L.A. Times Food Critic Jonathan Gold on Giving Up Anonymity: ‘I’m Pretty Distinct Looking’
The renowned restaurant reviewer talks about giving David Chang a bad review, loving ‘the hell out of’ Kendrick Lamar, and curating the L.A. Food Bowl festival.
There is perhaps nowhere on earth that Jonathan Gold is more likely to get recognized than walking around the Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles. And that is exactly what happens within seconds of us approaching the counter to order some Filipino rice bowls from his favorite stand in the market, Sari Sari Store, on a chilly Monday afternoon.
As Gold tries to decide between the Sisig Fried Rice and the Arroz Caldo—he chooses the former, I go for the latter—a fan approaches to tell him how much he admires his work as the city’s preeminent restaurant critic and just maybe the world.
There was a time when food critics tried to remain anonymous (even wearing disguises and using credit cards in various names), lest the chefs they were reviewing realized they were in the dining room and gave them special treatment. That ship had already pretty much sailed for Gold when he became the subject of the documentary City of Gold, which had its premiere at Sundance in 2015. His episode of David Chang’s popular Netflix series Ugly Delicious, in which he led the host and some friends on a tour of L.A.’s best taco trucks, has only solidified his celebrity.
Gold says he decided fairly early in his career that trying to stay anonymous as a restaurant critic is “more trouble than it’s worth,” adding, “I certainly can’t get away with it, I’m pretty distinct looking.”
“It really started after I won the Pulitzer,” Gold says, a bit immodestly, about the being the first reviewer to win that prestigious prize for food criticism in 2007. Someone at LA Weekly, where he was working at the time, took a photo of him getting sprayed with champagne that ended up getting posted all over town. All of a sudden he was famous on the internet.
When our food arrives, Gold casually offers me the fried egg that comes on top of his fried rice. He explains that eggs are one of the few foods he just doesn’t like. “I have had eggs that I imagine were probably the best eggs that anybody in the world were eating at that particularly moment and they were still eggs,” he says.
His writing is one thing, but Gold suspects that the real reason so many people admire him is because of the pleasure that they’ve had at the restaurants he’s sent them to. “Suddenly I’m associated with this happiness and I’m fine with that,” he says. “The converse is sometimes you’ll have a bad experience at a restaurant I recommend.” But for those who religiously follow Gold’s annual list of the 101 best restaurants in Los Angeles, that scenario is rare.
While many Angelenos rely on him for their restaurant recommendations, Gold explains his method for discovering hidden gems in two words: “Shoe leather.” That old-school approach is best exemplified by the year he set out to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, an ambitious self-imposed challenge that he has called a “reasonable enough alternative to graduate school.”
“If I’m going to write about, say, a Sichuan hot pot place, now there are probably a hundred of them,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you about the mediocre ones, I’m only going to tell you about the one at the top.” He might not make it to all of them, but he’ll get close.
When I suggest that Gold doesn’t really like to write about meals he didn’t enjoy, he jokes, “You can ask Dave Chang about that one.”
Reservations at Chang’s first L.A. restaurant Majordomo are nearly impossible to come by. On a recent night, both Gwyneth Paltrow and Joel McHale were spotted in the dining room at the same time. But a couple of weeks ago, Gold gave it what would generously be called a mixed review. “People thought it was a pan,” he says. One of those people may have been Chang.
In the piece, Gold admitted it was a hard review to write, disclosing both that he appears with Chang in Ugly Delicious and that he is “furious” at the chef for dismantling the beloved Lucky Peach food magazine. “If you go to Majordomo hoping to taste something like Koreatown cooking with the umami cranked to 10, you may be confused,” he wrote. It didn’t get all that much better from there.
“There are some things he’s doing really well,” Gold tells me. “But it’s sort of inconsistent. And the thing that I found strange was that he’s doing a lot of mainstream Korean food, but it’s just not quite there.”
“I’ve burned good friendships over bad reviews,” he adds, without naming names. “You just have to be willing to do it.”
His good reviews, on the other hand, have been known to change lives.
In City of Gold, we hear from numerous first generation immigrant restaurant owners—including those behind Thai Town’s Jitlada and Little Ethiopia’s Meals by Genet—who owe their wealth and success to a single good review from the critic. After Gold reviewed the Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza, co-owner Bricia Lopez-Maytorena recalls, “One day my dad walked in and says, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’”
“One thing that’s good about what I do is that it helps people who are really good at their job become somewhat more prosperous,” Gold says, reluctant to take too much credit for anyone else’s success.
He might be a little biased, but Gold says he’s “always felt” that L.A. is the best food city in America. “The traditional ‘great restaurant,’ meaning French restaurant with 60 people in the kitchen, L.A. doesn’t do that,” he says. “And so there’s a certain type of restaurant that New York has a ton of and we don’t have any of. But what we have instead is astonishing diversity.”
That diversity is on display in a major way at the Los Angeles Times’ second annual L.A. Food Bowl festival, which runs for the full month of May and includes hundreds of different meal events from high-profile chefs like Nancy Silverton (Mozza), Curtis Stone (Gwen) and Yoshihiro Narisawa whose eponymous Tokyo restaurant Gold said made him “shudder with pleasure” in his review this past month.
Gold was inspired to start the festival after attending Sydney, Australia’s Good Food Month a couple of years ago. He took the idea to his bosses at the L.A. Times and they jumped at the opportunity. He estimates that he is responsible for about 70-percent of the programming at the sprawling festival. “The things that I really wanted to happen seem to be happening,” he says, though one idea for a panel about food and space with Elon Musk will have to wait for another year.
“I was adamant that as many of the chefs involved should be women and they are,” he adds. “I’m the biggest carnivore that exists, but there wasn’t enough content for vegetarians last year.” With that in mind, there will be a No Beast Feast later this month hosted by Border Grill’s Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken that he is particularly excited about. He’s also seriously looking forward to this Friday’s Sichuan Summit at the Million Dollar Theatre in Downtown L.A.
Gold began his career as a music critic, writing first about classical music and then about hip-hop, before transitioning to food full-time in the late ‘90s. “When you’re writing about pop music, you kind of reach an expiration date,” he says. “I can tell you the exact moment that it was.”
He tells a story about when he was on the road following an unnamed band—“you wouldn’t have heard of them anyway”—for the now defunct Details magazine. It was three in the morning after a show and the lead singer was talking about he had dropped out of his Ivy League school halfway through freshman year to pursue music full-time. Gold found himself blurting out, “Your poor parents.”
“He was too high, I don’t even think he heard me,” Gold says. “But at that moment I knew that if there was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ I was them.” While he think you can enjoy burritos “at any age,” he’s not sure the same is true of death metal. These days, “embarrassingly enough,” Gold mostly listens to opera and chamber music. “But I also love the hell out of Kendrick Lamar,” he adds of his fellow Pulitzer Prize winner.
After more 30 years in the food criticism game, Gold shows no signs of slowing down. “At this point, it’s what I do,” he says. “And I don’t mind it at all.” From the perspective of anyone who loves to eat, Gold seems to have the most fun job in the world.
“Of course there are downsides, but I’m not sure what the point of talking about them is,” he says. “My job is enjoyable. I love going out to eat in the way a theater critic loves theater. I love going to farmer’s markets. I love sticking my hands in pots. And it turns out that food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”