Lunch with Giles Coren is a unique affair. Sitting inside Pompette in Summertown, which is excellent by the way, he was not the bull-in-the-china shop one might expect given his media demeanour. Composed and self-assured, he could have easily been mistaken for just another restaurant-goer; that is until the nervous giddiness of the owner highlighted the importance of the man and his review. Coren tells me that he always informs the owners of the deliciousness of their food because if he does not, “they will worry for weeks.” With the waiters he becomes a real foodie – a term he certainly does not attribute to himself – discussing the transparency of wine, the gluttonous nature of snails and so on. In fact, this tendency to chat with the staff acted as a general symbol of the man’s personality. It was not clear to me whether Giles’s brain works faster than his mouth or vice-versa, but what often resulted was a stream of ideas, often relatively unconnected, sometimes venturing into dark and taboo alleys. Seemingly interested in everything, in around two hours we cover an impressive plethora of topics, from his time at Oxford to his unexpectedly late introduction to pornography, and everything in between.
Coren is perhaps best known for his involvement in a number of controversies. His Wikipedia page has its own ‘Controversies’ section, for Christ’s sake. I question him about his seemingly uncontrollable tendency to write outlandish things, and his response is, on one hand, as expected: “if you want to have a f***ing great time, you have to turn up the volume.” He uses Piers Morgan as an example, stating: “if you’re a d*** like Piers Morgan, but you ramp it up, you get a massive c***, but he’s incredibly successful… and a brilliant journalist.”
However, this is not to say that Coren is unaware that his rhetoric must have limits. As he firmly puts it, the things he says “cannot be racist, sexist, homophobic.” At another point, he says he does not want to be “the Donald Trump of journalism.” When I ask if he feels pangs of insecurity after being criticised, Coren’s guard briefly drops, and signs of vulnerability appear. “The race thing really beat me up… I look back and wonder if I would have done things differently”, he admits, referring to an incident in which he phonetically interpreted the utterings of a Chinese man on the other end of the phone. He also confesses to occasionally going too far, citing a Twitter spat he had with the former political editor of the Guardian. In this interaction, he informs said editor that “my father [the late Alan Coren] says you f*** little girls.” Not too much concern, though, for it “only slightly spoilt the weekend.”
Given Coren’s unabashed openness, I decide to dig a little deeper into the specific scandals. I enquire about the time he called his son a “fat, little b******” in Esquire, an apparent rare instance of fat-shaming one’s own family member. He exclaims: “You see there is a problem!”. He first lambastes Wikipedia for permitting the surfacing of such flash statements without context. As he clarifies, some people may look upon his son as a “fat, little b******”, but Coren never said that he actually is one. He continues. In that article he also described his daughter as “being skinny as a cricket.” He justifies this by claiming that, in a contrastive sense, he was actually “praising” his daughter for her slimness. As he puts it, whereas his son is “made out [of] cake”, she is “made out of sticks and lego.”
Intimately tied up with all of Coren’s notoriety, and our conversation for that matter, is his remarkably unapologetic inclination to swear. His response is immediately simple: “they’re just good words.” Nonetheless, as with all of his responses, there are layers of complexity that Coren’s mind must explore. He firstly explains that he only swears on Twitter. Why this platform exclusively? Coren adds: “Twitter is a worthless, worthless thing. You, 200,000 people that follow me, should get a f***ing life, go out and get some fresh air. If you want to read me creating great big Roman f***ing sentences, with carefully thought out constructions, buy the f***ing newspaper. If you’re some cheap c***, who is just going to look at Twitter, it’s just going to be f*** f*** f*** bollocks bollocks bollocks, why the f*** should I give you any more than that. Swearing is funny. It’s time to disengage your brain.”
I can’t resist bringing up the infamous nosh-gate incident, a leaked email from Coren to a sub-editor in which the former furiously reprimands the latter for amending his work. He offers a backstory to this saga: “It was just a couple months after my dad had died, so I was feeling particularly angry. It was 1am and I was really very drunk.” What follows is Coren’s both acoustic and behavioural impersonation of a chimp, suggesting the carnal baseness of this email. A particularly amusing moment is when he quotes a section from the letter in which he writes: “I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve f***ing stripped it out like a p***ed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking Jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it.” He informs me that the greatest ambiguity in the email is the relationship between Jesus and the bear, a connection that has no Biblical precedent. He clarifies that in his drunken stupor he missed out a letter: “It was meant to be beard!”. A decade of confusion finally resolved.
Our conversation gradually proceeds beyond Coren’s controversies. Considering that this is my first time meeting the man, it is particularly surprising how open Coren is about his sexual experiences in his youth. Then I remind myself – well, this is Giles Coren, after all. The first thing he notes about his time in Oxford is his “greatest mistake”, that being the fact that he came with a girlfriend. At first, he is characteristically jovial: “I was getting laid, and having gone to a single sex school, I thought that may never happen.” He soon, however, becomes genuinely affectionate: “We loved each other, and she was brilliant, and it was great fun.”
In fact, Coren’s adoration for the people in his past soon transforms into a form of deification. He alludes to another girlfriend: “the most beautiful girl in Oxford.” He then takes ten minutes to recount the life story of a close Syrian friend he had at Keble, breathlessly squeezing in every last detail, often amending minor aspects in order to ensure that I have the perfect, most holistic account possible. There’s no need for Coren to do this: in most conversations a nonchalant mention would have been sufficient. Not in his world. A former English undergraduate, Coren treats the people around him and his memories of them as if they are literary figures, giving them free life through his words. Graduating only thirty years ago, he speaks of Oxford as if it is a distant land, nostalgically reminiscing over the days of ‘pidge-posting’ and wrapped up letters on doors. He is also utterly perplexed by the college family system. “Are you supposed to f*** her?”, he asks of my college wife. Genuinely intrigued, he seems a potty-mouthed incarnation of Evelyn Waugh.
It is interesting that among two food critics – one vastly more experienced than the other – so little is spoken of food. When I ask him if people come up to him and try to speak to him about food, he replies: “I don’t really want to talk about food. I like reading, I like getting an early night, I like f***king, and I like playing with my kids. Two completely separate activities, of course.”
Read Coren’s account of his lunch with Darius in The Times