As the documentary City of Gold shows, the LA-based writer is a one-man cross-cultural bridge – and he sits down with Joshua David Stein in New York
Jonathan Gold, the longtime food critic for the Los Angeles Times and the subject of a new documentary called City of Gold, looks at a menu the same way you might look at an old, mischievous friend. His eyebrows crinkle, his eyes twinkle, his mustache wiggles and there’s a suggestion of a dimple in his ample cheek.
Between the Angelenos, who rely on Gold for his recommendations, and the nation’s food critics who chase his stylistic wake, Gold commands an impressive following. Let’s call them the Gold Diggers.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s the only food critic to win the Pulitzer prize, which he did in 2007. It doesn’t hurt that he, with only a few fellow colleagues like Robert Sietsema, the longtime Village Voice critic now at Eater, has served in the food critic brigade since 1986. That’s when the scrappy punk-rock LA kid began writing his column, Counter Intelligence, for LA Weekly. That’s a literal lifetime for many of his eating readers, which means they’ve grown up with Gold as their Virgil as they’ve merged onto the 405 in search of Indonesian es alpukat, or headed to Torrance to an okonomiyaki parlor in a strip mall that caught Gold’s eye.
It also doesn’t hurt that physically Gold is as recognizable as the Hollywood sign. He’s about as anonymous as donors to the Koch Brothers Super Pac, which is to say: he’s not anonymous at all.
We’re sitting in a quiet corner of a semi-fancy restaurant in downtown New York. It’s 11.45am and Gold had arrived the night before. He’s already eaten at Mario Batali’s new restaurant La Sirena – “It’s really good!” – and went to a screening of his film with its director, Laura Gabbert who joins us for lunch, in Westchester, New York. He was, in other words, ready to eat.
As soon as is possible, Gold orders a bottle of chenin blanc from an organic vineyard in California. The waiter arrives and asks, in a way that isn’t a question at all: “May I offer to walk you through our menu?” For the next five minutes or so, Gold sits patiently as the waiter launches into an extended soliloquy on his favorites. “If you’re familiar with turbot, you may know that it’s a flat fish...” Finally Gold, who knows what turbot is, says: “Before we do anything else, can we get some charcuterie? Let’s get the lardo. Let’s get the trotter and let’s try the rilette.”
Talk then turned to that perennial debate: the differences between where we were, the teeming island of Manhattan, and where he roams, the endless sprawl of Los Angeles. Though a Los Angeles native, Gold lived here in the 1990s, when he worked for the now-defunct magazine Gourmet, and frequently returns. “LA seems to have fewer tweezer food places,” he says, “A lot of the places that I find beautiful in Los Angeles are the ones serving a particular cultural need.”
His columns are filled with odes to what other less mindful critics might call “ethnic” restaurants: Vietnamese com tam joints, Salvadorean pupuserias, a Dutch grocery in Artesia selling Sumatran empek-empek palembang. Though Gold also reviews the glistering belles du jour of LA’s scene, these strip-mall treasures are his bread and butter. Brilliant they are, but ethnic, says Gold rightly, they are not. “I don’t use that word. Everybody is ethnic though nobody will call a French restaurant that. But those guys are as ethnic as anybody else.”
What makes this diversity possible, or rather one of the things that makes this possible, is that space is what Los Angeles has in spades. Communities can expand and flourish nearly hermetically, sealed from outside influence. Those in the kitchen resemble those in the dining room.
“In New York, because it is so condensed, you’re very aware of who’s around,” says Gold, “whereas in Los Angeles, if you open a Korean restaurant, there’s a good chance you’ll only serve to Koreans. That sort of isolation is not necessarily good for politics or civil life, but it is really good for food.”
As City of Gold illustrates, Gold himself is a force for good. He is a one-man gas-powered cross-cultural bridge. The film is full of what he calls “entry-level capitalists” for whom a positive Gold review has made the difference between closure and triumph, between whether a child of a restaurateur attends college or doesn’t. But if heavy is the head that wears the crown, Gold doesn’t seem angsty. Maybe it’s an LA thing, because in New York a white critic for a major paper extolling the food of darker peoples like a tour guide with a silly flag leading a band of visor-wearing tourists might rankle.
It isn’t like this hasn’t occurred to Gold. But, he says, the audience of the Los Angeles Times is so vast, he isn’t simply writing for the hegemony. “If I’m writing about a Cambodian restaurant in North Beach, our readers also include Cambodians in North Beach,” he says. “ If I’m writing about Watts, there are machines on the corner in Watts selling the paper. If I write about a new dumpling place, I tend to drive Chinese traffic as much as anyone else.” Like the restaurants he loves, Gold writes to serve the communities about which he is writing. He’s not a missionary or a social worker. He’s not a trophy hunter or a exotic food fetishist. He doesn’t have an agenda, but he does have an appetite.
The waiter arrives holding a meat-covered cutting board. Curls of lardo, ovals of trotter and schmears of rilette. Gold must have seen thousands of such offerings in his 30 years writing about food. But his eyes still widen. He peers down at the meat with the curiosity of a toddler looking over a ledge. His mustache twitches. His eyes twinkle.
Jonathan Gold says: “Let’s eat.”