Jonathan Gold Talks ‘City of Gold,’ L.A.’s Misunderstood Food Culture
With a rumbly belly and a slight twitch above my right eyebrow (which I assume was related to an acute nutritional deficiency stemming from my decision that morning to sleep in rather than eat breakfast before rushing out the door), I stare and drool like a famished dog at the assortment of hot, meaty, aromatic tacos laid out before me in the bright, virtually empty dining room of San Francisco’s back-alley taco spot, Cala.
Beef tongue. Pork. Mushroom and kale. Soft-boiled egg. Chile verde. The smells are intense, deep, and fresh, seducing me as they waft up and tickle my nose. It’s too much to take. I’m itching to wrap my fingers around those steamy tortillas and stuff slow-brasied goodness into my goddamn face. But I don’t dare lift a finger.
In just a few minutes, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold will be huddling up with me (and two food writers) around the Mexico City-inspired dishes to eat and talk about City of Gold, Laura Gabbert’s documentary about Gold’s career, philosophy, and the city he loves, Los Angeles. After a short wait (that, due to my rabid hunger, feels agonizingly long), the mustachioed man of the hour walks in, we shake hands, and we eat. It’s gloriously tasty. Slowly but surely, in between bites, our conversation gets underway.
The film, shot over several years in and around the myriad neighborhoods of L.A., is equally touristic and philosophical, celebrating the unexplored corners and food stops of the city through the lens of Gold’s approach to culinary discovery. It premiered at Sundance last year, just weeks after Gold dropped the food critic anonymity game and began showing his face openly, to both readers and restauranteurs alike, citing the ubiquity of social media as the main factor in the decision. The film marks the first deep public look into Gold’s life and passion and is an inspiring, engaging piece of food-world filmmaking.
City of Gold is playing in select cities now.
Did Laura have complete creative control over the film?
I was allowed to tell her if something was unusually stupid, but that actually didn’t really happen. It’s not like I had final cut.
Were you in the editing room?
I didn’t go into the editing room. I didn’t really see anything until there was, like, a rough cut about two weeks before Sundance.
I imagine people would think something was up when you were being followed around by cameras during filming.
Yes and no. They were all restaurants I’d been to a million times. The ground rule was that [Laura] wasn’t allowed to film me reviewing anything. For most of the places we’d film in, a bunch of white people with film cameras wasn’t that much weirder than a bunch of white people without film cameras. My approach is sort of the opposite of what I call the “chamber of commerce” approach, where you go in, have a hearty handshake with the owner and he or she explains what the cuisine is about and what marvels your tongue is supposed to experience. Or the ones that are super food porn-y and they’re in the kitchen and it’s like, bang bang bang fireball, then perfectly plated thing. Then you have them do the, “Mmmm…” There’s none of that in this [movie]. It’s as far from the Food Network aesthetic as you could possibly get, probably.
It captures Los Angeles really well.
Thank you. That was the main thing we were trying to do, look at the city the same way I do. I’ve [seen] Laura’s first movie, Sunset Stories, which is about this odd, beautiful friendship between two 90-year-old women in an old age home in Hollywood. You just can’t watch that movie without getting a little verklempt. She’s good at the verklempt. I was fearing that [City of Gold] would be too sentimental, but I was happy, because it didn’t seem to be that sentimental at all. There were a couple things, especially when they talk to the restaurant owners…which I have to say, I had nothing to do with. It happened almost by accident. They were going into the restaurants with me, we were shooting the food, then they’d go back the next day to shoot b-roll in the kitchen. They did that documentary thing, where you talk to the cooks and the people who run the restaurant on camera. It turned out to be some of the most interesting stuff.
I’ve always sort of ranted about how so many people define Los Angeles by flying into town, being put up in the Beverly Wilshire hotel and writing about what they can get to in ten minutes in their rental car. That’s fine, in a way, but there’s so much more.
Your work’s had a tremendous impact on so many people in that city. You’ve been writing about food now for thirty years. I’m sure you’ve seen a shift over the years in how people search for food, young people finding the kinds of places you like on their own. Is that heartening to see?
Yeah, it’s good. Food has become almost tribal, in a way that wouldn’t be thinkable ten years ago. People are on Team Vegan, or Team Omnivore, or Team Nose-To-Tail, or they refuse to eat any Mexican food that isn’t in some really inconvenient suburb. Or they’re localvores and everything needs to come from within a fifty-mile radius. Sometimes they coincide. I think it’s funny that the nose-to-tail people and the vegans have so much in common. They both have as their goal eating as few animals as possible. You go to people in bars and they’ll talk to you about homemade dinners until you just want to melt into a puddle and float down the drain. You have people who raise chickens in their backyard and they compete to see who has the yellowest eggs. It’s cool. It’s creative.
What’s the biggest misconception about your career?
Maybe that I spend my entire life talking about taco stands. I do, but I’m the critic for the L.A. Times. I’ve got a lot of turf to cover. I write about more of that than anybody else in my position, but it’s not the only thing I do. When somebody doesn’t like the review I’ve given their restaurant, they’ll always snipe about the taco thing. Then again, there are twelve million people of Mexican origin in the L.A. metro area—that’s a lot of freaking people! That’s bigger than any city in Mexico except for Mexico City. It’s bigger than Guadalajara. If you’re not taking the Mexican community seriously, then what are you taking seriously? What is more important than that?
You and Laura started this project years ago. I imagine it took some time to build trust between you two before the project could really get going.
We sort of met a weird way. A friend asked me to donate a “dinner with a critic” to her kid’s school’s silent auction. Laura bid on it and we went to dinner. She brought up the idea and I said no. She’d keep bringing it up, and the next year my kid ended up going to school with her kid, so I ended up being in the same drop-off line. It’s much harder to say no to somebody you see every day. And, obviously, the anonymity thing was more for the readers’ sake than for what was actually going on inside the restaurants.
It’s like, you go in [the restaurant] and it’s less being anonymous than that you’re not noticing them noticing you pretending not to notice them…It got to be a distraction. There’s a point at which, if there were people who don’t recognize a critic and if the chef can make a difference—which I will say he cannot—then it’s giving the advantage to people who have superior warning systems. All I can do is reserve under weird names and show up late so I don’t get jumped ahead in the line. Service doesn’t really get better, it just gets more nervous. They ask you how you’re doing every 45 seconds instead of every five minutes, which is not really an improvement.