Jonathan Gold on Sustainability, Food Tribalism, and Eating “Lowish” on the Food Chain

The LA Times food critic is the subject of 'City of Gold,' a new documentary about restaurants, criticism, and Los Angeles.



jonathan_gold1Jonathan Gold has long been known in culinary circles as the only food writer to have won a Pulitzer Prize. Now, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic is the focus of a new documentary, City of Gold.

Filmmaker Laura Gabbert spent nearly five years accompanying Gold on his pickup truck ramblings throughout Los Angeles, visiting dozens of small, family-owned restaurants serving the panoply of world cuisines that Gold is famous for highlighting. The film is a beautiful meditation on Los Angeles, the role of the critic, and the importance of a vibrant food scene in a vast, diverse city.

Gold has a unique perspective on the food world after spending more than 30 years writing restaurant criticism, including stints at LA Weekly, Gourmet, and Los Angeles before joining the LA Times in 2012. We sat down with the critic to talk about food tribalism, family-owned restaurants, and the importance of eating “lowish” on the food chain.

Many of the restaurant owners in the movie said that after you wrote about their restaurant, they were getting an influx of new people coming in. Obviously it changes the makeup of the place as part of the community when that happens. Does that last?

Sometimes it’s enough to change the dynamic. Sometimes that actually works for the better and sometimes it doesn’t. There a restaurant in there, Jitlada. I was writing about the untranslated stuff on the back on the menu that was real regional southern Thai stuff. The rest of the menu was basically a Thai menu. Because of the article suddenly there were a lot more non-Thai people going there, but they were also ordering the really regional food. Maybe the way I wrote about it made it seem cool and challenging and super-pungent and super-spicy.

That’s a good side effect.

That’s a case where the review got people going into the restaurant. Not just going to a restaurant where they hadn’t before, but going to a restaurant for the right reason. Over the years I’ve sometimes done the other thing, in a weird way.

What’s the other thing?

For example, there’s a delicious Shandong style place called the least appetizing name in the world, 101 Noodle Express, attached to a bowling alley. They did this thing where they took a Chinese pancake and they’d roll it around braised beef and cilantro and a little bit of meat sauce. Delicious. Completely delicious. I wrote about the beef roll. It kind of became a favorite of people doing San Gabriel Valley crawls. Everybody started copying the beef roll. But apparently it was not a Shandong thing at all. It was kind of something they did, probably for Taiwanese teenagers. That’s okay, too.

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Your work has had a tremendous impact on so many people in Los Angeles. Is it heartening to see more young people searching out these kind of family-owned places on their own?

Yeah, it’s good. Food has become almost tribal in a way which I don’t think it was 10 years ago. People are like Team Vegan, Team Omnivore, or Team Nose-to-Tail. Or they refuse to eat any Mexican food that isn’t like in some really inconvenient suburb. Or they’re locavores and everything has to come within a 50-mile radius. Sometimes they coincide. I think it’s funny that the nose-to-tail people and the vegans have so much in common because they both have as their goal eating as few animals as possible. You have people talking about regular pickles versus lacto-fermented pickles. You have people who raise chickens in their backyard and the competition over who has the yellowest eggs. It’s cool, it’s creative.

It also seems like restaurants have become political in a way they hadn’t been before. What do you think about the fact that chefs like Tom Colicchio and Dan Barber are getting involved with food advocacy?

I think it’s great. Clearly a lot of the food systems in the country are broken. There’s obviously people working on a policy level to do stuff. But the advantage of chefs is that they have this sort of extreme visibility now and they’re able to get attention for things that maybe they wouldn’t have before. Does it matter that Dan Barber personally is talking to you about the need to eat cover crops? Maybe. If it’s prescribed by the government, there could be a new kind of food pyramid.

Do you feel a responsibility to think about sustainability in your reviews?

I do it more than some people find comfortable and less than other people would like. I will always call out a restaurant that serves bluefin tuna. Swordfish is delicious but I don’t eat it. I tend to shy away from apex species because a) we should stay away from them and b) imagine if somebody was in a helicopter fishing over the Serengeti and decided the lions were delicious. I’m obviously the farthest thing from a vegetarian, but I like to eat low-ish on the food chain. Sardines and mackerel and bluefish are delicious for me.

What do you think about LocoL, the new fast food restaurant from Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson?

It seems, at least at this point, three months after the opening, to have really caught on. There were a ton of food tours going there early on. Now, it’s mostly people from the neighborhood.

It’s not very polished, which is weird. You’d think a [chef-owned place] would be more polished than something like McDonalds, Burger King, or Jack in the Box. It’s not. It’s very homemade-tasting. They’re supplementing the beef on the burgers with fermented grains. They’re doing all kinds of modernist stuff without telling people. But people are so happy that there’s delicious food and they don’t have to go to Burger King.

What is the biggest misconception about your career?

Maybe that I spend my entire life writing about taco stands? I’m the critic for the LA Times. So I’ve written 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 12 million people of Mexican origin in the L.A. metro area. That’s more than any city in Mexico except for Mexico City. If you’re not taking the Mexican community seriously, what are you taking seriously? What is more important than that?

 

Photos: courtesy of Sundance Selects.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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