My name is Jay Rayner and I’m a pest in the kitchen
There is a moment in the pitch perfect 1987 movie Broadcast News, about the television news industry, which has always spoken to me. Peter Hackes, playing the veteran news executive he once was, confronts the argumentative producer Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter. “It must be nice to always believe you know better,” Hackes says. “To always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Hunter blinks back the tears. “No,” she whispers, “it’s awful.”
Oh Holly, I know exactly what you mean. For here is the ugly confession: in the domestic kitchen, I am that person. I try not to be. I try not to interfere when other people are cooking. I want to be a relaxed, genial soul who knows that other people can cook and that I should just let them just get on with roasting the chicken or making the gravy and be thoroughly appreciative. But if I just happen to be walking through the kitchen and just happen to pass the stove and just happen to notice something isn’t quite as it should be – that, say, the gravy is a thin, translucent outrage – I can’t stop myself.
A friend was admonished for 'trying to edit' a colleague’s sandwich. My sympathies are entirely with the editor
I am a model of politeness. Of course I am. I’ll say something like, “Perhaps a knob of butter would help”, or “Maybe you should turn up the burner and reduce it a little.” Or, “For CHRIST’S SAKE WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU INCOMPETENT NUMPTY?” No, hang on. Those are the words that are actually going through my head while I’m saying the polite things. As dear Holly says, it’s awful.
I know I am not alone in this. One friend told me he had once been admonished for “trying to edit” a colleague’s sandwich. My sympathies are entirely with the editor. His co-worker was doubtless making a truly dreadful sandwich, a calamity slammed between two slices of bread. He was merely attempting to save him from himself. Once, during a TV shoot, I was chastised for my knife skills. When I challenged my accuser, they said: “But you were doing it wrong.” So I do know exactly what it’s like. And yet I still don’t seem able to stop myself meddling in other peoples’ cooking.
I could tell you I only want to help, that I’m doing it out of kindness, but even I recognise I’d deserve a slap for that. Because in truth, the only person I’m trying to help is myself. I’m employed to travel the country in search of restaurants offering good things to eat and sometimes, despite my best endeavours, I fail. I have to eat terrible things. If I’m now standing in a kitchen and can see that, unless I intervene and quickly, I’m going to be made to eat something which is a disaster of a nightmare of a travesty, of course I’m going to attempt to change the outcome. I’m going to work to make things better. It’s who I am.
But there’s something else. Part of cooking’s appeal to me is that it gives us a sense of control over the world around us, when everything else is chaos. We bend ingredients to our will. And it’s very hard to just relinquish that control. Even when you’re wrong. Because sometimes I am. There. I’ve said it. I’m pretty good in the kitchen, but I’m not that good. Put me in a restaurant kitchen surrounded by serious pros and I won’t say a bloody word. But in the home kitchen, most of the time I do know what I’m doing. Still, I recognise I need to come up with a solution to the issue, one that makes everything better for everybody. After much careful thought, I have. It is this: if you’re cooking for me and I’m in the kitchen with you, please don’t screw up. See, it’s really very simple.