The jig’s up: After years of concealing his identity—or at least attempting to—L.A. Times Food critic Jonathan Gold made his cinematic debut last week at the 2015 Sundance Festival, starring in a Laura Gabbert directed documentary fittingly titled City of Gold. The film stands as a warm tribute to Los Angeles’ lively culinary universe, brought to life by one its most important cultural observers. For several years, Gabbert followed Gold as he trekked around in his green Dodge pickup truck to the far reaches of L.A. County, searching for lengua tacos and bowls of Oaxacan grasshopper soup. Already snapped up by distributor Sundance Selects (a significant move if you consider that this is not a commercial, money-making enterprise), City of Gold heads to SXSW in Austin before hitting theaters later this year. Not only do we get to see JGold in flesh, but we gain valuable insight into his worldview—including that life-changing punk rock show in 1979 that set him on a path to food glory. Here are 10 take-home points about food critics that we learned from this behind-the-scenes look at L.A.’s most influential food scribe.
Critics are writers, first and foremost.
The child of an overeducated, culture-hungry, bookish family, Jonathan Gold—who now publishes about 150,000 words a year—didn’t set out to be a food critic. A UCLA grad, he played in a punk band, is a classically trained cellist, and got his start in editorial in the early 1980s as a proofreader at LA Weekly. He then became the alt-weekly’s music editor, which shaped his obsessive—bordering on masochistic—writerly tendencies (he’s known to labor over a single paragraph for hours). “Punk rock is what got me out of my shell,” says Gold on screen, who cites a 1979 Germs show as the seminal, career-spawning moment that inspired him to take risks.
They live in the shadows.
Critics want to chase the most objective food experience possible, which means they often lead a subterranean life, going to extreme measures to conceal their identities. Jonathan Gold’s pursuit of anonymity became a lot harder when a photo of him accidentally landed on the LA Weekly website back in 2007. But until City of Gold, you could only really see him in pictures shrouded in gauze, elaborate masks, shadows, and blurred pixels. When on assignment, as Gold points out in the movie, Eater NY’s senior critic Robert Sietsema shows up wearing a malevolently cooky, demon-horned mask.
Gold admits to making reservations under a handful of aliases, which he rarely recycles. He also maintains multiple throwaway phones to avoid being traced. Once you’re figured out, he says, restaurateurs treat you differently. “It’s kind of like the fat man’s version of The Bourne Identity,” says Gold.
Yelp is not the (sole) enemy.
In these hyper-connected times, everyone’s a critic, and professionals are especially vulnerable to crowd-sourced review platforms like Yelp. Go to a restaurant, write a review with the word toothsome, and suddenly you have a voice. But while Gold asserts that food critics bring legitimate knowledge and a discerning palate to the table, he believes Yelp is a useful resource for finding new restaurants. It can also act as a gateway for up-and-comers: Gold says he actually found one of his L.A. Times hires because he liked what she had to say on Yelp.
They don’t just review food, they shape culture.
Critics not only have the power to shape the gastro-culture of a cityscape, but they also push chefs to try new things. Gold’s rave reviews for Jitlada, a hit Thai eatery in Hollywood, ushered in a new wave of Thai cuisine in the neighborhood. But Gold has also been influential in other ways. His environmentalist brother once urged Gold to pen an op-ed advocating that California ban the sale of shark fin. His piece sparked the bill that passed in 2013.
They don’t seek pleasure in writing bad reviews.
Food critics don’t play nice, but they’re not the embittered curmudgeons we imagine from Pixar’s Ratatouille and its feared foodie Anton Ego. Even though Gold—who knows that an L.A. Times pan could mean the swift death of a new restaurant—does write negative reviews, he tries to be constructive about it. He won’t slam a restaurant in some obscure corner of Los Angeles offering rarefied cuisine—what’s the point? Most people wouldn’t end up there anyway.
They have empathy.
Gold has forged close relationships with his subjects. In the doc, Tui Singsanong of Jitlada—Gold’s personal favorite Thai joint—shows gratitude to Gold for his continued support. “After he wrote about our restaurant, people were waiting in line before we even opened,” Singsanong says. He and Gold have been close ever since.
They love a good hole-in-the-wall.
Published gastronomes don’t just frequent the high-end, top-bill restaurants du jour. Gold loves Tom’s Number 5 Chiliburgers in Culver City and Elvirita Cemitas Poblanas in Boyle Heights. Gold, of course, is also a storied connoisseur of the city’s sprawling food-truck scene, and was an early proponent of Roy Choi’s Kogi operation.
They’re historians of their cities.
Gold, the first food critic ever to win the Pulitzer, has been kicking around L.A. for decades, and insists that food writing is also culture writing. He calls himself a “culinary geographer” with a deep affection for his city and its residents. Gold knows his city like the back of his hand, from the most buried BBQ dives in Koreatown, to Guatemalan mom-and-pops on Pico—the 15-mile boulevard where he spent a year eating and learned all there is to know about Central American cuisine.
They’re hopeless romantics.
“Why does the taco honor the truck so much?” ponders Gold, who savors a dish’s journey from the grill to the cook to the counter. His deep L.A. roots have fashioned himself something of a nostalgic. Though he’s a voracious omnivore, he holds the city’s institutions near and dear; when he’s not checking out a new restaurant, he frequently revisits his favorite longstanding L.A. haunts.