We Spoke to Jonathan Gold About Being Jonathan Gold

In 2015, we spoke to the world's most beloved food critic right before the premiere of 'City of Gold,' the documentary about his life.

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Jan 27 2015, 11:37pm

Photo by illustratorJames Braithwaite

For MUNCHIES readers, I'd guess that there is little need for introduction here—we are pleased to present an interview with Jonathan Gold, about Jonathan Gold. If you do not know who Jonathan Gold is, go away.

Just kidding. But really, you should read him. You should come to love him. And, through his work, you should come to love Los Angeles.

In his column "Counter Intelligence," which has run variously in the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times over the past few decades, Gold mixes fine-dining criticism with densely researched appreciations of chicken neck tacos, soup dumplings, and the spectrum of strip-mall gastronomy. These food experiences—which no critic had bothered to seek out, much less write about, before him—have become the benchmarks of eating culture in LA. For his work, Gold became the only person in history to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for food criticism.

He is the most famous food critic in Los Angeles—and by association in the country, and probably the world. With the premiere of a feature-length documentary film, City of Gold, today at Sundance (and an above-the-fold article in this past Saturday's Times in which he renounced his anonymity) that last sentence will probably need less qualification.

In City of Gold, we see J Gold doing what a J Gold does—driving around Los Angeles in his green pickup truck, eating across the variegated immigrant enclaves of Los Angeles, filing (past-due) reviews for the Times, guesting on KCRW's Good Food, and, in one heartfelt scene, taking his kids to a museum. He breaks bread with friends and fellow critics—Robert Sietsema (who wears a mask), Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin; with his wife Laurie Ochoa (an editor at the Times), his brother (a prominent environmentalist); at restaurants from King Taco to Kogi to Jitlada to Trois Mec. Interviews with chefs, authors, and the two best-looking of Lucky Peach's three top editors round out the portrait of the critic, which is in turn a portrait of a city.

Food is just the lens for Jonathan Gold. (Or as he says in the film, "there's a thereness beneath the thereness.") Director Laura Gabbert goes a long way to expose and explain Gold's larger project, an immersion in LA's immigrant communities staged one taco truck at a time. Gabbert's Gold is Gold: The culinary and cultural conquistador. Gold: The taco whisperer. Gold: The belly of Los Angeles. The film's detours are like a wrong turn off the 10 that takes us down unexpected avenues on a gustatory exploration that has no end in sight.

It really can feel infinite, this city. But growing up in Los Angeles, J Gold's writing provided me and my friends with a road map, a way to appreciate its offerings. He eats everywhere, and there's a lot of everywhere here. One year, he ate at nearly every restaurant on Pico Boulevard—a 15-mile jag from downtown clear to the beach. He's not going to run out of options any time soon. I'll continue to trace his steps, I'm sure, until I die.

It was a pleasure to chat with il maestro on the phone this morning from Park City, on the day of the premiere of City of Gold at Sundance.

MUNCHIES: How does it feel to be on the other side of things for a change? Jonathan Gold: It's strange and discomforting. As a journalist, you're observing things. You're not the person who's observed. Sometimes I want to gently guide the interviewers in the direction they should be going. But I don't.

You once compared an aria to a baked potato. If we were to keep going down this road, eating is like listening to records. Chopping onions is like practicing scales. That's exactly right. And learning how to clarify consommé is like getting through book two of Czerny, I guess.

I also love this quotation from the film: "I know exactly why I'm eating a bowl of pho." Why are you eating a bowl of pho? [Laughs] Because pho is delicious. Because there's that protein jolt that's just perfect in the morning. There's usually that great cup of cà phê sữa đá with it. But the idea of pho is the classic Hanoi street food that's re-contextualized. The way the meats are curated always owes at least something to French colonialism. But the depth and the spicing and the burnt-onion darkness of the broth speak a lot to the techniques of Vietnamese cooking. A good bowl of pho has a sense of place to it.

It sounds exhausting to have to think about all those things every time you eat. It's not something that I can turn off. But in a way, it goes back to criticism. I've been a movie critic. I've reviewed theatre. I wrote about art and music for a really long time. There was a point when I was at the LA Weekly in the late 80s when an editor asked me if I wanted to write about love and modern relationships. But I said no. There's one part of my life I want completely unexamined.

There's a great tableau on Figueroa Street near my house. It's the La Estrella brick-and-morter shop, and then directly across the street, a Taco Bell. Your writing has drawn attention to Estrella. Now the whole city eats there. But I don't think you'd ever write about Taco Bell. I don't like Taco Bell. It's just ... cheap. But my friend Gustavo Arellano writes rather persuasively about Taco Bell and about the restaurant in the Inland Empire that it drew most of its inspiration from. Let's talk about the kind of food it represents, like Tito's Tacos in Culver City. They have huge lines but serve hard-shell tacos with American cheese and shredded lettuce. A certain kind of eater that's exploring the food in LA will go to Tito's and dismiss it as being deracinated, as being less-than. But in fact, Tito's Tacos is not a Mexican restaurant. It's a Mexican-American restaurant.

If you're thinking of Los Angeles as essentially a part of greater Mexico—which with 12 million Mexicans in the greater metropolitan area, it almost is. I mean, that's more than Guadalajara. That's more than any place in Mexico except for Mexico City—then you need to think about food like that as being part of the regional cuisine. You can not like it. You can not eat it. You can even dismiss it. But you can't dismiss the people who like it. The reasons that people like food are often divorced from the excellence of the food or even from their provenance.

You rarely write a negative review. A lot of your project seems to be to expose your audience to new things and to give them a language. Do you see that as the role of the critic? That's an interesting point. I do actually write a lot of negative reviews, but if I'm going to do a small restaurant serving an obscure cuisine in a weird part of town, then why would I call attention to it if it wasn't worth going to?

For example, that restaurant Aqui es Texcoco in Commerce. It's in a strange industrial part of town with nothing approaching cuisine anywhere near it. It's serving nothing, basically, but roast lamb—and things to go with roast lamb. Somebody who is casually driving around would be really unlikely to stumble upon it. It looks like any other Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. But if it weren't extraordinary, there'd be no point in writing about it.

You say you write a lot of negative reviews, but I don't know that you do. I was mentioning the time you reviewed the Olive Garden on April Fool's to my girlfriend, and she really took umbrage. Her grandparents consider Olive Garden a fancy night out. That's fair. I got more letters from that column than from any review I've ever written. But I will say that if I had gone to the Olive Garden and it had just been freaking delicious, I would have loved to have written that piece! How better to thumb your nose at the food establishment than to find the Olive Garden delicious? Because it is the actual embodiment of everything that we've been trained to hate by the media—and by "the media," I'm including me in that.

But the food was just horrible. The soups were tepid, everything was clearly out of a can. Everything about it was so false and so wrong. Yet, a lot of people writing to me about it took the position that I was being a snob, that I was thumbing my nose at lower-priced cuisine, and that I didn't understand the working-class. The Olive Garden is pretty expensive. If two people go there, and you have a couple drinks, it could be $100. That's a lot of money when you can go to just a stunningly good Chinese restaurant for half of that.

I want to ask you about your use of the second-person. The way you take a personal stance with your readership. There's an idea, which is teased out in the movie, that you're democratizing food. Well, I am trying to democratize food and trying to get people to live in the entire city of Los Angeles. I'm trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors. Sometimes the food I write about is odd, or at least odd to somebody who's not used to eating it. Sometimes—if you're going to describe a Korean grilled intestine dish and make it seem less stomach-turning and more actually delicious—using the second-person does work.

When he's traveling, Calvin Trillin doesn't want a recommendation from a local based on where she took her parents for an anniversary. He wants to hear about the place where she ate after she came home from 13 months in Korea. What's your version of that? When I used to do the bi-coastal thing and I'd been in New York for too long, the first place I'd go on the way home was Ciro's, a Mexican-American restaurant on Evergreen in Boyle Heights. Immediately, you're in the middle of LA's Eastside. You have this jar of fresh avocado salsa that is free with your chips when everyone you know is paying $35 for a plate of sole meunière in New York. It's just a way of immediately getting back in the city.

Maybe we can meet there to continue the talk. Sure.

Thanks for talking with us.

To see more sick illustrations from James Braithwaite, visit his website: TheBathwater.com.