We have to bug Jonathan Gold about what he’s eaten in New York. The longtime restaurant critic, now stationed at the Los Angeles Times, is here to talk about “City of Gold,” a documentary about not just him but also his ideas: that writing about food in Los Angeles means writing about Los Angeles and its, as he’s put it, “beautiful mosaic” of culture.Alas, when we speak he’s only been here a day, so all he can talk about is La Sirena, Mario Batali’s first New York restaurant in years. (“It was spot on. I was really happy,” he dishes.)
Still, Gold does talk briefly about his stint here from 1999 to 2001, when he was the New York critic for Gourmet magazine. He and a friend would haunt the same kind of tiny ethnic enclaves he writes about back home. “We used to spend an awful lot of time in Canarsie and Mill Basin, visiting strange Uzbek places in Rego Park,” Gold recalls. But most of our conversation is Los Angeles-centric, even if one can extrapolate from it a need to explore any multicultural city on the planet, or just the world itself.
Being the subject of a documentary is probably easier now, since restaurant critics can no longer keep their identity secret.
I was aware that the idea of anonymity for restaurant critics was over, especially in the Internet age. I’d be in a restaurant and I’d be drinking my first cocktail, and then someone would say, “Hey, someone put your picture on Instagram.”
One might think this film is about how you write or even about eating food, but it’s really about the richness of Los Angeles. Was that always director Laura Gabbert’s vision for the film?
She wanted to film the mechanics of doing a film review. But she wasn’t going to come with me when I was reviewing a restaurant, because there was no way I could be fair to the restaurant with a film crew around. So it’s all places I’ve been to a million times and written about.
Originally it was going to be meal-focused. There was going to be a lot of sitting around in restaurants. We filmed many of those, over four or five years. It turned out the stuff between the restaurants are the most interesting parts. The parts I love are the parts in the car, the driving through L.A., with music and light changing and just the rhythm of the city.
Historically, Los Angeles is portrayed a certain way on film. But if you really try to get to know it, whether as a visitor or a denizen, you see it’s nothing like it is in the movies.
It’s a hard city to know. It has spent so much time being every other city on the planet. [Laughs] You hear about the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, but when you go there you look around and see office buildings and bad restaurants. You go, “What is this? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be looking for?”
It takes awhile to know.It’s easy to hole up in whatever enclaves you happen to be in. And I’m not even going to say the rich people with their beautiful houses in the Hills. There are also people holed up in the Chinese enclaves or the Central Americans south of Midtown or the Cambodians in North Long Beach. There are so many ways to be insular in Los Angeles. There’s so many ways to live your life without being more than dimly aware of other people’s cultures. In my writing, and in this movie, the idea is to pluck people out of their comfort zones and make them live in the entire city. We have it; we might as well.
As a writer who often covers small neighborhoods and tiny hole-in-the-walls, do you worry about gentrification? It’s probably not the same as it is in New York, where enclaves are being priced out of Brooklyn and Queens and moving ever westward.
There is classic gentrification, like with Silver Lake and Echo Park, which have been Chicano for generations and are suddenly becoming white. You also see it in other ways, like the San Gabriel Valley, east of Downtown, which was the last enclave of the working class white in Los Angeles. A lot of those people are moving to Nevada and Utah. They’ve been replaced by slightly more affluent Chinese and Asians and Vietnamese.
It’s not quite cut-and-dry. The monolithic way of thinking is that one group is the gentrifier and the other group is the gentrified, and being the gentrifier means that you put in an Arby’s or a Jack in the Box or an In N Out Burger. Instead of that, we’re almost seeing the opposite. In [the San Gabriel Valley], a lot of former House of Pies and IHOPs are now Chinese restaurants. People from all over the world are taking over these communities.
There’s a book out now by A.O. Scott, “Better Living Through Criticism,” that argues criticism can be the equal of art — that by reflecting and trying to articulate what artists are doing, one can create a form of art, too. It seems that applies to food criticism as well.
I’ve written a lot of music criticism and a fair amount of movie criticism and art criticism. The disciplines are not dissimilar. The goals are the same. The first and primary one is that the job of the critic is to discern what the creator has made and be able to evaluate it on its own terms, rather than trying to make it fit a certain mold you might have. Then you have to articulate that to the audience.
The second thing is you have to be able to put it into context. Somebody reading [a review] may never have been and may never go to it. But by putting it in a certain place in the culture, they’re able to understand it. They may get to the end of the essay and they’ve learned something, maybe. It’s like those essays in the New York Review of Books that will seem to only tangentially touch on the book it’s ostensibly reviewing. Then you get to the end and you realize, “Oh wait, this actually has talked about the book the entire time and I know more than I did when I started.”
Simple final question: Is there a kind of food you hate?
I really dislike eggs. Recently the thing is every single f—ing dish comes with this 62-degree egg on it. This year it’s more fried eggs. I like things with egg in them, but just seeing a naked egg gives me no pleasure.
What about with ramen, which sometimes has a certain, darkly yellow egg amongst the ingredients.
I admire it. I know 17 ways to look at its texture. And then I usually hand it to my kid. [Laughs]
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge