In 2007, I was lucky to land a job as OC Weekly’s restaurant reviewer. It was also the year that Jonathan Gold, at our then sister paper LA Weekly, won a Pulitzer Prize–the first ever for a food critic.
As a sort of initiation for me, OC Weekly’s editor-in-chief at the time asked Mr. Gold to share a few words of wisdom for the rookie.
He did and sent the following–a sort of food critic code of conduct.
The basic rules are:
1. Reserve in another name;
2. Pay, if possible, in cash or with a pseudonymous credit card;
3. Warn your friends in advance that they are never to discuss the nature of the review visit at table;
4. Accept nothing, not even a bag of chips, offered for free. This includes meals or drinks on visits after the review, and is absolutely inviolate, even if it seems as if you’re insulting the owner;
5. If the restaurant still insists on comping you (and it happens) leave the ENTIRE amount you would have been charged, plus tip, as a tip. Word inevitably gets around;
6. Reveal nothing to staff in person, even if you feel you have finished the review – waiters change jobs frequently, and you will encounter them again;
7. If possible, steal menu inserts rather than asking for them on the way out. It is perfectly permissible to call the next day and ask for a faxed menu;
8. Do not become visibly drunk. Do not be an asshole. Word gets around;
9. Do not write anything down at table. If necessary, slip into the restroom and take notes there;
10. Don’t lie if you are asked a direct question, but evasiveness is fine.
I still cherish that list and regard it as sacrosanct. But most of all, it meant a lot to me that this recently-minted Pulitzer Prize winner, one of my food heroes, took the time to offer his sage advice to a food blogging hobbyist. I even told friends who tagged along to the first few restaurants I reviewed that I was operating under J. Gold’s Rules of Conduct. They ooh’d and aah’d.
I was, however, under no illusion that what I was about to do for OC Weekly was going to be on the same plane of existence. When it came to food criticism, Gold was on Everest. Everyone else was in the foothills looking up.
His knowledge of literally everything comestible was professorial. Over the years, if I encountered an unfamiliar dish somewhere and didn’t know what to make of it, I’d look it up in his archives. Chances were good that he had already eaten it, written about where it came from, how it’s made, and what it’s supposed to taste like. But it wasn’t just the command of the subject that made him the food critic’s food critic; he wrote like a poet. The way he would turn a phrase or find the perfect word to describe a flavor, texture, smell, or color always had me wondering, “How did he do that?”
Those first few years, whenever I wrote, Gold’s reviews would be in the back of my mind. Whenever I found myself in a rut, I’d think “WWJGW?”–“What would J. Gold write?” Sometimes my editor, Gustavo Arellano, would catch me when I unsuccesssfully tried to emulate him, especially the one time I employed the second person narrative, of which J. Gold was a master. My pathetic attempt didn’t work. I overused the word “you” and it stood out. I apologized and admitted that, yes, I was trying to channel my inner Jonathan Gold.
Gustavo told me, “Jonathan Gold, of course, can do whatever he wants; we mortals, on the other hand, should always watch our word choices! “You” is okay from time to time!”
Years later, I read J. Gold’s piece on Carls Jr. and it spun my head around. It was a masterpiece. Hilarious, fun to read, but also spot-on and unflinchingly honest, it was the kind of review I could only dream of writing.
I quickly shot a fanboy e-mail to Gustavo.
“Did you see the latest J. Gold review on Padma and Carls Jr.? This is why the man is God!”
Gustavo replied, “No way ANYONE can match him. By the way, he’s a fan of yours!”
When I read that, I nearly fell out of my chair. Suddenly I understood how it felt to be in the warmth of Gold’s light. I understood how grateful all of those previously unsung LA eateries must have been to discover they’re something Jonathan Gold deemed worthy. To know that you existed and mattered to J. Gold is one of the best feelings. It validates you. And I am sad that I never got the chance to tell him so, or that I have abided by his Ten Commandments to this day, almost to the letter.
I will miss him.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.