There is an arc in the life of every food critic that starts with being a relatively unknown (both personally and professionally) restaurant-goer and ends with being an instantly recognizable regional god. Sometimes, that transition is abrupt and devastating, such as when veteran Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila was publicly outed and ejected from Red Medicine in Beverly Hills because restaurateur Noah Ellis was being a massive dick. Other times, it’s a planned and deliberate slow burn hurried by the first Pulitzer Prize for food criticism.
That’s what happened to Jonathan Gold, the current Times food critic whose larger-than-life presence and outlandish-yet-brilliant metaphors are as much a part of the Southern California landscape for this generation of Angelenos as Cal Worthington and Gorgeous George were for others. For more than 20 years, from essentially creating the genre of reviewing hole-in-the-wall restaurants at LA Weekly to moving on to the Times to returning to LA Weekly when his wife, Laurie Ochoa, became editor, the general public only knew him through his chats with Evan Kleiman on KCRW’s Good Food. But in 2007, when Gold won his Pulitzer, a picture of him enjoying a glass of champagne from a comically big glass went online, and his jig was up. By then, though, in this social-media world of ours, Gold’s identity was the worst-kept secret in the SoCal food world since In-N-Out’s unofficial menu.
The topic of anonymity pops up in City of Gold, a new documentary on him directed by Laura Gabbert. Gold talks about it with Ochoa (now the Times‘ arts and entertainment editor), and so does Robert Sietsema, who still likes to lecture at conferences while wearing a devil’s mask. But the most telling information on just how silly this whole debate is . . . well, there’s a documentary now about Jonathan Gold featuring the man himself, in the flesh, nothing to hide.
In that way, this film isn’t an exposé on the man who has eaten his way through Los Angeles since 1986 so much as capturing the mundane. Gold’s process turns out to be like that of any other academic professional: Be proficient in an area of interest and slowly consume (both figuratively and literally) until the data becomes knowledge. Gold is the first to say he won’t pretend to have expertise he doesn’t have. He knows he’s not a natural, that he must always push to pass himself off as one, as is evidenced by the Alexandrian collection of books and reference material carefully and not-so-carefully distributed in cascading shelves and stacks and piles around his home. But it’s the ease with which he plays the part of expert that makes him so powerful as a writer.
And that’s why City of Gold works better when focusing on what Gold’s prose has wrought on Los Angeles rather than on the man himself. Gabbert takes the viewer along to many of Gold’s favorite and most well-reviewed restaurants in the city, each stop paralleled by excerpts of his reviews in voice-over. She emphasizes the impact Gold’s writing has had on restaurateurs by providing moving vignettes on a handful with whom Gold has forged personal relationships, many now nationally known: people from Mariscos Jalisco, Antojitos Carmen (which has since closed), Jitlada, Meals By Genet, Kogi and Guelaguetza, among others. For the latter, Bricia Lopez, one of the owners of the legendary Oaxacan restaurant, explained Gold’s review came at a time when the Spanish-language media hadn’t reviewed her family’s restaurant, as Latino elites had historically looked down on Oaxacan anything because of its indigenous association.
Gold’s unbiased take on Guelaguetza’s food helped to transform a six-table outfit into the 300-person-per-service icon it is today. Not all of Gold’s reviews transform a restaurant so dramatically, of course, but this example shows him at his best: inspiring readers to cut through sociopolitical bullshit and not only enjoy a great meal, but also explore the Southern California we live in today.
City of Gold shows Gold’s impact on not just the many communities in Los Angeles, but also the interactions Angelenos have with food—a great counter-narrative to the usual stereotype-filled weird-food dispatch New York usually writes about LA. But Gabbert’s aim suffers when the subject is, ironically, Gold himself. While he is a fabulous speaker and writer, the film captures multiple awkward moments: when he’s sitting at his morning editorial meetings, waxing poetic on whether the classic food stalls of the Grand Central Market can survive as gentrification slowly makes its mark; when making small talk as he drives around the city, pointing out the best dish at every restaurant he passes; when his infamous procrastination creeps up, and he maneuvers the uncomfortable interactions with his editors as his deadlines pass and his reviews remain unfinished. Such scenes come off as an argument between your friend and his parents that you shouldn’t have seen.
But Gabbard’s lens doesn’t condemn its subject; rather, it’s a necessary reminder that no one is infallible and the passing distractions of the Internet or TV or books or whatever else is as strong with Gold as with anyone else. Despite being an actor in his own story (the argument as to whether you can get a truthful performance out of someone you are actively observing is for another time, perhaps), City of Gold shows that getting out of our comfort zones to discover something new is the only way to live—and that no matter where you decide to go out to eat, Jonathan Gold has been there before.
City of Gold was directed by Laura Gabbert.