Jay Rayner

The restaurant critic holds court in Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre. His style is not to Fionola Meredith's taste

For all the quips, jokes and conscious self-mockery with which he decorates his lecture – and make no mistake, this is a lecture, not a chat or a conversation – it seems that Jay Rayner is a man who takes himself, and his own opinions, very seriously.

The controversial restaurant critic is in town as part of the 2013 Belfast Book Festival, to promote his new book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World: How (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About Food is Wrong.

He's a big guy, with a big, forceful personality, and from the moment he leaps on to the stage at the Crescent Arts Centre, luxuriant hair billowing, Rayner asserts himself in a manner that some might call masterful.

It's difficult not to also deem it smug, though perhaps that's down to a little residual post-colonial angst that Rayner summons up in me. (And I suspect I'm not the only one.)

This event reminds me of a community relations conference I attended where the keynote speaker, a self-described 'urban therapist' – swooping in to diagnose and recommend – managed to unite almost everyone in the room in seething collective resentment. Mutual alienation can be very bonding.

Yes, Rayner is, as we say around these parts, full of himself. He has the manner of a man bringing metropolitan knowledge to the benighted provincial masses. Or maybe that's just how he talks all the time. Who knows?

But he is certainly guilty of one crime: he has the nerve – the nerve! – to leave Northern Ireland entirely off his PowerPoint map of where potatoes are grown in the UK. Doesn't he know that potatoes are in our blood? Our very DNA has the texture of fadge.

Rayner's general beef is that while swanning round farmers' markets, and eating locally grown parsnips, and buying raspberries in their proper season may make the middle-classes feel good about themselves, it's nothing to do with true sustainability.

Oh, and the organics-munchers shouldn't get too hoity-toity about GM foods either. We may not like the idea of these mutant crops, and the biotech giants that promote them, but their development could mean the difference between life and death to somebody living in Kenya.

One of the most compelling parts of Rayner's argument is his broadside against stupid black-and-white thinking. As he remarks in his book, 'food politics has long been hidebound by clumsy polarised arguments'. That's true not only of food politics, but of much public discourse today, which often relies heavily on selective truth and hyped-up emotion to make its points.

Normally I dread the questions that follow events like these – there's always someone with a long-winded, painfully right-on agenda – but this time the calibre of the queries is, for the most part, high. (There is a little bit of food-warrior-style carping early on, but Rayner deals with it easily. Masterfully even. I'm grateful to him for that, at least.)

Towards the end, someone asks him: 'If there was ever a sustainable way of eating baby panda, would you do it?' Such a bizarre ethical conundrum stumps the great man for a moment. But only for a moment. 'Probably not,' he says. 'But if you ever do get hold of some really good, sustainable baby panda, do let me know.'