Kitchen porter feature had the recipe for the best writing

I’ve been talking an awful lot about kitchen porters in the last couple of days.

The world of that culinary Cinderella is not one I knew much about until Sunday night.

But, thanks to one of the best pieces of newspaper writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent weeks, I now know a great deal more.

My guide to this uncomfortable underworld was Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who did a shift as a kitchen porter for a feature in its food magazine.

It is a splendid piece, and I have been using it to reassure myself and my colleagues that there will always be a place for great writing – even in this attention-span-of-a-gnat digital age.

Let me share Rayner’s wonderful intro…

I am standing in another man’s shoes, and those shoes are moist. It’s nothing to do with the other man. Most of me is wet by now: there is sweat running down the small of my back and dripping down into my eyes; my trousers are clinging to my thighs, and the pads of my fingers have wrinkled, as if I’ve been in a bath too long, which is curious given they are inside elbow-length black rubber gloves. But the water they are plunged into is so hot my hands, like everything else, are sweating. I am pulling a shift as a kitchen porter at The Ivy, and I am quickly coming to a stark conclusion: these are shoes I am not fit to fill.

What he does here is something to which all writers should aspire.

What he does here – and it’s a message that I have been driving home to reporters, one copy clinic at a time – is paint a picture for people who weren’t there.

With that evocative and mildly disturbing first paragraph, Rayner sets a scene which plunges the reader straight into the humid heart of things.

But his writing goes on to tick every little box in the Wiltshire list of what makes great wordsmithery.

It’s warm, it’s insightful, and it’s personal while also giving a voice to other people – fascinating people.

It told me something I didn’t know, it piqued and then satisfied my curiosity, and – perhaps most instructively for those of us in the regional media – it shone a light on a hidden world.

When I talked to a reporter who was leaving her job recently, one of the things she said she would miss the most was the kind of privileged access we get to people and situations.

She was talking about the ability to speak to chief executives, police chiefs and MPs, but the ability to go behind other closed doors is just as important.

What other jobs, landmarks, sports, people or hobbies hide fascination behind their facades?

I was heartened to be told by an editor recently that her mission for the year ahead was to get the stories of more interesting people into her pages and onto her website.

The day before I read Rayner’s piece, my wife consumed – as she does every Saturday – the Guardian’s Family section.

It’s the only part of that paper she ever reads.

But she devours it – as do I – because it is packed with well-written tales of real people’s family lives.

There’s no cheap magazine sensationalism – just accounts of powerful chapters in people’s lives, told well.

As another reporter rightly told me yesterday, being entrusted to tell such stories is both a privilege and a huge responsibility.

It should also be a source of immense pleasure – both for the writer and the reader.


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