Like Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski before him, Jonathan Gold revealed — and reveled in — a Los Angeles that lived below the surface of Tinseltown. Over the course of three decades, during which he crisscrossed a vast network of highways and surface streets to seek out the rarest plates in Southern California, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic forever changed the way people viewed the City of Angels.
Gold, who died Saturday at age 57 from pancreatic cancer, was a native son of Los Angeles, and as he flit between jobs at the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, the critic embraced the town’s diversity like few had before him. If L.A. was a city of dreams, broken or otherwise, it was also a place of Hunan fish heads, Chiang Mai khao soi noodles, Oaxacan tamales stuffed with inky black mole and hundreds of other dishes that Gold championed over the course of his groundbreaking career.
“Over the last 30 years, I don’t think there has ever been anyone, anywhere, who has more defined a food scene than Jonathan Gold did with Los Angeles,” says Russ Parsons, the retired longtime food editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “He started at a time when a few big-deal restaurants were being glorified and he appreciated them, but his real passion was finding the day-to-day restaurants in Los Angeles that typified the cultural vibrancy that we enjoy here.”
The son of a mother who was a school librarian and a father who was once described as “the most overeducated probation officer in the history of Los Angeles,” Gold grew up in a household rich with music, literature and art. He took up the cello as a boy and graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles, with a degree in music history. He first made his mark as a music journalist and critic, covering everything from opera to rap. He was a devoted fan of punk rock, crediting the music for pulling him out of his shell.
Both the appreciation of form and “the ability to describe abstract sensations, which I learned to do as an undergrad in music and art courses, turns out to be exactly what I needed to know,” Gold once told a group of UCLA graduates at a commencement ceremony.
Perhaps befitting a man who came to food journalism via the music world, Gold was an unorthodox critic. Given his druthers, he’d take a plate of fried pork over Wolfgang Puck any day. He was notorious for busting deadlines, often filing reviews only after his editors would lay down the law. He also was known for rarely taking notes when visiting restaurants.
“You could take notes when you’re having sex, too, but you’d sort of be missing out on something,” Gold said in “City of Gold,” the 2015 documentary about him.
Unlike many of his daily newspaper peers, Gold penned reviews without affixing stars to them, no doubt frustrating both editors and readers who desired a quick calculation of a restaurant’s worth. But a Gold review was not just an appraisal, in which he ran through the standard restaurant checklist of decor, service, dishes, blah, blah, blah.
“As a restaurant critic, his true strength was using food as a prism through which to explore the sociology of a city,” says Parsons, who served as Gold’s editor for many years.
“He wasn’t a culinary tourist who kind of stopped into the Sichuan place and said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s hot and here’s what those Sichuan peppercorns are all about,’” Parsons adds. “For Jonathan, it was understanding the history of Sichuan and the geography of Sichuan and why the food was the way it was, and why the Sichuanese came to the United States and why at this particular moment Sichuan became the cuisine that was the focal point in Los Angeles.”
Gold explored Los Angeles via his Dodge Ram 1500 truck. Though working as an anonymous critic until he abandoned the practice in 2015, Gold was hardly inconspicuous. Tall and Falstaffian in physique, Gold often grew his strawberry red locks to shoulder length. He was a man of comfort, preferring suspenders and an open-collared shirt over a suit and tie. Though considered shy and socially awkward by outsiders, Gold was considered a gentle and compassionate soul to those who knew him best.
“At the table, he could put anyone at ease,” emails Peter Meehan, former editor of the now defunct Lucky Peach magazine and a longtime friend of Gold’s.
“He could talk about the finer points of opera or opine on the hippest women’s clothing stores in L.A. or explain how recent Indonesian economic history influenced the availability of quality rendang in the States,” Meehan continues. “His limitless knowledge was tempered by a genuine kindness and generosity that is rare in humans, particularly those who could get by without it. He was one of the best people to dine with, which is probably one of the reasons he was so much better at writing about eating than the rest of us.”
If Gold helped democratize the role of the food critic, passing out equal praise to both fine-dining and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, he also legitimized the profession in 2007 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He was the first, and so far the only, food critic to earn the prize.
When he became the subject of the “City of Gold” documentary, Gold had, you could argue, finally achieved the kind of fame that his hometown could appreciate: He was a star of the big screen. But even here, Gold was gracious in turning the spotlight on the immigrant chefs and cooks who have been the subject of his work for years. It was as if Gold knew he wasn’t the star of his own film.
“The idea of celebrating the glorious mosaic of the city on somebody else’s dime was just completely fine, completely and exactly what I wanted to do,” Gold told director Laura Gabbert. “I kept feeling as if I was getting away with something.”