Jay Rayner, the Observer’s award-winning food critic and judge on The BBC’s “Masterchef,” is living this dream. Moving from cerebral Michelin-starred restaurants to humble burger joints, Rayner eats his way through hundreds of free meals each year.
We sat down to interview Rayner at Advertising Week Europe, where he discussed the role of the professional critic in the age of TripAdvisor and endless food blogs, where any person who has given a 3-star rating on Just Eat seems to count themselves as a critic.
However, Rayner was adamant that “there will still be forms of critic writing columns” in the future, so we asked him how to become one.
“If you can’t write, if you can’t communicate, it won’t go anywhere,” Rayner told Business Insider. “The subject is far behind that. Obviously you have to know your stuff, but you’ve just got to prove that you can communicate, far ahead of any knowledge.”
“You don’t end up doing the sort of stuff I do without having a shamelessly large ego,” he admitted. “I regularly get emailed by people coming out of University or whatever saying ‘I love food, I want to be a food critic. How do I do that?'”
After the interview, Rayner sent us a copy of the letter he sends out about 25 times per year, as a response to the endless stream of wannabe food writers whose emails end up in his inbox.
Here’s the advice Jay Rayner gives to aspiring restaurant critics:
The fact I have written this, should tell you one thing very clearly: the question you have asked is one put to me so regularly that I finally concluded writing a one-size-fits-all response was the way to go.
So… you want to be a food writer/ restaurant critic/ pursue a career in food journalism. You love food and want to find a way to work in that industry which doesn’t involve working in the restaurant business itself. (It may be that you are already a local newspaper journalist or struggling freelance. Forgive the broad brush approach here but the advice I’m about to give pretty much applies to you too.) I don’t blame you for wanting a career in food writing. I love my job, but you mustn’t misunderstand. My job is to write, not to know stuff about food (though, being a greedy man, I do know a lot). Or to put it another way, nobody reads my journalism because of what I know about food. They read me because of how I write.
And that’s the key. I genuinely don’t believe there’s such a thing as food writing; there’s just writing that happens to be about food. If you want to write about food, first you have to learn to write. Long before I was a restaurant critic I was a general journalist. I wrote about everything from murder and terrorism through politics, social affairs and the latest films and books. I started in student journalism and worked my way up, by offering ideas to newspapers. The editor offered me the restaurant column not because he thought I knew a lot about the subject but because he thought I would write entertainingly.
So, to my advice. Learn to write. Become a journalist. Train. Take a course. Freelance. All of that. Write about anything and everything and later on you might be able to move sideways into food writing. But let me be clear: the restaurant critic’s job is very hard to come by. Most of us — me, Giles Coren, Matthew Norman, AA Gill, John Walsh, Tracey McLeod — wrote about anything and everything before being offered the post, and still do. There are fewer than a dozen of those jobs in the country and only a couple pay a proper wage. My column is about 20% of my income. The rest comes from general feature writing/ books/ TV etc. And it has taken me 25 years to get here. There are no easy solutions.
Finally to those of you who asked whether it might be possible to have unpaid work experience with me, unless you are happy to take on the horrible job of doing my cuttings — five years worth of mouldering newspapers that need dealing with — there’s really nothing I can offer you. Most of the time I just sit at my desk, writing. Then I go out to eat. Then I write about it. End of story.
I hope that helps. And good luck,