From high-end kitchens to backyard pit smokers, the esteemed food writer found art and artistry in ‘the fault lines’ between communities
Shortly before I moved from London to Los Angeles, in 2010 – or maybe just after, I don’t recall – an English friend mentioned that he assumed I was familiar with Jonathan Gold. I was not. My friend had learned about him through Dana Goodyear’s November 2009 profile of Gold in The New Yorker, titled ‘The Scavenger’, published after he became the first – and to date, only – food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2007.
When Gold died this weekend, at the age of 57, news of his passing (due to recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer) took up half of the front page of The Los Angeles Times. As tributes fill my newsfeed from within the LA community and beyond, it seems that few are not fondly familiar with Gold’s writing, his avuncular but precise manner of speaking and his smiling, moustachioed face. Even his silhouette has become an instantly recognizable logo. This is thanks in part to Laura Gabbert’s 2015 film documentary City of Gold, and also to Gold’s weekly broadcasts on KCRW’s popular radio show, ‘Good Food’. More than anything, however, it is thanks to Gold’s criticism, which was dazzlingly erudite but also always generous, humane and funny.
He was such an influential and esteemed guide to me as I got to know this city, that I have to remind myself we never met. I cannot think of another writer – critic, novelist, columnist, journalist, screenwriter, whatever – whom I will miss so much as Jonathan Gold. Los Angeles without him feels inconceivable.
Gold’s criticism dignified everything it touched. Even when he didn’t like something he was eating (a rare occurrence), his writing took every kind of food seriously, from East LA’s bean burritos to ‘rich sea snail bouillon sipped from its herb-smeared shell’ at Copenhagen’s Noma. He will be best remembered for his ardour for kitchens that, until he squirrelled them out, remained secrets kept by the immigrant communities that they served. Taco trucks, hole-in-the-wall pupusa joints, street corner pushcarts, backyard pit smokers: these were the places where Gold came into his own, always relating the food he ate there in his writing to a virtuosic array of cultural forms and references high and low, historical and contemporary, global and local. I do not know what the proprietors of strip mall Szechuan noodle joints in the San Gabriel Valley or Mexican taco trucks in East Los Angeles thought of Gold, or even if they cared much about his polished turns of phrase, but I’ll bet that they appreciated the obvious care and thoughtfulness with which he engaged with them about their food. Snipped-out Jonathan Gold reviews from the LA Weekly and the Times are taped in windows all over town.
Evan Kleiman, host of ‘Good Food’ and a long-time friend of Gold, described him as ‘LA’s translator’, but he was more than that: he was its editor, anthropologist and promoter, too. Better than any other student of the city, he identified some of the most appealing aspects of LA’s character and values. It has long harboured a democratic culture in which connoisseurship is not an activity delimited by class or wealth. It is a place where much of the finest food is served in cheap, family-run restaurants in un-fancy parts of town, and where the fanciest restaurants found their most discerning customer to be a schlubby man with long hair in a dented Dodge Ram 1500.
Gold often liked to approach a restaurant review not via an appreciation of its signature dishes, but through an exultation of its humblest details. Bavel, a posh new Middle Eastern restaurant, is great not because of its lamb neck sharing plate, Gold wrote in a recent review, but because of its ‘magnificent’ hummus. He was equally given to addressing his reader in the second person, telling them how their meal will go down: ‘You will be drinking salty island wines from Sardinia and the Canary Islands. Your date will barely hear you above the din. You will wonder whether there is a point to an old-fashioned made with lamb-fat-washed bourbon or a pisco sour with pink peppercorns, and you will decide that there might be. You will probably be having a very good time.’
Los Angeles is a city that – for better or worse – has its own understanding of the terms ‘art’ and ‘artist’. Gold was both an art lover and an art skeptic. Though he majored in music (and was for a while a punk cellist, and a hip hop critic) he took a class with Chris Burden at UCLA for which he devised a performance in which he paid for two bagels at Jewish delis using only pennies, eating one and framing the other. (The consumed bagel proved more engaging to him than the framed one.) He once claimed that his main ambition, after graduating with a degree in music, was eventually to have eaten at every food outlet on Pico Boulevard on his route home from work. The long street passes through Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Ecuadorean, Mexican, Persian-Jewish and Ethiopian neighbourhoods, amongst others, and offers a readymade tasting menu of multi-ethnic Los Angeles. He approached eating as an art form.
Controversially, the restaurant that took top spot on Gold’s famous ‘101 Best Restaurants’ list in The Los Angeles Times this year was Vespertine, the epitome of the elitist haute cuisine establishment. (The obligatory pre-paid tasting menu runs to $250 a head, not including wine.) In his review, Gold opened by acknowledging that the place might drive many of his readers insane, but wrote that ‘looked at as an artwork, where the architect Eric Owen Moss, the ceramicist Ryota Aoki and the musicians in the post-rock band This Will Destroy You are as vital to the experience as the chef, Vespertine is in its way perfect.’
Gold was never limited by his reputation as the bard of the taco truck. He gave credit where credit was due, his only responsibility to the quality of the food. But how thrilling, and how rare, to read a writer who found art and artistry not only in the places where everyone expects to see it, but in what he called ‘the fault lines’ between communities, the too-often overlooked pockets of a rich and incomprehensible city.
Main image: Food critic for the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold, at El Parian Restaurant in Los Angeles, 2010. Courtesy: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images