Jonathan Gold, Food Critic Who Celebrated LA’s Cornucopia, Dies at 57
Posted July 21, 2018 11:44 p.m. EDT
Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic whose curious, far-ranging, relentless explorations of his native Los Angeles helped his readers understand dozens of cuisines and helped the city understand itself, died Saturday in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 57.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Margy Rochlin, a close friend.
In more than a thousand reviews published since the 1980s, Gold chronicled his city’s pupuserias, bistros, diners, nomadic taco trucks, soot-caked outdoor rib and brisket smokers, sweaty indoor xiao long bao steamers, postmodern pizzerias, vintage delicatessens, strictly omakase sushi-yas, Roman gelaterias, Korean porridge parlors, Lanzhou hand-pullled noodle vendors, Iranian tongue-sandwich shops, vegan hot dog griddles, cloistered French-leaning hyper-seasonal tasting counters and wood-paneled Hollywood grills with chicken potpie and martinis on every other table.
Unlike some critics, Gold never saw expensive, rarefied restaurants as the peak of the terrain he surveyed, although he reviewed his share of them. Shiki Beverly Hills, Noma and Alinea all took turns under his critical loupe. He was in his element, though, when he championed small, family-run establishments where publicists and wine lists were unheard-of and English was often a second language, if it was spoken at all.
“Before Tony Bourdain, before reality TV and ‘Parts Unknown’ and people really being into ethnic food in a serious way, it was Jonathan who got it, completely,” writer and editor Ruth Reichl said. “He really got that food was a gateway into the people, and that food could really define a community. He was really writing about the people more than the food.”
Gold wrote about restaurants for Gourmet, California and Los Angeles magazines, but the bulk of his reviews appeared in two newspapers: LA Weekly, where in 2007 he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and the Los Angeles Times, where he had been the chief critic since 2012, treating the restaurants of famous and obscure chefs as if he saw no distinction between them. Each publication hired him twice, with long breaks between tours of duty.
He became the subject of a documentary called “City of Gold,” a role model imitated painstakingly and largely in vain by a generation of food writers, a living street atlas of Southern California, the inspiration for a rap tribute in which his list of “99 Essential LA Restaurants” was declaimed over the beat of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” and a verb. When actor Mindy Kaling asked Twitter for a pizza recommendation, she added: “Don’t Jonathan Gold me and tell me to go to the San Gabriel Valley.”
He may not have eaten everything in Los Angeles, but nobody came closer. He rarely went to the subject of one of his reviews without stopping to try four or five other places along the way. He once estimated that in the hunt for interesting new things to eat and write about, he put 20,000 miles on his green Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck each year. While driving, he liked listening to opera.
If a new group of immigrants turned up in Los Angeles County, chances were good he had already studied the benchmark dishes of their cuisine in one or more of the 3,000 to 5,000 cookbooks he owned. If a restaurant opened, he probably knew the names and specialties of the last five restaurants at that address. In a 2006 review of a Beverly Hills steakhouse, he recalled going to the same location to eat patty melts with his mother and to drink warm beer that a sympathetic waitress poured into teacups after hours when he was a young punk rocker, all in the first paragraph.
“LA always seemed better when he wrote about it,” film critic John Powers, a friend of Gold’s, said. “You just thought, There’s so much stuff here.” He made a subspecialty of one street in particular. Reichl, who hired him at the Times and Gourmet, recalls his telling her in the 1980s that he had eaten every taco on Pico Boulevard. It was not just tacos. Eventually he wrote about his fascination with the street in a 1998 article that began, “For a while in my early 20s, I had only one clearly articulated ambition: to eat at least once at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, starting with the fried yucca dish served at a pupuseria near the downtown end and working methodically westward toward the chili fries at Tom’s No. 5 near the beach. It seemed a reasonable enough alternative to graduate school.”
In 2016, Ecco Press bought his proposal for a memoir, which Gold called “a culinary coming of age book, I guess.” It was to be called “Breakfast on Pico.”
Jonathan Gold was born July 28, 1960, in South Los Angeles, where he was raised. His mother, Judith, was a school librarian who had been a magician’s assistant. Irwin Gold, his father, was a probation officer assigned to supervise Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, among other offenders. Jonathan later recalled eating Rice-A-Roni every Tuesday night and spending much of his childhood in his room, playing the cello. When he was old enough to fall under the influence of new wave, he plugged in his instrument and sawed away at it in the short-lived local band Overman.
With cello proficiency in his favor, he attended the University of California, Los Angeles. Although he got his degree in music history, in 1982, he had a sideline in art; he took a class with and worked as an assistant for guerrilla performance artist Chris Burden. For a brief time, Gold thought of himself as a performance artist, too. “A naked performance artist, to be specific,” he told an interviewer. His materials for one piece were two bottles of Glade air freshener, a pile of supermarket broiler chickens, a live chicken at the end of a rope and a machete wielded by Gold, who wore only a blindfold. The chicken survived and may have come out of the ordeal in better spirits than Gold, who later said, “The few minutes after an art performance are some of the most depressing in the world.”
While he was in college, Gold walked into the office of LA Weekly, an alternative paper, where he was soon reading proofs and pitching big, doomed ideas about the zeitgeist. For a time in the 1980s, he was the newspaper’s music editor, and by the 1990s he was better known as a music journalist than a food writer, contributing long articles to Spin, Details and other magazines. While reporting a Rolling Stone article about the emergence of gangsta rap, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg gave him a nickname: Nervous Cuz.
The music scene changes at a pace that can wear out a middle-aged writer, but food writers tend to improve as they get more meals under their belt. In 1986, Gold had started a column for LA Weekly about the kinds of places where he liked to eat. It was called Counter Intelligence. Week by week, year by year, he built a reputation for finding restaurants that were virtually unknown outside the neighborhoods of immigrants who were often the only customers until he walked in. In his peregrinations, he came to appreciate how Los Angeles’s far-flung neighborhoods allowed small, distinct cultures to flourish without bumping into each other.
“In New York, because it is so condensed, you’re very aware of who’s around,” he once said, “whereas in Los Angeles, if you open a Korean restaurant, there’s a good chance you’ll only serve to Koreans. That sort of isolation is not necessarily good for politics or civil life, but it is really good for food.”
Far from a stunt eater, he nevertheless understood that a writer trying to persuade unseen strangers to read about a restaurant one or two counties away cannot afford to dismiss the persuasive power of chopped goats’ brains, pigs’ blood soup or an octopus leg separated from the rest of a living octopus so recently that it twirls itself around the nearest pair of chopsticks.
These delicacies and others were described in language that was anachronistic in its rolling, deliberate gait but exquisitely contemporary in its allusions. He could pack infinitesimal shadings of nuance into a rhetorical question.
The hallmark of his style, though, was the second-person voice. He used it prodigiously. Taken literally, he seemed to be saying that you, personally, had visited a great number of restaurants and consumed a wide variety of animal parts that, taken together, nobody but Gold had ever visited and consumed.
In “City of Gold,” Sue Horton, an editor at Reuters, says of his use of the second person, “He’s forming a bond with the reader: You and I are people who eat deer penis.”
His prose was apparently as agonizing to produce as it was pleasurable to read. For a time he saw a therapist for writer’s block until it was mutually agreed that somebody as prolific as Gold could not be described as blocked. Editors were driven to despair by his habit of taking deadlines seriously only once they were safely in the past. Powers, who edited him at LA Weekly, called him “the Usain Bolt of being slow.”
Like many restaurant critics, he tried to keep his image out of circulation for years. Anybody who had seen him was unlikely to forget him, though. He was more than 6 feet tall, with wispy ripples of shoulder-length strawberry blond hair that in recent years had tended to avoid the top of his scalp. His chin was capacious. When he turned up at a Peruvian stall in a food court a few years ago, the chef, Ricardo Zarate, wondered why so many pictures were being take by a man who “looked like George Washington.” He figured it out a few weeks later when Gold’s review was published.
Informally, the incognito phase ended when a photograph of Gold celebrating his Pulitzer win in a pink, Champagne-basted shirt got around. Officially, it was finished when he allowed LA Weekly to publish his photograph shortly before the release of “City of Gold” in 2015.
Between his amiability and his longevity on the job, he accumulated friends in the restaurant business. Some of his disclosures could make interesting reading. When he reviewed David Chang’s new restaurant in Los Angeles, Majordomo, his thoughts on the cooking took up only slightly more space than his partial history of his dealings with Chang.
In his first term at LA Weekly he met Laurie Ochoa, an intern and now an editor, whom he married in 1990. They went to restaurants together and contrived to work together, moving in tandem from one publication to another: the Los Angeles Times, Gourmet, LA Weekly again, the Times again.
She survives him, along with their children, Isabel and Leon, and Gold’s brother, Mark, the associate director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. Many claims have been made for Gold’s criticism, but he saw his work in modest terms. He wanted to make Los Angeles smaller.
“I’m not a cultural anthropologist,” he once said. “I write about taco stands and fancy French restaurants to try to get people less afraid of their neighbors and to live in their entire city instead of sticking to their one part of town.”