Interview with L.A. Times Restaurant Critic, Jonathan Gold + City of Gold Review

March 10, 2016

City of Gold  | Jonathan Gold | Directed by Laura Gabbert

I think there’s an assumption that you can’t love both San Francisco and Los Angeles – that each is mutually exclusive. While I’ve read several L.A. vs. S.F. articles and, at one point or another, argued for one city or the other, I’ve come to love both. For different reasons and, like a mother says of her children, more so one or the other at various times. However, choosing one is impossible. While San Francisco has captured my heart and made me embrace the outdoors and walking city vibe, L.A. is home. There’s a certain feeling I get when I approach the 405 freeway and, unlike many daily commuters, it isn’t one of frustration, but a sense of belonging. There’s a warmth and inner peace I experience when driving my car down Sunset Boulevard.

Laura Gabbert’s documentary, City of Gold, reminded me of that feeling. Something about watching Jonathan Gold ride around in his pick-up truck to familiar places, reinvigorated my love for L.A. Having the same passion obsession with food as Gold, I also see cities through the culinary adventure they offer. I may not be able to tell you the exact name of every landmark or museum I visited in a specific city, but I can describe my vacations in meals. The smell of the food, ambiance of the restaurant, warmth of the service, and the taste of each dish is something I’m ready to discuss for hours. It was great to see Jonathan’s passion for different neighborhoods come to life. Jonathan Gold isn’t just someone I respect (I mean he is the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize), his work is something I connect to. His reviews not only describe dishes as though you, yourself, were eating it, but he also gives you a greater look into the culture of the cuisine and L.A. as a city. And I mean the whole city; you’ll find his reviews include restaurants in zip codes you may not recognize or areas of L.A. most critics don’t visit. City of Gold brings to life exactly what you’d expect visually from reading his column. It’s great in its simplicity. The movie isn’t overly ambitious in its content or coverage of LA and the slower pace makes it feel like you’re shadowing Gold through his day. There’s something comforting and very attainable about Jonathan. He knows who he is and you know who he is, but he remains relatable. If you live in L.A. or are a devout lover of food, this movie will speak to you. City of Gold celebrates Jonathan, the “belly of Los Angeles”, the one person who has helped extend the boundaries of this great city. Sit back, relax* and let the “Jonathan Gold” wisdom sink in!

*The movie debuts in select theaters tomorrow, Friday, March 11. Make sure you’re relaxing with food because this isn’t a movie I recommend watching when hungry.

Shortly after I viewed the movie, I had the opportunity to hold a phone interview with Jonathan Gold to ask him a few things I (and you, I hope) was curious about:

What was the best part of filming the movie?
Gold: Seeing the movie itself is great. I was originally very reluctant to do it because there’s the tradition of anonymous restaurant critics. Reality T.V. has been knocking for years and I’ve said no. Laura Gabbert, the director, won a dinner with me at a silent auction at the school her kids went to, which I donated. She brought it up and I said no, I kept saying no over months and then our kids started going to the same school and I saw her every day in the pickup line. It became hard to say no to someone you see all the time. I loved her first documentary, Sunset Stories, about a pair of elderly radicals in an old age home in Hollywood. It was beautiful and I figured if anyone was going to do it, it was going to be her. With the internet there’s no such thing as anonymity anymore so every week or so she’d show up with a camera person and someone with a mic and we’d drive around and eat lunch and it didn’t seem real, it just seemed like I was eating lunch all the time with a furry boom microphone.

Is it what you expected now that you’ve seen it?
Gold: I don’t know what I was expecting. I think the film was much better than what I expected because what I was expecting was the, sort of, restaurant critic eats lunch. It’s much more about Los Angeles, and the fabric of Los Angeles and the way it comes together. The way it looks when you’re stuck on the Harbor Freeway and the sun is setting and you have a great jam on your stereo.

What is your focus now? You’ve been doing this for so many years, are you trying to be the first to cover the latest restaurants? How do you choose your next restaurant?
Gold: Well whatever the latest restaurant is I will review, I mean if you’re looking at the last couple months maybe 5 of them are mainstream restaurants and 3 of them are ones you might not expect a daily critic to review. Usually about 2/3 of what I do would be what any critic does. But instead of reviewing the “14th Best Bistro on the Westside”, it’s more interesting for me and, probably more important for the newspaper, that I go all over the city that I go all over the metropolitan region because there’s so much happening and so much delicious food.

Do you write with a target audience in mind?
Gold: Funnily enough I don’t. I think there was a time in the 90s where I figured that the person I was writing for was someone who lived in a broken down house in Silver Lake that had parties and went to clubs a couple times a week, but that was a long time ago. And my voice hasn’t really changed since I left the Weekly (L.A. Weekly) and it didn’t really change when I left Gourmet Magazine to go back to the Weekly. I’ll have to explain different things to different people. At the Times (Los Angeles Times, where Jonathan currently works), maybe I’ll have to explain certain foreign foods that I might’ve felt comfortable not explaining at other places. When I was at the Weekly I could make an allusion to a Metallica lyric without explaining it and when I moved to Gourmet, if I was going to reference Fatboy Slim I would almost have to explain who he was. But, I could expect that my readers would know what a sauce mornay was without me having to explain that.

Realistically, how many days a week do you eat out?
Gold: Most of the time, I probably eat 10 review meals a week which includes lunch and the occasional breakfast. It’s a lot especially because I love cooking at home so much.

Yes, I noticed you preparing a meal in the movie and I was going to ask if your love for food translated to the kitchen?
Gold: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cook something. Often, I’ll cook dinner for my family before I go out and if the meal that I leave is better than the one I go out for I get sort of sore. I’m always at the farmers market, maybe a couple of them a week. I probably spend more time talking to farmers and cheese mongers than I do to chefs because there’s a firewall between critics and the people that they’re criticizing.

I’m guessing that the means that the duties of work do prevent you from the family dinners? I did read in a different article that you do take your kids to restaurants when you can.
Gold: Yes, sometimes. If I’m going out without them, I might make a simple dinner. Maybe I’ll do kabobs and a pilaf and I’ll sauté some broccoli with garlic or I’ll make spaghetti carbonara with pine nuts and raisins. We will always sit down at the table and we will talk about the day. We will be together and then I tend to eat on the late side, almost always.

How long does the review process take?
Gold: Usually I’ll go to a restaurant to see if it’s interesting and if it’s something worth writing about and then I’ll give it a few weeks and I’ll go back again to get the basics down. Then, I’ll go back a week later to try the dishes on the menu that I haven’t before and then the last time I’ll usually have the dishes that I want to describe really fully, really accurately. I can do it in 3 times, sometimes it takes 5, but 4 is usually right.

We get a glimpse of you sitting with your lap top at the dinner table with a blank document open. How does the review process start? Is there a certain method that you have?
Gold: No, I almost wish that there were. I’ll usually sit in the room and write things long hand and then something, some rhythm of a sentence will catch and then I’ll go and type that in and sometimes it flows from there and sometimes it doesn’t. But, it varies.

How many iterations or rewrites does it take? How does the back and forth process go?
Gold: I’m obsessive when I write. I was an editor for so long that I can’t turn the self-editing thing off. My first draft I hand in is usually clean and it will go in. Sometimes I’ll slightly work it again, it takes a long time to write.

How has social media played a role? Has your job changed now that there is so much instant information?
Gold: The internet is different, it’s the greatest procrastination tool in the history of mankind. I used to go on and find stuff – I have a lot of cookbooks and I’d go through all 14 of my Indian cookbooks trying to research something and now with the internet you’re writing something on biryani and you look it up and you realize that Hyderabad (city in India), not only has a thriving English-language media that’s the equivalent of almost anything in the United States, but they’re obsessed with food and you could probably read 10,000 of the equivalent of Yelp reviews of biryanis if you wanted to. You could take infinite amount of time before you realize you’ve read 83 of these and that’s probably enough.

One of the things that I love about it is that I feel there’s this feeling of collegiality. There’s this feeling of all the food writers in the country working towards similar goals and you don’t feel quite as isolated as you did before. It’s a constant news feed and it’s fascinating and in some ways I think it’s fundamentally changed what we do. He mentioned he works best with Twitter.

Since you’ve become so world renowned do you feel the pressure to up the ante?
Gold: I’ve always written for big outlets. Gourmet wasn’t the largest in the world, but arguably the most important [food magazine]. I started writing for the L.A. Times in my mid-twenties and obviously people read that, but there is more of a feeling now that things count on your permanent record in a way that maybe they didn’t before. If someone is looking for something stupid that you did you used to have to go through a lot of stuff and now it’s not so hard.

What would be your last meal?
Gold: Right now, I’m thinking of a meal of tacos de chicharron prensado from a food stand in Mexico City.

One thing you want people to take away from the movie?
Gold: Live in your entire city, live in all of it. Don’t stay in your neighborhood, go and see what else is out there. The more that we know what our neighbors are doing, the more we’ll get along.



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