Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold was one of the first in his field to focus equal attention on trendy bistros and on small ethnic eateries in historically ignored communities. By doing so he invites his readers to explore and appreciate the "real" Los Angeles for the beautiful, delicious melting pot that it is.
The documentary City of Gold, which opens at Cedar Lee Theater April 8, offers viewers a compelling glimpse into Gold's life and work.
A documentary about a writer's work sounds about as appealing as watching somebody type. Did you have to be convinced to do the film?
I definitely had to be convinced. I've been approached for a lot of food stuff, primarily reality TV stuff, and I've always said no. I donated a meal with a critic to a silent auction and Laura Gabbert, the director, bought it. She brought up the idea of the film at the dinner and I said no. And then my kid ended up going to the same school as her kid the next year, and when you're seeing somebody every day in the drop-off line it becomes much harder to say no. Plus, her first documentary, Sunset Story, was just a charming, wonderful, moving film and I thought she'd probably get it right.
So, would you give the film a good review?
Of course, I hated seeing myself on film. We become writers because we like being able to hide. But I thought she captured it well because it shows my Los Angeles in a way that no film ever has. They'll show Beverly Hills or gritty crime-scene Los Angeles, but the giant part of L.A., where people are just living their lives while incidentally eating totally delicious food, is a part that tends to get ignored in movies.
As a critic who enjoys the thrill of the hunt, I'll admit I was disappointed that the film omitted your own process for unearthing new-to-you restaurants.
That would have probably been interesting. I find restaurants all kinds of different ways. My favorite one lately has been going into online chat forums in different languages, like Korean or Japanese, and using Google Translate to sort of figure what and where they are talking about. I can't tell you the number of times I figure out that a restaurant that I thought specialized in one thing turned out to specialize in something different.
And before technology?
I would very deliberately eat at every restaurant along, say, a 2-mile stretch of road. You always find something that you don't know about that you drive past, and sometimes those are the coolest places.
Most of the meals captured on film appeared to be pleasure as opposed to business. Is that correct?
The main ground rule I set out at the beginning was that she couldn't see me in the process of actually reviewing a restaurant because there is no way to review a restaurant while having a film crew follow you. It's the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle at work. You can measure something or you can observe something but you can't do both at the same time.
An experience many American diners likely can relate to is when an ethnic restaurant serves us food they believe we want as opposed to what they do best. How do you break through and get the "real" experience?
That's the great thing about a city as gigantic as Los Angeles. If you have 500,000 to a million Koreans in communities where the signs are only in Korean and the menus are only in Korean, they are cooking for one another. If you happen to go in there and crack the code and get a meal out of it, great, but that's not what they're in business for. It might be bad for business but it's really good for food.
There's a trend lately towards the fetishization of food, eating out not for enjoyment or nourishment but as sport. Are social media apps like Yelp and Instagram good for restaurants?
If someone is going to get in a car or get on a train and go 20 miles because they heard a place has great Burmese food, I don't care if they Instagram it. They love food and it's their way of documenting it. And there's that thing on Yelp where you get a little blue ribbon when you're first to review, and people will go to a random place and they will write their impressions. Maybe their impressions are wrong, and their opinions probably are certainly wrong, but it sort of puts the place on a larger map. It's democratic; it's inclusive.
The whole formula behind dining for work with friends is not as straightforward as one might assume, is it?
Your best friends are the ones you take to the shitty restaurants because they'll go and the people you don't know as well tend to go to the better, more glamorous places. It's not fair, really. And you also work up the restaurant equivalent of a girl in every port, right? People want to go to the geographically convenient places. And as I get older I have fewer friends who have all of Wednesday free to go to seven Vietnamese restaurants.
You must spend a ton of time behind the wheel of your pick-up truck.
It's really hard because L.A. is so big and everything is 40 minutes by car from everything else. But you sort of develop a Zen appreciation of that time you spend in gridlock on the freeway by listening to great tunes playing and the light inching over the mountains. It can be beautiful if you let it be beautiful.
It's a tough grind sometimes being a food critic, no?
I kind of like it. I always feel as if I'm behind in my eating, which is a concept that is almost entirely impossible to explain to a civilian, but ... it's not a bad life.