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Chefs and Friends Share Their Fondest Memories of Jonathan Gold

It’s difficult to think of Los Angeles existing without the inimitable Jonathan Gold. The prolific Los Angeles Times food critic had become our trusted culinary captain, helping steer us in the right direction to our city’s hidden cultural gems, from the humble taco truck to the strip mall pho shop.

When Gold recently died at 57 of pancreatic cancer, there was a hush that fell over the city. The only word that comes to mind is the Portuguese expression of “saudade” — an almost untranslatable word that evokes a bittersweet feeling of nostalgic yearning for something or someone that we lost, but happiness for having the chance to experience it in all its beauty.

Like many other food writers in L.A., I was inspired by the erudite “Belly of Los Angeles” to traverse to different neighborhoods, order dishes I was slightly wary of at shoebox restaurants, and view food through cultural and historical lenses. Both Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list and his book, “Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, served as my guides to the city.

I didn’t personally know Gold, but through his evocative writing, I felt like I did. It was as if I was sitting right there with him at the table as he was comparing Rossoblu’s Italian minestra nel sacco to the paomo of Shaanxi cuisine, or waxing poetic about the history of grilling meat over an open flame. I laughed when he inadvertently reviewed an Olive Garden restaurant after an April Fools’ prank gone wrong, and went to great lengths describing El Atacor #11’s potato burrito as a "porno burrito." And then there were his thoughtful observations that nobody else would even think to write about, like how he noticed several of the employees at Longo Seafood Restaurant used to work at a different Cantonese eatery in the San Gabriel Valley.

I feel like I got to understand the other facets of Gold’s character this week as I spoke to chefs and his friends and colleagues who shared their favorite memories of the Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe. It would have been Gold’s 58th birthday on July 28. These conversations paint a picture of a generous man who helped uplift small businesses and the every man, as well as someone who was more than willing to share his wealth of knowledge about not only food but L.A. and the arts. A procrastinator to deadlines, Gold was an enigma to some and like a family member to others.

Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong, owner of Jitlada

Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong sets a table at Jitlada
Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong sets a table at Jitlada | Ken Hively for Getty Images

“He’d done so much for my family that I can’t pay him back,” Singsanong said in a tearful phone call.

Her Southern Thai restaurant, Jitlada, was propelled into popularity after Gold wrote about it in his former publication, LA Weekly. Over the years, he continued to support Jitlada in myriad ways, from including it in his 101 Best Restaurants guide to featuring the restaurant in the documentary about him called “City of Gold.” When Singsanong’s brother Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee, who was a co-owner and chef of Jitlada, passed away last year from lung cancer, Gold helped organize a star-studded charity event honoring him with proceeds that went to The American Cancer Society.

“When I lost my brother, [Gold became] my brother,” Singsanong says. “I can’t stand it [that in] one year I lost two persons that I love the most in my life.”

Singsanong fondly remembers the first time Gold came into her restaurant. At the time, she didn’t quite know who he was, except that he was a food critic. She walked over to tell him the story behind her restaurant and that started the beginning of their relationship. Most recently, they had talked about writing a cookbook together and Singsanong wanted to donate the money they made to cancer charities.

The day after Gold died, the spiritual Singsanong went to a Thai temple and brought the writer’s favorite dish, a turmeric fish dry curry, as an offering to the monks. “I believe that in [the] first three days after you die, your soul is still around,” Singsanong says. “I believe he saw what I did for him.”

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Bricia Lopez, co-owner of Guelaguetza

Guelaguetza Lopez Siblings
The Lopez siblings of Guelaguetza

Like Jitlada, Guelaguetza started off as a small business that grew into prominence after a Gold review. He called it “one of the best Oaxacan restaurants in the country.”

A few years ago, Gold wrote a Los Angeles Times article about the Lopez family’s Oaxacan Christmas traditions. Her mom recreated an entire holiday feast for him. Gold arrived with his colleague, food editor Amy Scattergood, and they dined with Lopez, her parents, her siblings and her son over a night filled with wonderful conversations, Lopez says.

“I remember my dad being so nervous [because] he looked up to Jonathan so much,” Lopez explains. “My mom was nervous, too. She had cooked for Jonathan at the restaurant, but never one-on-one like this. But Jonathan was so sweet, kind, curious and just an overall good human being. At the end of the day, he was having mezcal with my dad, laughing and making an effort to speak Spanish and understand my dad’s broken English.”

Lopez says that Gold became part of her family, and was like an uncle, mentor and friend to her. “When I told my dad the news [of Gold’s death], we both cried together over the phone,” Lopez says. “He did so much for my family. My dad told me, ‘I don’t feel like I ever did enough to repay him. Guelaguetza wouldn’t be what it is today without Jonathan. We owe him our lives.’”    

Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food”

Gold was often a guest on KCRW’s weekly “Good Food” radio program and worked closely with Kleiman over the years. One of Kleiman’s favorite moments she had with Gold was when she went on a road trip to Las Vegas with him and her producer at the time, Gillian Ferguson.

She says that two days in, they realized that in addition to organizing interviews with chefs and restauranteurs, they should have put a microphone in the car to record “Jonathan’s musings” as they were traveling.

“As we drove onto the Strip and he scanned store windows filled with high-end fashion, he made a comment about the Rodarte mermaid collection,” Kleiman says. “Gillian and I locked eyes in the rear-view mirror and just lost it. He kept up with everything and had an opinion about it.”

Nick Liao, managing producer of KCRW’s “Good Food”

Gold was known for being notoriously late to dinner and turning in copy for deadlines, a topic that even his friend, food critic Ruth Reichl, recently wrote about in the Los Angeles Times. “But just when you were ready to explode, he’d write something so wonderful, or do something so endearing, that you’d forgive him,” she wrote.

Liao had a similar experience with Gold. Over the past year, since he took over the reins as managing producer of “Good Food,” he shared a couple of meals with Gold. In those settings, Liao says he got to see a different side of his personality.

“Working with him — and I think a lot of people said this — could often be difficult,” Liao says. “Sometimes you’d be mad at him because he was late on a deadline or he hadn’t showed up or responded to your texts, but then there would be these personal kindnesses that he did that kind of made you forget [you were upset]. He would just engage you in a conversation or take some particular interest in your life.”

Liao recalls a time when Gold was late for a recording. Gold took Liao out to lunch at Sari Sari Store in Grand Central Market to “kind of smooth over a bad day we had,” Liao explains. After lunch, they took a leisurely walk to the Los Angeles Times building and chatted about beef noodle soups and Taiwanese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.

“I’m Taiwanese, but [I thought as Gold was talking to me that he might] know more about my food than I do,” Liao says. “It’s something I’ve also heard from Korean and Chinese people, that he loved our cultures so much that it made us feel seen. Oftentimes, we don’t feel seen by other people. He gave us dignity when he paid attention to those things.”

Phil Rosenthal, host of Netflix’s “Somebody Feed Phil”

Rosenthal was introduced to Gold through their mutual friend and Mozzaplex chef and co-owner Nancy Silverton, and over time they shared many meals together. When Rosenthal hosted a screening of “City of Gold” at his house, Gold even came by and introduced the documentary to his guests.

“He was quite a character,” Rosenthal says. “You couldn’t always get your head around where he was coming from, which was part of the mystery and allure. There were times we would playfully argue because when all is said and done, food’s not that serious a subject, right? It is to the people who make it, but for [the rest of us] it’s another form of entertainment. For those of us who make it a bit of our lives’ work, especially Jonathan, it was so much more than that. It was culture, history, the people and the expression of the people.

“For me, and I think for him and the great Anthony Bourdain, who we also lost, what we have in common is we realize that food is just this great connector. Jonathan even said he was trying to make all of us a little less afraid of our neighbors, which is something I’ve taken to heart.”

Ludo Lefebvre, chef and owner of Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Trois Familia and LudoBird

Chef Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec
Chef Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec

On a very busy night at Lefebvre’s first iteration of the LudoBites multi-city restaurant tour concept, Gold walked in without a reservation and one of the servers told him that they wouldn’t be able to accommodate him.

“Now, keep in mind that when I started doing LudoBites it was because I did not want to cook for critics,” the French chef says. “I just wanted to cook. No handcuffs, no ratings, no stars, none of that. I didn't care about what critics thought. Well, that was until my server sent Jonathan away. I sent [my wife] Krissy running after him.”

She told Gold that they could get him a table in 45 minutes. Gold didn’t commit to the offer, so they just waited to see what he would do. When Gold returned to the event, Lefebvre says he started to sweat.

“I was lucky that [Gold] was always very supportive of what I did, but that did not take away the stress of waiting to read his words after he had dined,” Lefebvre says. “He never gave you a thumbs up at the restaurant. You had no idea if he enjoyed his meal, but he was kind and so smart. He would sometimes stay late after service at some LudoBites [events], usually with [his wife] Laurie [Ochoa], and we would just talk, not about the food or anything related to the restaurant. And you can imagine me with my English, we had some funny half-conversations sometimes.

“It was kind of amazing to develop a friendship [with Gold] over the years and yet still be completely and totally scared every time he was going to put pen to paper about my food. I respected him so much, and so did everyone else. His passing is a huge loss for the culinary world.”

Charles Olalia, chef and owner of RiceBar and Ma’am Sir

Olalia remembers when Gold first showed up at RiceBar. “He stood by the door for what seemed like an eternity, to the point of me asking him if he wanted me to just order for him,” he says.

It was uneventful. Gold ate, had minimal conversation with Olalia and left. As Olalia would run into Gold at other restaurants, he recalls Gold’s wife, Ochoa, being more of “the happy conversationalist” and Gold being “awkward and snobbish, dismissive sometimes.”

However, Olalia says as the years progressed, Gold gave RiceBar nods on his coveted 101 Best Restaurants list, invited Olalia to do a panel on Filipino food for the L.A. Food Bowl and participate in kickoff parties.

“He was very generous with us,” Olalia says. “I’d worked in big restaurants with infinite budgets, but never once did I get those invites [back then].”

Olalia compared Gold to being like a distant uncle, one that you told yourself that you didn’t care what he thought, but deep down, you wanted some acknowledgment from him.

“I remember telling myself to never cook to please critics, [but] what I’d realized was [Gold] never wanted to be pleased, he just wanted to taste the warmth and honesty of your soul and your reason for cooking,” Olalia says.

His last conversation with Gold was at a Filipino dinner at City Hall. “He was so giddy and happy and very casual. He even asked for a to-go bag to pack some food for [his] children. He threw a few jokes, [we had] a longer conversation and some real hard laughs. I’ll take that.”

Nguyen Tran, chef and co-owner of Starry Kitchen

Tran and his wife Thi never expected that their Starry Kitchen venture would have made it as far as it has today. He partly credits their success to Gold placing them in the 55th spot in his 101 Best Restaurants list in 2013. The following year, Starry Kitchen moved down to the 101st position, but Tran was happy all the same to even be in the guide.

A fervent fan that was upset about Starry Kitchen’s lowered ranking challenged Gold on Twitter about it. This interaction made Tran nervous because he didn’t want to seem entitled, and wanted to express his appreciation to Gold for even being included in the list.

On the night of the Los Angeles Times event that celebrated the release of the list, Tran showed up in his signature banana costume. A staffer told him to wear it at the request of Gold, not realizing that the food critic had said it in jest. When Gold and his wife, Ochoa, arrived at the event, Tran went over to say hello, and the couple began apologizing to him, telling him that the Starry Kitchen drop to the 101 ranking on the list wasn’t indicative of what they thought of them.

“I think it’s important to understand the Gold family was a unit and not just Jonathan,” Tran says. “Laurie backing up Jonathan to console and comfort me confirmed that. And why did Jonathan and Laurie feel the need to coddle me? They didn’t have to do that. They called the shots, I didn’t. I would honestly bow down and kiss his feet, knowing how many times he’d saved my business, my sanity and continually validated us to a community that isn’t always sure about our antics.

“I was honored. I was thankful. I didn’t care [as much] about our ranking as my somewhat peeved and passionate fan. I was just happy to be there.”

Ker Zhu, co-owner of Mason’s Dumpling Shop and Luscious Dumplings

Ker Zhu
Ker Zhu of Luscious Dumplings

“Everyone knows that when [Gold] wrote about your restaurant, you were going to have a line out the door for two months,” Zhu says.

Gold had written a favorable review about Zhu’s in-laws’ restaurant, Luscious Dumplings, back in 2004. When Zhu and his wife quietly opened a second location in Monrovia, Gold was one of the earliest customers at the restaurant, much to Zhu’s surprise, since he hadn’t done any publicity announcing the opening of this new outpost.

Zhu didn’t know Gold personally but says that when he did introduce himself, he was astonished to find out that Gold seemed to know the history about his and his family’s business that nobody else did. At an event where there was a long line of people waiting to talk to Gold, he took his time to chat with Zhu, writing down Zhu’s Chinese restaurant recommendations.

“It’s very memorable to me because he’s willing to listen and he wanted to know what we were doing,” Zhu says. “He’s not just a big-time celebrity. He’s [someone that’s] really into the details.”

Laura Gabbert, director of “City of Gold”

Jonathan Gold at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles | Image from the film "City of Gold"
Jonathan Gold at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles | Image from the film "City of Gold"

Gabbert spent countless hours with Gold in his iconic green Dodge Ram truck while they traveled to different restaurants throughout greater L.A. filming the documentary about him called "City of Gold."

“Sometimes we’d film and sometimes we wouldn’t,” Gabbert says. “[What stood] out to me are just the things he would tell me about while we were driving through Los Angeles. He really knew the city so well and had such an incredible grasp of the cultural, geographic and political history of the city. He could tell me about the history of a particular freeway we were on or a particular intersection, or just a stretch of Pico or San Fernando or wherever we were.”

Gabbert was already a Gold fan long before she got the chance to film him for the documentary. “I always loved that his reviews were just as much about a specific place, neighborhood and street [as] they were about the actual food or restaurant,” she explains. “I also think he was very open to anything new and never wanted to get stuck in his ways. He challenged himself a lot, and I think for anyone, but specifically artists and filmmakers, he was a great mentor. In many ways, [he kept] challenging my point of view of my cultural relativism and other things that we kind of get entrenched in as artists and human beings.”

Top Image: Los Angeles restaurant critic Jonathan Gold | Anne Cusack for Getty Images

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