Meet Andy Lynes, Acclaimed Food Journalist
Andy Lynes is a Brighton-based freelance writer specialising in food, drink and travel. A regular contributor to The Independent on Sunday, he has also written for The Times, Sainsbury’s magazine and Waitrose Food Illustrated – amongst many other publications. Well known in the Brighton restaurant scene, we were keen to ask his opinion on what it’s like to be a professional food reviewer, and what tips he would give aspiring writers…
How long have you been in the food industry and where did it all begin?
I became a freelance in 2004 after 20 odd years working for BT because I wanted to write about food and drink. I had no journalistic qualification or experience apart from launching my own ‘weblog’ as we used to call them in the late 90’s which I hand built from html code, it was one of the first food blogs as far as I‘m aware. I also was a founding affiliate of egullet.org which at the time was a very influential online international food and drink forum. Our contributors included Jay Rayner, Anthony Bourdain and Grant Achatz, the Chicago chef who now has three Michelin stars among many others.
Which is your favourite restaurant at the moment?
It changes every week but right now I’d say Hoppers, the Sri Lankan restaurant in Soho. You have to queue to get in, it’s tiny and not terribly comfortable but the food is just fantastic. And it’s pretty cheap too.
Are you secretly delighted when the food stinks, as it gives you something to say?
No, I’m always crushed. I’ll travel a long way to eat so a bad meal is a waste of time and energy. Also, I’ve noticed that readers tend to be more responsive to positive reviews, I’ll get more re-tweets and replies to a rave than a drudging.
What’s the reaction of staff when you walk into a restaurant?
They look at me like they think I’ve got lost on my way to McDonalds.
Do restaurants know you’re coming?
It depends on the circumstances. When I was reviewing restaurants for the Metro, there was a budget for expenses so I booked and ate anonymously (apart from the odd occasion when I was spotted). But unless your name is Giles Coren or AA Gill or any of the other national restaurant critics then very few publications have the money to pay journalists to eat. In addition, I write a lot about the restaurant industry, profiling chefs and restaurants, writing about trends etc and that sometimes entails eating at the restaurant by invitation so I can describe the food and talk to the chefs in an informed way.
Britain was never renowned for its food culture but has that changed over recent years?
From an international point of view, the UK’s restaurant culture is far more renowned now than it has been in the past thanks partly to things like the World’s 50 Best List which has given global recognition to some of our top chefs and restaurants, albeit within an already interested group of people. Certain British produce like seafood from the west Coast of Scotland has been shipped around the world for years, but beyond that, I don’t think there is a wider British food culture beyond restaurants and their suppliers just yet. It’s mostly Londoners comparing instagrams of meals in restaurants they’re never planning to go back to or concerned thirtysomethings bragging about the supposedly poisonous foodstuffs they’re not eating.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
I’m writing this on the train, but I prefer to write in my garden office (i.e. tricked up shed) when I have a deadline hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles.
What question do you find surprising that people ask you about your work?
‘Are you sure you were sober when you wrote this?’ Usually asked by an indignant editor.
Writing your book, Kingdom of Cooks: Conversations with Britain’s New Wave Chefs you must have spent a lot of time working alongside the best in the trade – what is the best tip a chef has ever given you?
I’ve been hanging around and working in restaurant kitchens for over 20 years and have learnt a great deal from how to hold a knife to the best way to kill a lobster. The best tip I ever got was from Richard Guest, then chef saucier at Jean Christophe Novelli’s Michelin starred restaurant in Park Lane and now chef patron of Augustus in Taunton. I was doing a week stage (work experience) there during a holiday when I was still at BT in 1993 and he told me that if I ever gave up my cushy office to work in a Michelin starred kitchen he’d ‘come looking for me’. At the time, I was desperate to become a chef, but I now know just how hard that job is and I’m delighted to have found something that keeps me close to professional kitchens but not actually working in one.
What top tips would you give aspiring food writers?
It’s a very crowded market, you are highly unlikely to get rich or land a job as a national restaurant critic, but if you are really passionate and 100 per cent dedicated to the job, you can make a modest living. And if you love the subject, you will have the time of you life, apart from the boring bit which is actually doing the writing. I give proper advice during my four week food writing workshop at Leith’s School of Food and Wine which starts in April.
Recently you teamed up with Patrick McGuigan and Euan MacDonald to bring us the Industry Top 20 in Brighton. Were you surprised at some of the entries and what are your plans for this in future?
I wasn’t surprised at any of the entries because they are all great restaurants. We hand picked our judging panel of about 120 people for their expertise and knowledge of the Brighton and Hove restaurant scene so I was confident that we’d get places that are really great quality but hadn’t benefited from the sort of national exposure that the likes of 64 Degrees, Silo and Salt Room have received. Our hope is that journalists and the general public alike will be even more attracted to Brighton as a dining destination. We’re meeting soon to plan the future of the event but we’ve learnt a lot from this first one which was staged less than four months from my having the original idea. One thing for certain is that we’ll give ourselves more time to plan and execute, that it will be less stressful and will be bigger and even better next year.