Jonathan Gold: Giving Cuisine a Context

Editor’s Note: This is the 37th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Jonathan Gold launched his writing career by taking assignments no one else wanted: classical music and opera reviews. Fortunately, L.A. Weekly co-founder and then-editor Jay Levin caught sight of Gold’s work and asked him to edit the restaurant guide, something Gold says he “turned out to be pretty good at.”

Gold’s award-winning restaurant reviews — “Koreatown’s Top 40,” “The Post-Puck Generation,” and “Beyond Urban Rustic” — give the impression of a writer who has an immensely broad perspective on food and dining. More than a food critic, Gold offers his audience a sense of where the food came from and where it is going. For anyone who dines out without considering if fresh tomatoes are out of season or the menu includes a few nods to the latest Parisian fashion, Gold is there to warn you.

Readers of his positive reviews should be warned against proceeding with an empty stomach: Gold makes sure that favored dishes are as good in writing as they are in person.

Everybody has to eat, but what makes someone an expert in food?

It’s thinking about the food that you eat. No critic has eaten more meals in a lifetime, I think, than someone who doesn’t write about it. The expertise comes from sitting down and thinking about every aspect of the meal and being able to put the meals in perspective with other things that you’ve eaten and being able to grade them. It’s the difference, I suppose, between going to movies a lot and being a movie critic.

Do you consider cooking a high art?

Cooking is an art, certainly. I’m not sure about a “high art” because it’s more of a performance-type thing. However exquisite the dish that was cooked for you, however wonderful it was, however much it was seared into the memories of the people who have eaten it, it’s gone at the end of the day and you have to make a new one the next day. I don’t think what one would consider high art principles really come much into play.

That being said, there are certainly chefs in the country who try to think of cooking as a high art and who are trying to expand the conceptual boundaries of it. But in the end, it’s just food, and a roast chicken that’s done well is at least as delicious as mousse of Serrano ham that’s been frozen with liquid nitrogen and anointed with the liquid smoke of alder.

The life of a food critic seems like such a hedonistic one. Is there stress in your job?

When you’re reviewing a movie or a TV show, it’s a multimillion-dollar international corporation, so if you write a bad review of a movie, it’s one among many and the movie will probably do just about the same. Being a restaurant critic, you’re writing mostly about small business. So if you’re cruel in a way that you shouldn’t be, or you’re making a cheap joke at someone’s expense, you could shut down a small business and put people out of work. I had a taste for blood at the time that I started doing this, but when I shut down a restaurant — it’s just a horrible thing. I mean, they may be putting out bad food but they don’t deserve to die.

Are there any food critics whom you admire?

Yeah, I think Dara Moskowitz is really good. I always make a point of looking up her columns. She writes for City Pages in Minnesota. I thought Ruth Reichl was an excellent food critic. I always like reading Calvin Trillin, who’s not really a food writer but he writes a lot about food. I think Brett Anderson does a really good job. And Robert Sietsema at the Voice has the range of a 19th-century geographer.

You reference the restaurant scene everywhere from Northern California to New York City to the suburbs of Rome. Do you travel often? Is that an important part of your criticism?

I do travel pretty often. It’s important to be traveled, and it’s important to have a good, intimate knowledge of at least one cuisine that isn’t the cuisine of your city. For example, traveling a lot around central Italy, as I have, has nothing to do with Japanese food, but you get the sense of how the food is different from village to village and you get the idea of regional influences and why there are regional cuisines and why there are regional dishes and why the wines taste different from place to place. You can apply that sort of knowledge to dishes that you might find from different parts of China, for example. It’s not bad to be able to compare a Japanese dish that you have at a restaurant with a Japanese dish you’ve had in Japan. It certainly puts perspective on things.

You wrote in “Koreatown’s Top 40” that you had 120 restaurant meals in a couple of months. How do you keep fit?

I go to the gym a few times a week. I’d weigh 400 pounds if I didn’t. I’m not a slender man now, but the gym at least helps a little bit. That being said, restaurant critics don’t tend to be that portly. I’m not sure why.

In “Post-Puck Generation” you describe a shift in the restaurant world’s center of gravity toward L.A. and its subsequent influence on American cuisine. Do you root for the home team?

How could I not? It must be said that Los Angeles cuisine was completely in the ascendant in the ’80s. Probably because Los Angeles became thought of as an international city, eyes were on Los Angeles in a way that they hadn’t been before. And we had some wonderful creative chefs.

The wonderful creative chefs are still here, but the attention, not so much any more. Even when I was a critic in New York, the years I wrote for Gourmet Magazine, I was still rooting for L.A. chefs that came through.

Is there a difference between writing for a magazine like Gourmet and an alternative paper?

There are surprisingly few differences. Obviously, when you’re writing for a weekly, the audience is different. Writing about food for Gourmet is like writing about sports for Sports Illustrated. You can sort of mention béchamel and figure that your readers know what it is rather than having to explain it. And for Gourmet I tend to review the most expensive restaurants in the country. At the L.A. Weekly, I don’t specifically seek out cheap restaurants, but I’m more interested in the things they’re doing in Chinatown than I am in the 400th restaurant to serve an identical pseudo-Tuscan menu. So, I tend to write lower on the food chain. Other than that, not much difference at all. I had a surprising amount of freedom at Gourmet even though I had an editor who just didn’t get it when I would throw in a Fatboy Slim reference, for example.

Has globalization had as much of an effect on food as everything else?

It’s had an incredible effect on food. In L.A. there are super cheap trips to Asia, and you can expect that your readers have possibly been to Thailand or China. They may even do the bicoastal thing between L.A. and Tokyo, and so there’s this knowledge of the subject and knowledge of the cultures that you’re writing from. Los Angeles especially seems to be the crossroads for the Pacific. You have people from every Asian country moving here and you have Latin American enclaves of every conceivable type and size. It’s a very different place from what it was in the 1920s, when one common nickname for Los Angeles was “Iowa by the sea.”

Do you specialize in Asian cuisine?

I’m not sure if I specialize in Asian cuisines. Asian cuisines are what’s out here and I read extremely extensively on it and I eat really extensively on it.

Yeah, I write a lot about Asian cuisines, probably more than anything else.

You spend a lot of time setting the scene, especially in “Koreatown’s Top 40.” Is the setting important for you when you go out to eat?

The food is by far the most important thing, but I write less about food than I do about eating. I like to give people a sort of vicarious experience of knowing the restaurant and feeling how the restaurant might integrate into their lives. I hate it when people talk about the food in graphic detail without any context for it.

It almost seems like you need to be an art critic and an architecture critic to be a good food critic.

It doesn’t hurt — I have been a critic of other things. I wrote an architecture column for a national magazine, I used to review art at L.A. Weekly, and I was a music critic for a long time. I wrote for Spin a lot. Being a critic is being a critic.

Andrew Vanacore is a sophomore in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He was a freelance correspondent last summer for the Suburban News near his home in New Jersey.

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