For those of you who see Los Angeles as an infinitely shallow and superficial city bereft of culture, try looking at it through the eyes of Jonathan Gold. Food critic for the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Gold is known for his robust writings of Los Angeles restaurants, and he has gone out of his way to review small family owned eateries in the city’s ethnic enclaves as well as the trendier eateries in Beverly Hills. In the process, his reviews have changed the lives of many immigrants who continue to cook the food of their countries, and they have provided readers with a deeper understanding of the cultural landscape of Los Angeles which continues to astonish new visitors and longtime locals.
Gold is the subject of the documentary “City of Gold” which was directed by Laura Gabbert whose previous works include “No Impact Man” and “Sunset Story.” It follows the award winning critic around Los Angeles as he checks out restaurants, and we get to meet many of the chefs whose careers really took off after he reviewed their restaurants. In the process, the documentary also comes to reveal Gold’s deep love of this city and of how it has brought many different kinds of people together.
It was a pleasure to speak with Gold during time off from his day job, and he talked at length about the challenges he experienced making this documentary and how it affected him as a food critic.
Ben Kenber: How were you approached to do this documentary? Was it something you were open to doing or were you hesitant about it at first?
Jonathan Gold: Oh I was absolutely not open to doing it. It’s a tradition of anonymous restaurant critics in the United States. I’ve been approached by reality TV a lot, but I always said no. The filmmaker, Laura Gabbert… It’s sort of a weird story. I donated a dinner with a critic to a silent auction at a school a friend’s kid went to and she bought it. We went out to dinner at the first iteration of LudoBites, Ludo Lefebvre’s pop-up restaurant, and she brought it up and I laughed it off, and she called and we had coffee a few times and it was still not going to happen. And then my kid ended up going to that school, and somehow when you see somebody every day at the drop off line it becomes inevitable in a certain way. I had been thinking a lot about anonymity. It had almost been an impossible concept at the moment, restaurant criticism, with the very, very, very few exceptions. The restaurants that really need to know who the critics are know who the critics are, and nobody stays anonymous for more than a couple of months. I had been reviewing restaurants for more than 20 years and I just figured that it was okay to give it up. It was less a question of actually being anonymous then pretending not to notice them pretending not to notice me noticing them and noticing me. Very meta (laughs).
BK: I have heard restaurant workers have a very high mortality rate. Is that a subject you have ever dealt with in your reviews?
JG: No, not so much, but it’s really physically demanding work. You get up really early, you’re on your feet all day, you are around things that are very sharp and are very hot, and you’re breathing in vapors and smoke and things all day. You’re in a place that has a ton of alcohol because that is why it exists. So I admire the people who could do it as much as a sports writer admires athletes. It takes a lot of stamina.
BK: In the documentary we learn early on you were originally a music critic and later became a food critic. What were the differences of being a critic for each?
JG: Well I’ve actually always done both. I would go to dinner on the way to the show, and then I would review the restaurant and I would review the show. That’s how I did it for years and years. I didn’t think they were incompatible at all (laughs). But one of the things I liked about writing about food just as a profession is that when you write about music you deal with layers and layers of publicists, and I remember I did a Rolling Stone cover on Snoop and Dre. I counted at one point because it started to get weird, but there were more than 1100 phone calls to the publicists. When you are dealing with the restaurant you just go to the restaurant, so it was easier that way. It was a good piece but man, it seemed like a full time job dealing with that.
BK: Once filming began, did it take a long time for you to get used to the cameras following you around?
JG: I wouldn’t say that it took me a long time, but it may have actually taken me a long time. It was like one day a week, one day every other week, and Laura Gabbert, the director, would show up with the cinematographer and someone doing sound and they would crowd into the back of my pickup truck and we’d drive around and we’d stop somewhere. I didn’t really know what to do at first. It’s hard to talk freely when you just have a camera pointed at you and a boom microphone like tickling you, but I think over the course of filming it, it became a little less strange and a little more natural. The people I had lunch with and dinner with never got used to it quite as much as I did just because it was an inherently awkward situation. But it must be said that I laid down guidelines at the beginning for filming. I didn’t want her to fill me actually reviewing a restaurant. She would’ve liked that and it would’ve given the movie an arc, but I didn’t want to give her an arc actually because I didn’t want anything dramatic to happen. And I put down for a long time that she couldn’t film my kids because they deserve their privacy, and of course it turned out that they wanted to be in the film so they were. There were probably a few others, but with those boundaries drawn and the fact that I wasn’t actually going to have to interview anybody, I wasn’t going to act as a journalist and I was just going to be a person doing possibly journalistic things.
BK: The movie starts with you sitting in front of your computer and looking pensive, and then you begin to type something. Were you actually writing a review at that moment?
JG: Yeah. Actually I refused to have it staged and they shot it in a lot of different ways, but I was actually always writing a piece when I was doing it. Not necessarily the piece that was coming on the voiceover because… I don’t know if you’ve done it, but pretending to type looks like somebody pretending to type, and it’s always bothersome in movies.
BK: Did you have or want any artistic control over the documentary, or were you content to have Laura just have her way with it?
JG: I had essentially no artistic control over it. I’m the subject in the way that you are interviewing people. The people that you are interviewing don’t have any input into the story you are writing and they shouldn’t, and she was committing an act of journalism and I was the subject. I saw a rough cut of it and I’m not sure there was anything I objected to. Sometimes I wish I had combed my hair (laughs) and sometimes I wish I’d said something in a more articulate fashion, but I talk the way I talk.
BK: Was there anything taken out of the documentary that you wish had stayed in?
JG: There was a scene that I loved where I was giving a presentation at the MAD conference in Copenhagen, and that’s a conference that happens every couple of years. They couldn’t send anybody but they lent my daughter a camera and she took footage and she put it together in a certain way. It’s sort of a beautiful scene, but ultimately it didn’t really fit into the narrative of the film and it was cut. I will always become exercised on behalf of my children (laughs). I think it’s almost demanded.
BK: How would you say you ever evolved as a critic over the years you have done this work?
JG: I think I understand that there’s more and I think I understand that there is less. The more I do this, the more I write, the more it feels like I actually know.
BK: You are so good at describing things in your work to where you give the reader very vivid images of the stuff you are writing about. How do you accomplish that?
JG: Actually that was maybe one thing I worked at pretty hard. I thought that describing food was my one weakness when I first started writing about food. I was good at getting you into the room and I was good at describing the context and telling you why you were there, but sometimes my descriptions of the food were a little bit tough. I actually worked at it and worked at it, and I figure it’s like Kobe Bryant taking 1000 free throws a day. It’s like eventually he’s going to figure out where the basket is.
BK: Has doing this documentary changed the way you write about food at all?
JG: No, not at all.
I want to thank Jonathan Gold for taking the time to talk with me. To find out more about “City of Gold,” be sure to visit the documentary’s website at www.cityofgolddoc.com.