I Hope Jonathan Gold Is In Foodie Heaven, Where Sichuan Peppers Numb His Lips And Pizza Crusts Are Never Soggy
There's a thing that happens when you eat with Jonathan Gold. Crumbs disappear off tables, swept up by servers moving with the hushed grace of ballet dancers. Waiters hover in a state of cat-like readiness should you need... anything. The entire menu, from weekday breakfasts to happy hour specials, is suddenly at your disposal. When you're eating with somebody famous, the food doesn't change (a professional kitchen is like a battleship — it can't turn on a dime) but the service does.
"We've been made," Jonathan said, sotto voce, at one such lunch. "No," I said. "You've been made."
For nearly two glorious and waist-expanding years, I was the secondary restaurant critic at LA Weekly. Or, as I liked to introduce myself, "the Weekly food writer who hasn't won a Pulitzer — at least not yet." It was a joke. I knew that if I spent the next four decades of my career writing about food, I wouldn't have produced anything as crisp or clarifying as what Jonathan did in a single review. He remains the only person in the world to have won a Pulitzer for "food writing." But Jonathan didn't actually write about food. He wrote about history, movies, music, geography, art and desire. For all the claims about music and art as "universal languages," only two things unite us all — death and hunger. (And the latter disappears only when the former arrives.) With joy and gusto, Jonathan explored our urge to eat while parsing its endless variety.
Long before the Pulitzer committee discovered Jonathan's talent, hungry Angelenos had already ingested his work.
He had realized years before that unless he wanted to spend the rest of his career covering the 20th best Italian restaurant in West L.A. (his words), he would have to carve a new niche for himself. The way Ed Ruscha photographed every building on Sunset Boulevard, Jonathan decided to eat his way along Pico Boulevard. He savored every restaurant between dowtown L.A. and the Pacific Ocean, treating strip-mall birrieras, Greek dining halls, hole-in-the-wall burger joints and white-tablecloth steakhouses with equal reverence. That odyssey changed the way he saw food, the city and the connective tissue linking the two. His resulting book, Counter Intelligence, became Los Angeles's culinary Thomas Guide. When he wrote about tacos with Scoville ratings that would've liquified my stomach lining, he was like a savant parsing notes in a caterwauling avant-garde symphony, capable of discerning flavors beyond the face-melting heat. It made complete sense to me that Jonathan had studied music history at UCLA before segueing into music and eventually food journalism.
When other people chose to read Los Angeles as a clichéd novella or an overwrought potboiler, Jonathan read it as a sprawling, choose-your-own-adventure. He made the city's nooks and strip malls seem enticing to people who had driven past them all their lives. A good and lucky writer might, after years of work, become an exemplar of their chosen genre. Rarer still are the writers who shatter and reshape an entire genre. Jonathan Gold was one of them.
Like every food writer in this city — hell, like practically every writer in this city — I idolized his words long before I met him. We were introduced years ago at a food festival. His opening line was: "On your behalf, I want to punch my bosses in the face!" I was thrilled because he was right and flabbergasted because I couldn't believe he knew my work. I had applied for the secondary restaurant critic position that had recently opened up at LA Weekly. Although Jonathan had put in a good word for me, I hadn't gotten the job. I had lost out to someone who had no knowledge of the local food scene and almost no professional writing experience but did have one thing I lacked: a penis. Jonathan knew what had happened. His outrage and his support emboldened me to keep going. I was only one of many people in this town to whom he extended a fork. I know novelists, travel writers and journalists he encouraged, supported, mentored and broke bread with (sangak, injera, naan, pandesal, water bagel...). Like so many people in this town, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing without him.
After I finally landed the LA Weekly job, I was always asked three questions: Is Jonathan Gold awesome? Do you get to eat with him all the time? Is it totally amazing? In short order: Yes. No. Yes. I just hoped a little of that Gold dust rubbed off on me.
My mandate was to cover different restaurants than the ones he was reviewing. Between that and a punishing deadline schedule, we rarely got to eat together. I remember a meal where we discovered what we both considered the Platonic ideal of the French fry. I can't recall how long we sat there, extolling the virtues of the humble fried potato. I remember diving into a quivering, garlicky aspic at a Russian restaurant as I regaled him with stories about the terror I felt when confronted with this dish as a child. I remember a lunch where he casually mentioned to the restaurant owner, who had spotted him in two seconds, that it was too bad they weren't serving the selections on their dinner menu. Every entree on the menu began arriving at our table.
2018 is only half over and it has already been a devastating year. Between the deaths of Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain, Los Angeles has lost two of its most enthusiastic culinary emissaries. I don't know how much Jonathan cared about public adulation, but I hope he knew how many people he influenced. I hope he knew how much he was loved by people who, like me, barely knew him. I hope he is in foodie heaven, a land where Sichuan peppers numb his lips and pizza crusts are never soggy, where the ceviche, yedoro wot, samgyeopsal and gai pad prik gaeng are always on point, where each taco is a revelation and every bite of burger, xiao long bao and burrata is a religious experience, where the buffet never ends and he's always smiling as he says, "Here, have another bite."
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