A few years ago, I moved to Los Angeles with a mission. I’d been hearing nonstop about the city’s dining renaissance. As a total restaurant geek, I needed to try all the best spots, eat every new and exciting thing and immediately begin enumerating a vast edible laundry list. I consulted folks I trusted in all things food, but to my surprise, the recommendations were nothing like the hip, trendy spots I’d come to expect in New York City. Instead, many were out of the way, not to mention my comfort zone. They were places I couldn’t pronounce, in neighborhoods I’d never heard of, occupying undistinguished strip malls I’d have passed right by, representing parts of the world I didn’t even know existed.
“It’s on Gold’s list,” my friends would tell me. Or “Gold gave it a rave.”
I had no idea who this mythical figure was — this Great and Powerful Oz of Angel City. And when I was told he was the resident food critic, I’ll admit, I balked. I had by that point developed some pretty strong opinions about that particular role in food culture. In New York, he or she who wielded and bestowed the coveted stars literally held lives and livelihoods in their hands. The kind of career make-or-break power felt so unfounded to me. Who was any person, regardless of palate sophistication or culinary prowess, to sit on high, doling out judgment to my friends, colleagues, and neighbors? Whose interests did the food critic really serve anymore?
Of course, anyone familiar with his work could have told me that in Jonathan’s case, the answer was simple: He was working in the interests of his city. And after taking his culinary advice, and a seat at some of the restaurants he celebrated, I became a firm believer in Jonathan Gold’s methods.
More Reflections on Jonathan Gold
As a diner, he was an oracle. As a writer, Jonathan was an example. Evaluations of each restaurant’s preparations were in his reviews. Some were not to be missed; others might simply be regarded as “fine.” Missing from his summations were the snarky, condescending, and sometimes downright mean-spirited quips that are commonplace with so many contemporary food critics.
And each dish was really just the serving plate on which Jonathan arranged his grander compositions: commentary about culture, community, and humanity. He set his urban scenes prosaically — from Little Tokyo and K-Town to the Santa Monica Pier. Jonathan wrote about food in black and white typeset, but the stories he masterfully told between each line of newsprint are what earned him a Pulitzer Prize, and the adoration of an industry. For the first time, I saw thoughtful, insightful and informed food writing as a matter of populace, not only popularity.
As a newcomer, with some apprehension about living in L.A., his body of work was a guidebook. But it wasn’t because of the food; it was in his words that my new city became accessible. Exciting, compelling, romantic — and even tragic, at times. Rather than tell an indecipherable and intimidating tale of urban sprawl, Jonathan spun a story about a flowing, cohesive, and nuanced community. Each piece he published felt not like an individual review, but a chapter in a greater narrative about the city, with each cook a fully realized character.
Later, when I became involved in a project called "The Migrant Kitchen," Jonathan’s influence took on new significance. In a collaborative project between KCET and Life & Thyme, the show was created as an observation of the diverse influences of Los Angeles as the regional culinary industry’s bedrock. The show felt like an extension of his work. It would have been very difficult to create "The Migrant Kitchen" had he not already laid a foundation, done the exploration, and made the dining public aware of the dynamic global factors at play right on their own dinner tables.
In his poignant writing, he could sum up centuries of history and a lifetime of culinary philosophy in a few lines, or through a single dish. Of Chef Bryant Ng of Cassia in Santa Monica, whom we documented in the episode “Beyond Pho,” Jonathan once wrote, “His pot-au-feu… is a statement of purpose written in carrots, broth and beef… Ng, trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, is claiming the essence of French cooking as his own; colonizing the colonizers.” He asked that readers appreciate not only the ingredients on the plate but the myriad factors that led to their confluence.
When his name came up in conversations with our subjects for the show, which it almost invariably did, it was with reverence and gratitude. Not so much that Jonathan made their business — in the way that a three-star New York Times review might do — but that he respected and patronized it. He loved it in a manner that perhaps journalists weren’t expected or even permitted to. Jonathan became a part of these restaurant families as a beloved regular and a friend.
Jonathan restored the humanity to food criticism. He knew that to calculate a place based on the usual metrics — ingredient quality, ambiance, technique and service style — would be to leave the most important things off the table. Experience, adversity, love and intention should all carry equal, if not more, weight.
Los Angeles is an imperfect and sometimes misunderstood city. Its residents face enormous challenges regularly. It frequently hosts the transient and the impermanent — folks passing through for certain industries, taking what serves them before leaving it behind. But Jonathan’s work grounded its personality in the reliable and passionate people serving its food. Maybe they were newly-minted Angelenos arriving from far-flung corners of the world — a fresh and vibrant spice added to the city’s long-simmering stew. Others may have been celebrating their business’s third or fourth decade and have now become an authentic and indisputable flavor steeped into the culinary landscape.
If we are fortunate enough to see them emerge and follow in his footsteps, Jonathan’s legacy will be evident in generations of future food writers. His palate was singular, his perspective always thought-provoking, his voice eminent. But his sensitivity and soul are what set him apart, and what brought the city together.
In a May 2018 interview with Life & Thyme about the L.A. Food Bowl, Jonathan told writer Nicole Ziza Bauer, “My idea was to get people to live in their entire city. To get out of their neighborhoods, to realize the astonishing stuff was going on around them.” If we all remember to do that, we’ll not only honor his memory, we’ll make the world — the city of Los Angeles and far beyond — a more joyful, hospitable and compassionate place to live. That he showed us how to do that through simple, honest food is truly astonishing.
Top Image: Portrait of Jonathan Gold | Larry Busacca for Getty Images