Interview: Jonathan Gold Says Los Angeles' Food Doesn't Get The Respect It Deserves

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Jonathan Gold at Mariscos Jalisco (Courtesy of Goro Toshima/Sundance Selects)

A native son of Los Angeles, Jonathan Gold's writing on food has been held in high regard as a definitive voice that captures the city's enormous sprawl and bustling life—a Joan Didion for the taco truck set. In 2007, Gold became the first restaurant critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

"His writing is not just restaurant reviews—he's writing about culture, communities, people, and the experience of living in Los Angeles and appreciating what the city has to offer," director Laura Gabbert told LAist. Her new documentary City Of Gold, about Jonathan Gold and the city he calls home, is out today.

In one of his most celebrated pieces, Gold describes his year-long quest to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, which offered him a cross-section appreciation of the city's cultures and neighborhoods, from downtown to the beach. "The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard" has inspired fellow writers, photographers, and even Thomas Pynchon, who gives a subtle nod to Gold in Inherent Vice. "I was so stoked at that! I was like, 'Thomas Pynchon knows who I am!'" he says. "Can you imagine? Dude!"

Fresh out of UCLA, Gold got his start as a proofreader at LA Weekly in 1982 and bounced back-and-forth between the alt-weekly and the L.A. Times (with stints at California, Gourmet and Los Angeles Magazines along the way). Aside from covering food, he was also a music writer for both the Weekly and Times, being one of the first writers to cover West Coast gangsta rap in-depth. Through his "Counter Intelligence" column, he established himself as one of the most premier gourmands in the country—though he continuously shied away from becoming a larger public figure, even in the emerging age of Food Network and the celebrity chef.

As one would expect, finally convincing him to be the subject of City Of Gold took a lot of prodding. "Jonathan said 'no' to me many times when I approached him about making the documentary," says Gabbert. "One of the ways I convinced him was by [telling him] it'd be a film about Los Angeles through his eyes, from his point of view."

City Of Gold is a thoroughly enjoyable trip around the metropolis and its restaurants (familiar Gold-approved eateries like Jitlada, Guelaguetza, Chengdu Taste and Mariscos Jaliscos, to name a few), and Gold makes for terrific company with his ebullient chatter. Some eyebrows might be raised, though, at what some might consider the film's cheery approach toward Los Angeles' fragmentation. City Of Gold "essentially romanticizes the city's racial and class segregation," writes Inkoo Kang in a dissent for TheWrap.

Jonathan Gold recently sat down with LAist to talk about City Of Gold, his bad habit of procrastinating, Yelp, food listicles, and L.A.'s food culture (which still gets no respect). As we started, he was eating a plate of food from one of his mainstays. "I will not say no to Jitlada's turmeric fried rice. Ever."

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Jonathan Gold: anonymous? (Photo by Anne Fishbein/courtesy of Goro Toshima/Sundance Selects)
Last year you wrote that piece in the L.A. Times about coming out as the previously-anonymous food critic. What came first: was it agreeing to do the movie or this decision to break out from your supposed anonymity?

The movie had started shooting well before I got to the Times [in 2012]. We'd been shooting since 2010, I think.

I mentioned the possibility of that when Davan Maharaj, the editor of the Times, was talking about [me] coming there. And I actually said to him, "They've shot this movie and there's a possibility it'll come out and I don't think it will." But apparently Laura had not given up. [chuckles]

It sounds like you're saying that the film was the tipping point into pushing you to come out. Or were the wheels already in motion for a while?

It was acknowledging not being anonymous rather than it was actually not being anonymous.

People are obsessed with that, I guess. Part of it is the whole mythos of the ninja coming from out of the sky and proclaiming his opinion on your sommelier. You know, it's not Ratatouille. Though it must be said: most restaurant critics in the country do at least attempt to be anonymous. And I still make my reservations under different names, use different phones with different numbers, and I show up late.

They can't really change the food that much when you're in the restaurant, though, and there's not a chef alive who would admit it. But it's true!

Did you have any creative input for the film?

Nah. I didn't pick what restaurants were in it. There were some things in there that I wish had been in there. I certainly was not expecting a significant subplot to be my struggle with deadlines!

I loved that!

Jesus Christ! Can you imagine? When we started doing it, I was telling Laura that filming a writer's life is boring! Because we write! I sit down on my table and I stare into space, I fuck around on the internet, I find books and... there's no drama in that! I wasn't going to give them personal drama, and I didn't want it to be about the death of journalism or the death of newspapers—which is a direction she could have taken it. I wouldn't have been happy with that.

Was it a choice of yours to eventually just stick with the food writing? Why food as opposed to music—which you've also extensively written about—or anything else?

Well, I've always done both. I can get killed for this, but I think in a way pop critics have an expiration date. The whole point of rock 'n roll—and hip hop—is to stick a shiv into the side of the culture of your elders. And then there's a point where you're trying to identify with it a little too much and you just don't get it. Obviously [music critic Robert] Christgau's has been able to do it for a million years. And I think that Ann Powers has this ninja knowledge or feel for pop culture that just keeps going, keeps being relevant. But, for the most part there are a lot of people who start out with rock and then shift to other things. As much as I respect [former L.A. Times music editor] Bob Hilburn, I don't want to end up as this 60-year-old going to Metallica shows.

As somebody who grew up in the Bay Area, I've come to love L.A. I've been here for almost a decade. I was really excited to get away from home. When I came here for college I was just so excited about the prospect of moving to a new city. Why have you decided to stick around in L.A.?

I don't know? At points of my life I've yearned to move to other places. I spent a few months in the Bay Area—basically so I could see every single Flipper show. [laughs] We've all gotta have goals in life. I flirted with moving to the East Village at one point. I did actually move to New York for a few years when I was at Gourmet. But, I don't know, there's something about L.A. that always keeps me here. When I was living in New York and I'd go to Asia to report on something, and there'd be a stopover in L.A. [and] I'd have two hours to spend in LAX, I'd almost go towards the Theme Building and wrap my arms around a palm tree and say, "Please don't make me leave!"

The film, or maybe yourself, show this romantic view of L.A. as being this melting pot of cultures—

I say it's a mosaic. The anti-melting pot.

Do you feel like that's something to be celebrated about it? There's also this dark truth about segregation and discrimination that also exists in that reality—

Oh yeah, it totally does, and I totally acknowledge that. And it tends to be just the first generation, right?

L.A. allows that kind of fragmentation because in a way there isn't that thing in common that brings people together—as people in one space—the way that the subways will in New York. It's petty and probably bad for society, but it's really good for food!

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Jonathan Gold and his brother, Mark Gold, enjoy a meal at Attari Sandwich Shop. (Courtesy of Sundance Selects)

And the fact is, I think the most interesting cooking being done in L.A. right now is by the second generation guys who may have grown up in traditional Chinese, Mexican or Vietnamese families. And then they're making their big break—they're going away, going to cooking school, working at three-star restaurants in France or in New York, and they come back and they look at the possibility of working in a hotel restaurant or opening yet another fancy restaurant for some rich guy. Then they decide that, "Nah I think I'd rather cook my food."

But they do it with all this knowledge, technique and awareness of ingredients and some of the food is just freaking brilliant. Something like Taco María in Costa Mesa you almost can scarcely believe exists. Or even Guerrilla Tacos to some extent. Where Wes Avila's using the same ingredients, sourcing from the same farms and fishmongers as the people who own the super high-end places. But he's putting it on a tortilla and charging $6 for it. And there's something kind of beautiful about that. I'm sure there's some point where he's gonna think that it's less-than-romantic to be selling stuff out of a truck outside Blacktop Coffee—as happy as we all are having it there.

But Los Angeles is such a beautiful place for entry-level capitalism. I don't know how much went into Baroo, but it's in a really crappy mini-mall in a really marginal part of town and nobody on earth would think of doing fine dining there. But [chef Kwang Uh]'s able to open it, do his experiments and get enough people through the door to continue doing what he loves to do, which is cooking that kind of food. And there's something about L.A. that really encourages that kind of creativity. I know the comparison is always with Brooklyn, but I think it's even more than that.

One thing the film touched on was the Yelp culture—everybody's a food critic now. What are your general thoughts on Yelp culture and everybody being able to put their opinions about food out there?

Well I think it's great everybody has their opinion out there on food!

Everybody learns how to play the viola in middle school. They don't stay a viola player, but maybe having played in their junior high school or high school orchestra then they go to hear the philharmonic and they understand what's involved in it. And there may be that thing in criticism. Anybody can write four or five food reviews but doing it consistently is work.

To me Yelp is valuable as a set of data points. If there's a place that opens serving food from Sinaloa in Huntington Park and you look at the review and it says, "I grew up in Los Mochis and this is as close to my grandmother's food as I've ever had..." It doesn't matter if it's good necessarily, but the idea that somebody from Sinaloa is writing about Sinaloan food and how it reflects her own experience... it's not irrelevant.

Have you noticed that there's been a shift in just how the people or the culture in general has appreciated food since, say, Yelp just started taking off?

I'm not sure it has anything to do with Yelp... I think [now] there's a knowledge that there is food beyond your own neighborhood. When I first started doing this, everybody halfway-knew that Monterey Park existed. But not that many people had gone. If they did go, they'd go for dim sum, which is delicious but sort of the easiest meal for a non-Cantonese person to do because you don't have to speak or articulate your needs. They're wheeled by you in a cart, or you checkmark the menu. And now, I think, people do know about it.

You find that a lot of people will [now] make the long drive to go to Chengdu Taste or Din Tai Fung. They are aware that what they are eating is not the best form of what they could be eating. That cultural awareness of people who are other than you I think is interesting. It's not just white folks [at Chengdu Taste]. Koreans and Thais are going there, along with people from parts of China that aren't Sichuan. That's as culturally interesting as any of the rest of it—it's not just introducing white folks to something.

What started your headfirst dive into the world of food and cuisine?

I'm not sure I had it. There was one point I was basically making my living as a proofreader at the Weekly, writing the classical music coverage such as it existed. At an editorial meeting the guy who owned the paper asked if anybody wanted to edit the restaurant issue, and I raised my hand because a) why not? and b) I thought I'd probably be able to take my friends out to eat. I did that and I turned out to be OK at it and I started a column—"Counter Intelligence." Basically within a month of starting that I got calls from California Magazine, where they wanted to try me out to be their critic. And from Ruth Reichl who was the critic at the L.A. Times, then. She was wondering if I wanted to try being the Valley critic for the Times. So I was the San Fernando Valley critic for a while.

Was the food scene up there bustling back then?

Kind of like it is now. They get the same trends as everybody else, but two years later.

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Probably running headfirst into another deadline. (Courtesy of Jerry Henry/Sundance Selects)

A lot of people have commended your writing for being for the everyman as opposed to the snobs who only eat French food and write about Michelin-starred restaurants. Was that intentional? Did you see yourself in opposition to that?

It's strange because I've always written about super high-end food. When I was at Gourmet Magazine I was writing about the most expensive restaurants in the freakin' country. I've always made my pilgrimages to Noma, Alinea in Chicago or elBulli, but people like the other kind of writing better.

And the one thing that I never do is pretend expertise that I don't have. At this point I've probably eaten 1,500 to 2,000 Vietnamese meals in my life but I didn't grow up with it. Somebody who grew up in a Vietnamese family is going to have these primordial memories of their mom's brisket—that doesn't mean that he or she knows more about the brisket, but there's just something about it that speaks to them in a way that it doesn't speak to me. There's always that remove. So I'm not one of those guys who ever talks about something in relation to its authentic form—which I don't think exists anyway but that's another discussion we can have another day.

The journey towards understanding, or at least the illusion of understanding, I think is my theme. When you're talking about that, then anybody can go on the journey. As opposed to somebody describing dishes in such a way that may be completely accurate, but leaves them fixed and without context like butterflies pinned to a corkboard. You can have fourteen butterflies pinned to a corkboard and you can describe them in exquisite detail, but they're missing something.

I think about myself as the fucking Johnny Appleseed of food lists. I started the "40 Great Dishes" for the L.A. Times. Ruth Reichl wrote it but it was my idea. I started the "10 Best New Dishes" for Los Angeles Magazine when I was the critic there. The "50 Best Restaurants in America" thing was mine when I was at Gourmet. I obviously started the "99 Essentials" [for L.A. Weekly]. Now everybody's doing "essentials," it drives me nuts.

No one can steal "JGold 101" though, that one is yours.

No, they can't.

Brilliant move on your part.

Actually that was the paper's. I'm vaguely embarrassed to have my name attached to it. I thought it would be better to have "the L.A. Times'," but I was adamant that nobody else write them but me. So many listicles!

What was your reaction when you won the Pulitzer?

Well, utter shock! A) I was working at an alt-weekly at the time and people from alt-weeklies don't win them b) I was writing about food, and people writing about food don't win them and c) it's the kind of food that I wrote about. The Pulitzer entry has a review of Cut, whatever Laurent Quenioux restaurant was at the time [Bistro K]... But the one that everybody talks about is a review of El Atacor #11, where I spent most of the review talking about something called the "porno burrito." Do "porno burritos" win Pulitzers? I guess in this case they did.

I was happy. It's easy to say that sometimes prizes are superficial and they don't mean much but it's better to win them than not to win them.

Do you feel like that was also a big moment in how people appreciated food and food criticism?

It's not for me to say, but yeah, a lot of people in the food world actually think of that as sort of a major moment—as a validation of the food movement.

Do you think L.A. gets the respect it deserves as a food capital? Or it still doesn't?

It hasn't. There was a point in the early 80's when L.A. was maybe the "world" food capital. It seems weird now in retrospect, but so many of the food movements that would take over came from here. The first "fusion" restaurant, as much as I hate that word, was Chinois. Spago was the first place that was a fine dining restaurant that didn't have the accouterments of fine dining. Comfort food started at a place called 72 Market Street [Oyster Bar and Grill], which was the first place to have $26 meatloaf. The idea of sushi as being more than sushi started at Matsuhisa. So many of the trends that are still the big things in the country and even the world.

And then of the chefs moved away, and a lot of the emphasis on restaurants went towards New York. L.A. has been severely underestimated as a food city for a long time. Lately, I think it's the city that everybody thinks has "excitement." People want to come here. The restaurants here just thrill people who are tired of the innervated four-stage mannerism that's happening in a lot of New York restaurants now. Again, we're the center of a giant and wonderful agricultural region—there's that sort of kinship between chefs and farmers that you don't find in a lot of cities. There's the vast array of communities that exist here cooking traditional foods that... you can get the ingredients, but a chef can go to San Gabriel or Garden Grove and have her mind just absolutely blown by what's available—which isn't so in easy other places.

It's the ease of doing things—the fact that you can open up a restaurant in a mini mall for a certain amount of money, or the fact that you can get a lease on a food truck and spend a few thousand dollars to have one of those vinyl things slapped onto it. Some of the best, most interesting places have started out as pop-ups or food trucks. You don't have to go through the strict kitchen hierarchy that obviously works in France and spills over to New York. The downside of that is sometimes I yearn for one of those super big regimented professional kitchens because some of what they do is absolutely magical—but the freedom from that is like an elixir to chefs sometimes.

City of Gold opens in New York and Los Angeles today. More cities and dates to follow.