We spoke to award-winning Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer, feature writer and broadcaster about his upcoming book My Last Supper and how food and music are intertwined in his life. When not on TV, eating in restaurants or writing books, you can find Jay Rayner playing jazz piano with the Jay Rayner Quartet and gigging around the country. Having always struggled with the ultimate question “What would be your final meal be?” Jay decided to write My Last Supper to showcase his journey through life in food and music in pursuit of his final meal on earth. My Last Supper will be published this Thursday, September 5th, by Guardian Faber and accompanied by a live show which will tour the UK.

For the benefit of our readers could you briefly summarise what My Last Supper entails.

My Last Supper is an answer to the question I have been asked most regularly during my life which is “imagine you are on death row, what would your last meal be?” and I have always said “I would have lost my appetite”. So, in My Last Supper I go out in search of those ingredients and dishes and I tell the story from my own life behind them and threaded through the book is a playlist of the music that would go with it.

In My Last Supper you discuss all your favourite food elements you would serve. If you were forced to choose what would be your cuisine of choice?

One country? Well if I was to be clever I would say Japan but only because it is so much broader than people think. The old line “it’s so much more than sushi” is now a cliché, but having explored Japanese food I realised there are an awful lot of places to go and therefore wouldn’t get bored with Japanese, whereas I think experiences on two week holidays in the Dordogne have taught me I’d get bored of French classic food VERY quickly.

The old thing the British Middle Classes like to go on about is the depth of the French food culture, which to a certain extent it does, but it also has far less breadth. So you know you could go to the Dordogne or the Lot for two weeks and on day one it is confit de canard and lemon tart and day two it’s steak-frites and lemon tart and by day five you are gagging for a Thai green curry.

You are well known for your love of eating interesting animal parts. Is there anything you won’t eat?

The only thing I have come across that I hope to never come across again is salt fermented sea cucumber which I ate in a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. Salt fermented sea cucumber is a little bit like taking a fresh trout and putting it on the parcel shelf of your car on a warm day and leaving it there for a few hours until it’s built up a really thick layer of slime and then licking the fishy slime.

Salt fermented sea cucumber is a little bit like taking a fresh trout and putting it on the parcel shelf of your car on a warm day...and then licking the fishy slime.

Have you ever seen it on any other menus?

No. And the terrible thing is that if I did, I’d probably try it because it was such an appalling memory that there is something in me driven to go “how appalling was that memory?”.

Do you have a signature dish you cook at home?

I find the idea of signature dishes a bit weird…signing your food? I mean there is a whole variety of things I like to cook. I am very happy when there is a large shoulder of lamb braising in the oven for seven hours. The problem with dinner parties is that there is too much cooking. The solution to a good dinner party is to get to a position where you have to do almost nothing.

I do have a braised shoulder of lamb recipe in red wine with chorizo and brown sugar and glaze it with honey under the grill, and the recipe for that is in The Ten (Food) Commandments. Getting that on at about 11am on a Saturday morning ready for 7pm in the evening – that’s what makes me happy.

Do you have a favourite genre of music?

Well I’m meant to say jazz, and I WILL say jazz as I am deep steeped in it. I listen to certain things on a loop but it goes off in many directions because the genres tend to be set by the critics, not the musicians, so music is a hell of a lot more flexible than people prefer to think. There is no doubt that jazz sits at the heart of it but I’m big on the old show tunes as well…I’m jazz hands all the way!

So what’s your favourite musical?

Hmm. They are all my darlings. I’ve done Celebrity Mastermind twice and my two specialist subjects were the musicals of Stephen Sondheim (nine out of 12) and then the film musicals of Arthur Freed. Honestly, I can really bore you, and that’s not a way to start a Tuesday.

What music do you listen to whilst cooking, if anything?

A lot of jazz. One of the problems with streaming is that it has fractured the idea of the album as a set piece. Now, I’ll put up a streaming mix so I tend to find a particular musician I like and go for a Spotify radio based on them, so Dick Hyman, Marian McPartland and sometimes Bill Evans. And actually all three of those could be on each other’s radio stations. But I’ll put up a Spotify radio based around a pianist.

Do you feel you have the same emotional connection with food as you do with music?

Well they are very different things. We have to eat three times a day, I don’t play the piano three times a day. My relationship with them is very different. As a writer, I think I have an ability to access emotion through food which is what really interests me. The emotion with music is one I’m challenging myself with because I came to it late and came to formally developing the skills late – I’ve played for 40 years – and so it is, and I don’t want to use crappy X-Factor language but, ‘a bit of a journey’. So therefore the emotional relationship of the two is slightly different.

Do you play, or have you ever played, any other instruments?

Apart from the piano the only other instrument that I have always thought looked marvellous is the upright bass. I love the sound of it and I love playing with it but also it harmonically and technically underpins everything. I could imagine I would have been very happy as an upright bassist, except for the fact that you have to move the fucking thing around.

I could imagine I would have been very happy as an upright bassist except for the fact that you have to move the fucking thing around

How heavy are they?

Well it’s not like a harp. Never be a harpist or a drummer. The brilliant thing about being a pianist is as long as you manage to get beyond having to bring a keyboard, and I am privileged in not having to do that, I don’t have to carry my piano. The problem is you only get to meet your instrument just before your gig. It’s one of the interesting issues with pianists, the first thing we want to do is be given at least half an hour to sit down and know if it’s got any surprises. My solution to that is my rider says a Yamaha C1 because they are absolutely reliable.

You have a beautiful piano. How long have you owned it?

I’ve had that for about four years. Once my father died there was a legacy and I wanted to get one thing that I looked at and the piano was simply it. I regard it as the last piano I will ever buy. I might be wrong but I can’t imagine why I would want to? It would be pure vanity.

We are big fans of your Out To Lunch podcast. Was there an interview in particular you most enjoyed?

Grayson Perry. Although it’s not necessary for the interviews but the ones that flow most naturally are the ones where we have previous knowledge of each other.  Grayson and I had just enough knowledge of each other for me not to be intimidated by him and to be able to drill him into the chair. He’s a very, very, clever man. I had him on the rocks once in that interview – it wasn’t really the intention as I wasn’t actually there to challenge him – but once we have a guest on Out To Lunch it is because we like them and think they are interesting. But yes, Grayson was a lot fun.

Have you enjoyed creating your podcast format and do you compose your music to accompany the interviews beforehand or do your guests and the topics inspire you?

Well we only have one bed, it’s literally only one piece of music. Actually it is quite a funny story which is, my producer said “We need a bed, we need some stings”. I was going to go away and write something and realised one of the issues with podcasts is using music with copyright. Copyright only lies in melody lines and lyrics and not in chord structures and one of the pieces we (as The Quartet) do is a version of an old Propellerheads song called ‘History Repeating Itself”. I suddenly realised that the bed, the basic underlying music of that, was mine. It’s the underlying music to History Repeating Itself. So yes, the music is literally incidental to Out To Lunch.

On one episode of Out To Lunch you dine with Richard E. Grant in Sartoria and discuss how you played the piano in the Ty Warner Penthouse Suite in the Four Seasons in New York. This was slightly disappointing for you as it was not tuned, are there are any other places you have played with disappointing pianos?

The piano was in a shocking state in the suite. But an interesting question I don’t really want to embarrass the venues! There was, however, a terrible one in Swansea. Probably doesn’t come as a massive surprise.

During a very early major gig at The Kingston Rose we did a series of gigs which were some of my one man stuff for the first half and then jazz in the second. About an hour before the show the power went off across the entire building. We thought we might not be able to do the show. It meant that the temperature plunged by about five degrees and the piano was therefore out of tune. It literally went out of tune under my fingers. There is nothing you can do in these situations you just carry on playing and it impacts across everything. I’ve had a number of pianos that have gone out of tune under my hands.

The solution to a good dinner party is to get to a position where you have to do almost nothing.

You tour both on your own and with a Jazz Quartet. As it’s notoriously difficult to find somewhere to eat late, especially outside of London, do you have a favourite snack or any advice on how to avoid being hungry at night?

There are two stories to tell. When I am touring by myself I am the master of the charcuterie board in gastropubs across Britain. I go in I tell them what the situation is, they say “the kitchen closes at 9pm”, so I get them to agree to do me a charcuterie board. Some are better than others.

Actually, there are three points.

The second point is to give thanks to the extremely hard-working Indian restauranteurs of Britain, for, if everything else is closed, your last hope is the Indian restaurant. At which point be thankful that they are still open and willing to welcome you. I have had quite a lot of post-gig dinners in restaurants that were still serving at ten.

With the Jazz Quartet one of the first gigs we did (funnily enough the same one with the out of tune piano) I walked in to the dressing room and found my guys with M&S sandwiches which is what they laid on as their rider. And I looked at them and said, “We are the Jay Rayner Quartet and this cannot happen”.

And from then on in wherever we are playing around the country I would find a restaurant and even if they don’t do takeaway they fucking would for me. So we’d get food sent in and eat together as a band a good hour before the gig – it’s important to eat well as a band. It’s hard work and a lot of hanging around and all of that but if I’m known for something I’ve got to have clout somewhere!

So what would your rider be?

The rider is very, very simple. My rider is sparkling water, availability of coffee, some fresh fruit and a couple of towels. I’m not high maintenance about that kind of stuff.

Was there any part of My Last Supper you felt difficult to share?

It takes a dark turn. I desperately want the reader to get the punch in the stomach that I think you probably got when you got to the last chapter. In a short answer, yes. Realising that this light, jocular book full of humour was going to have to deal with issues of mortality was very, very hard.

What’s next in store for Jay Rayner? Where can people buy tickets to your show?

At this moment as we are talking, my brain is full of the live show which is built around five of those monologues from the book. It is very much more theatrical than the previous one (show). The live show is what is mainly preoccupying me. The book is published on Thursday 5th September, we open at Cadogan Hall on Monday 9th September, and this morning we’ve just confirmed a date in Dublin for February. You can find tickets to all 12 shows on my website jayrayner.co.uk.

Lastly, please may you recommend a favourite song for our readers via our playlist.

This isn’t part of the playlist of the book because it doesn’t fit in in that sense but if you want to understand what I love about jazz piano go and listen to Gene Harris You Make Me Feel So Young.

It’s magnificent…and if only I could play like that.

Jay Rayner’s book My Last Supper, published by Guardian Faber, will be released on Thursday 5th September 2019 for £11.99. Click the link to pre-order. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

About The Author

Connie Morphet

Connie Morphet

Connie grew up all over the world and spent her uni days in Manchester studying Social Anthropology. Now working as a Social Media Exec in London, she spends her free time eating out, going out and listening to music. All three of which highlight the foundation of EAT HEAR; music and food should be explored together!

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