July 2010

Tastemakers Jonathan Gold

Food Processor

Sitting at a barside table in Cole’s downtown, one of his favorite cocktail spots, Jonathan Gold swirls a rye old-fashioned, pontificating on all things gustatory—truly, ALL things.

A steady stream of insight ensues. On libations: “With cocktails, if the dilution is correct and it has the proper chill, it almost doesn’t matter what’s in it. It’s going to be great.” On local Mexican food: “Los Angeles has always had the reputation of having great Mexican food, but we really didn’t have great regional Mexican until about 15 years ago.” And on the ethics of eating octopus: “I have read a f--k of a lot about octopus intelligence. It does not have a centralized brain.”

For those out there who have been sleeping under a rock, Gold is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the L.A. Weekly’s “Counter Intelligence” column. The “high-low priest of the L.A. food scene,” as the New Yorker calls Gold, has built a reputation as our city’s (and arguably America’s) top food critic. He consistently shows unmatched culinary bravery—Gold was eating daring foods long before the Food Network’s Andrew Zimmern—and a compassionate exploration of L.A.’s global fare, treating taco trucks with the same reverence as a Michelin-rated restaurant.

“I write about those places, too,” he says of Los Angeles’ more decadent eateries. “But I’m of the mindset that the bigger the kitchen, the more people sweat in your food.”

His work takes him to every corner of Los Angeles—no strip mall in our megalopolis is too remote or below the radar. His obsession for off-the-beaten-path cuisine leads him to do crazy things like scour Chinese phone books to find restaurants he’s never tried—health code ratings be damned—and he’ll eat there a minimum of three times before penning a review.

“The old way to do things when writing about traditional cuisines was to go in with an interpreter and a guide,” Gold says. “That’s the chamber-of-commerce version of eating. I prefer babbling my way to the heart of the menu. What really excites me is the prospect of finding a new cuisine.”

These days, that isn’t so easy. By his own estimation, Gold has sampled every ethnic strain of cuisine L.A. has to offer. He believes we are the number one destination for food on the planet—and his boosterism has drawn the attention of a skeptical East Coast elite.

“Jonathan writes about culture, rather than cuisine, and he does it brilliantly,” says former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl, who brought Gold to the L.A. Times in 1990 for a six-year stint before taking him with her to Gourmet. “When I asked him to write for the Times, I thought he was, by far, the most interesting critic in the country. Dozens of wanna-be food writers do their best to imitate his style.”

Gold’s writing is eminently readable, which helps account for his mass appeal and influence. It doesn’t take a foodie to appreciate his eccentric metaphors and pop-culture references (in which, say, broths are not spicy, they’re “violent”).

Tony Chen of the L.A. food site SinoSoul is among a growing number of Gold-inspired bloggers and fanboys. “Annoyingly, I’ve been accused of being a ‘wannabe’ JGold on several occasions,” Chen says. “That allegation serves to only denigrate his stature.”

Indeed, Gold has rewired the way Angelenos see their city by celebrating the insular tendencies that foster hybrid cuisines like Isaan Thai or Islamic Chinese. We’re living in what he describes as an “anti-melting pot.” And that is good for foodies.

“Jonathan,” says Evan Kleiman, Angeli Caffe owner and host of KCRW’s Good Food radio show, “is a canny sociologist who uses food to entice us out of our podlike neighborhoods into the greater world of faces and flavors.” There’s an underlying concept here, as Gold has also inspired L.A.’s provincial upper middle class. After all, if a harmless white food critic can hit that taco stand in Highland Park, well, then it must be safe to bring the kids.

Ultimately, Gold’s “Counter Intelligence” serves everyone—and it continues to reveal previously unrecognized pockets of culinary greatness. More than that, it serves as a dare. Sure, he will challenge you to sample boiled silkworm cocoons or pig-uterus tacos. But more important, he’ll challenge you to get off your ass and explore Los Angeles—because if you can’t be a tourist in your own city, it’s likely you don’t live in a great one.
—Matthew Fleischer