An encounter with the best living food writer.
Andy Hayler has ordered a 2017 Chianti Classico. We’re at a restaurant called Villa di Geggiano in Chiswick, a kind of Tuscan Rainforest Café, complete with en-vined wooden veranda, on his recommendation – a recommendation that, given the long pall of his culinary reputation, I was minded to trust. The restaurant is the London outpost of a centuries’ old Tuscan vineyard, which has been bringing ‘superb wines to the UK from the Villa since 1725’. Hayler is, to put it mildly, a wine guy.
He has been writing about food and drink since 1994. When we spoke, he had just completed the meal that will become the two-thousandth review for his website, the charmingly straightforward ‘www.andyhayler.com’. A few decades ago, he co-founded a software company, and still dabbles in the binary art of data management, but, through a sense of privacy or charity, doesn’t go into it much. One thing that is clear is that it affords him to eat and drink wherever he so pleases. While he’s written for the now-defunct Good Food Guide and Elite Traveler, it’s his eponymous blog that quietly sits as the most important, and most independent, repository of restaurant reviews ever crafted.
Hayler, who tells me he eats out at least four times a week, has a refreshingly austere writing style. Most writing about eating, from the gouty auto-fictional prose of Coren, Rayner and Dent to the terse yet weepy postmodernism of transatlantic food essays, is saying, boldly and often unpleasantly, ‘look at how clever I am’. Hayler’s prose, on the other hand, takes on a sage and calming mode. Nothing here is saccharinely Proustian. In Hayler’s reviews, expect to see terms like ‘pleasing’, ‘attractive’ and the subtly excoriating ‘harmless’. Whole paragraph blocks are dedicated to dissecting the avarice of a particular wine list with the studious efficiency of a scholar perusing crispy old papyrus.
‘If you’re writing something for the newspaper, the objective is to sell column inches with entertaining copy,’ he tells me. ‘I’m not as good as an A.A. Gill ever was, in terms of writing, and I wouldn’t ever pretend I was any sort of fantastic prose master. I’m not trying to throw in a load of stuff about my journey to the restaurant and the trendy people on the table to the left.’
Hayler’s calling card is his ratings system, which is out of 20. It is simultaneously opaque and arbitrary – like all numerical rating systems – and intuitively understandable. Most places seem to fall in a 14–16 bracket; good but not mindblowing. From 17 on is where we get into the premier league. His most beloved establishment, the restaurant at The Ritz (which he has, at time of writing, reviewed 44 times), holds firm at 18/20. To exceed this would place a restaurant in Hayler’s personal pantheon.
When Noma, the de facto ‘best restaurant in the world’, announced its closure at the start of the year, the Guardian asked if we were witnessing ‘the death of fine dining’. The mind-bending cost of keeping an operation like Noma open meant that even a restaurant with a waiting list as long as the Domesday Book, and a £400 tasting menu, could no longer keep the wheels on the road. Noma cut no corners on ingredients, but, as Hayler tells me, that’s not the case for everyone.
‘In London, even at multi-star restaurants, you’ll see some very ordinary quality ingredients. If there’s a caviar supplier, it won’t be the best caviar. If it’s a scallop, it’ll be a smaller scallop. If it’s a turbot, it’ll be two kilograms instead of eight kilograms. It just goes on and on and on.’
Given the vastness of his dining experience, he’s something of an expert in all things produce and plonk. He holds a level three WSET award in wines: a level, he tells me, higher than many sommeliers are trained to. He gets quite animated about the relative quality of cabbages and caviar – his culinary bullshit detector is incredibly finely tuned.
‘If you’re going to choose a three-star restaurant, don’t for the love of God go to one in the UK for your first,’ he says. ‘I’m not going to get into slagging off a particular restaurant but there’s a three-star place in London where I know, for a fact – because I know some of the suppliers – that they just won’t pay top dollar for the best products.’
While much is made of Michelin stars on Hayler’s site, he’s far from an acolyte of the brand. His site still makes the claim that he’s been to every three-starred restaurant in the world – true, until the pandemic – but, he tells me, this isn’t an ongoing milestone he’s likely to continue.
‘Essentially, every Michelin Guide outside of Europe and Japan now is paid for by a tourist board. Their Thailand guide, for instance, I think it was maybe $5 million for a three-year contract. That creates something of a conflict of interest. Because if someone hands you millions and says, “write a guide to my place”, well, you’re not going to go, “actually, none of your restaurants are any good”. So, there is an obligation, almost, to fill it up with stars. In Shanghai, I went to every two-star restaurant, plus the three stars at the time… they weren’t of that standard, they just weren’t.’
At Villa di Geggiano, we start, in the proper fashion, with primi. Hayler orders a wild boar pappardelle, while I opt for the cacio e pepe. My instinct is to use a mixture of overwrought clichés and crap metaphors to describe it, something like: ‘It’s unctuously heady and cheesy, akin to a drunken Cha Cha Slide at your sister’s wedding.’ But that would not be in the spirit of things. I need to think like Hayler.
The cacio e pepe was pleasant, with a strong cheese flavour, if a little lacking in peppery bite.
That’s more like it. But what to give it out of 20… My heart says 14, but my head says 13 – the bucatini was a bit too al dente for my liking.
The cacio e pepe was pleasant, with a strong cheese flavour, if a little lacking in peppery bite. The bucatini, though flavoursome and of quality, was a little too al dente (13/20).
The head wins out, as it should. This is quite liberating.
Back to the conversation. Hayler tells me that he hasn’t always eaten with such largesse. ‘I grew up in Somerset and my mother was the worst cook in the world. She’s passed away now so she won’t be offended by that but, essentially, food was not a thing in our family at all.’
His gastronomic awakening came with a visit to Joël Robuchon’s Jamin in Paris. A life-changing experience. ‘I read about this restaurant, and I actually went there thinking that it probably wouldn’t be that much better than the stuff in London. It was by an enormous margin the best food I’d ever eaten. I started to go back to Jamin twice a year until it closed. Then I looked for other places of that level, which turned out to be very hard.’
This is an agreeable, homely anecdote that gives you a sense of how Andy’s food obsession came to be. (14/20)
The mains arrive. For me, roasted chicken supreme with grilled vegetables and green peppercorn sauce (12/20, bit dry, slightly uninspired presentation) and for him a courgette flower and ricotta risotto. We get onto one of Hayler’s biggest bugbears – extortionate wine pricing. In his review of Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, he spends more than 700 words auditing the absurd markups found in their wine list. In his own words:
‘… three times retail price on average is plenty enough [to make a profit] fora typical UK fine dining restaurant, and much beyond that level is crossing a line into daylight robbery. Much of this particular list not only crosses that line but does a little dance and then heads far beyond that line into the middle distance, thumbing its nose at the customers as it does so.’
It’s an unusually vociferous passage for a Hayler review, but it speaks to the problem with these places: it’s near impossible to turn a buck. The insane, Noma-smashing price of operating fine dining establishments begs a question from me – what, at the end of the day, is the point of all this?
‘Every restaurant, at whatever level, is a luxury,’ he says. ‘The purpose of a restaurant is to give you pleasure. That’s literally what it is. No one has to go to a restaurant.’
We both get a tiramisu and a dessert wine. Now sated, Hayler divulges that Villa di Geggiano used to have a hellraising lodger who, after debauched nights out, would stumble back upstairs and ask the staff to pay the irate taxi driver who would inevitably be waiting outside, with the meter very much still running. The lodger was the son of a prominent British chef, whose name I am bound to omit.
As soon as I turned the recorder off, Hayler transformed slightly, conspiratorially telling me historical fine dining gossip, stories of uncompromising, miserly chefs and coffee producers getting shaken down Mob-style. He did not swear once during our interview, but now the ‘piss’ and ‘shit’ was flying – even sneaking in a ‘cunt’ towards the end.
This was a great way to end the lunch, though I wish more of it could have been on the record. (17/20)
Because Hayler’s writing is so devoid of ego, the idea that he does this for the love of eating is more resonant. Of course, you cannot become a food writer of any calibre or note without living the life of a gourmand. But pervading almost all food writing, and food discourse, is the dreadful mark of the vain individual. It is, ostensibly, about the cuisine, the people and the culture. Really, though, like everything, food writing ends up being about the writer themselves. Hayler, on the other hand, is a vessel of wisdom, not mere opinion – our own Michelin man.