant mimics the Minotaur's labyrinth I shouldn't have any trouble following basic instructions. What's more I'm skilled at going to the toilet all by myself. It's something I've been doing competently since I was about three years old. What are we supposed to talk about during this walk together? Turned out nice again? Number ones or number twos, sir? Stop it. Stop it now.
Thou shalt serve proper desserts
Oh sure, they read like desserts: there's a mousse, and a semifreddo, with a gravel of granola and some fragmented meringue. But what turns up is just a bunch of creamy things on a plate with broken biscuits and some nasturtium flowers to make it look like the tattooed bruiser of a male chef has found their feminine side. Where are the cakes? Where are the pies and the jewel box wonders of old school patisserie? I'll tell you where: they're being sold by that new stand-alone bakery on the high street; the one opened by the former restaurant pastry chefs who got fed up with being patronised by all the big boys on the grill section up front and decided to go it alone. It's left restaurant dessert sections in the hands of cooks with barely half-remembered panna cotta recipes and a suspicion that dessert is for wimps. Pastry chefs: please come back. All is forgiven.
Thou shalt not send me a customer survey the next morning by text
You're not an insurance company. You're not an airline complaints department. You're a restaurant, a business based entirely on human interaction. If I can boil the experience down to a bunch of boxes ticked, then it has failed. You'll know if I liked your restaurant when I book in again. Have some self-respect.
And there you have it. Ten Commandments which, if followed, will make eating out a much nicer business. And if they're not followed, you know what to do: go eat somewhere else. That really is a commandment.