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Critic Jonathan Gold on LA Restaurants, Anonymity, and Corporate Chains

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Photo courtesy of the LA Times

LA Times critic Jonathan Gold is as known for his distinguished writing career (with a Pulitzer and multiple James Beard awards) as for his incredibly deep knowledge of even the smallest ethnic eateries in and around Los Angeles. Eater caught up with Gold recently to talk about how he defines his role as a critic and to get his thoughts on the ever-shrinking print media landscape.

Gold also addresses some of the changes he's witnessed in the LA dining scene and how his life as a critic has — and more importantly, hasn't — changed along with it. Gold also discusses the paradox of anonymity, why he doesn't worry about being "relevant," and how restaurant criticism has yet to figure out how to deal with the "pop" restaurant chains (one of which even offered him a lucrative consulting gig). "I'm very unlikely to review the new 500-seat restaurant from whatever giant corporation is coming to town," Gold says. "Is that a service to the readers? I don't know."

You've really become known for throwing light on smaller mom and pop shops, and it seems to me like LA has almost a seemingly infinite number of restaurants. How do you prioritize where to go and what to focus on?
That's really hard. In a way, when I was at the Weekly, I could write about a place as my main review, you know, that had like six seats and one dish. That's harder to do at the Times, though certainly I've done it. I mean, I've done full reviews of places in supermarket food courts. On my top 101 list every year there's usually at least three or four trucks. The New York Times ain't doing that. But on the other hand there's almost 30,000 restaurants or licensed eating places in LA county, and there's tons more in Orange and Ventura county, which I theoretically have responsibility for. It can be overwhelming sometimes.

There's almost 30,000 restaurants or licensed eating places in LA county. It can be overwhelming sometimes.

That being said, if I run across a place that has just unbelievably good dumplings that's in a weird part of town, or a guy doing something really interesting with tacos that's in the industrial district of La Puente I'll do it. I think it's something that people should know about, and even if all the readers don't go there it at least makes it part of the cultural landscape...

But I write about the other places too. Even in that sense, LA is different from say, New York, because when people are spending tons of money here they tend to spend it on sushi as opposed to French food. I've been compiling my 101 list, my annual list of the best restaurants in LA. (It was called the 99 when I started.) I've been going to places with $150 omakases, that three years ago I thought were totally outrageous, and now that there are probably 10 places where the basic unit of consumption is $150 or $180 sushi omakase then it doesn't seem like such a huge amount of money. But lord it is. Any time people are spending $500 for dinner, they deserve something really good for that.

Looking at the LA restaurant landscape, what do you think is missing from the food scene?
We have some very good French restaurants, but certainly we don't really have places like Le Bernardin. The super-impressive places here tend to be sort of more... There's suis generis, but they're probably closer to the Brooklyn Fare model than they are to Le Bernardin. There's something about grand restaurants that I like a lot. Although we have one or two extraordinarily good Central European restaurants, New York has a lot more variety of that and the African restaurants are a bit more interesting there.

Our Ethiopian food is better ... [Little Ethiopia] is interesting. The way that they banded together, they decided essentially a dying business street... and they made it into a thriving central community... I can't think of what else I yearn for. New York used to have the, certainly becoming less and less, mid-level Italian American...

I think LA is one of the most exciting places in the world, and I'm not sure I've ever regretted my decision to move back from New York.

One of the things that LA is known for is its regional ethnic cuisines, an area of expertise for you. How did you amass that knowledge?

In a way, the thing that's becoming underrepresented is the mid-level restaurant.

By eating and eating and eating, and paying attention, and reading everything I could on the subject... I guess I talked to people, but I didn't do formal interviews or anything. I guess I just picked it up that way. It's so different now. When I first started writing about, let's say the San Gabriel Valley, I was the only person writing about the San Gabriel Valley. I could write about a place that was this famous place in the community, that everybody from Hong Kong would go to, blah blah blah. It would be mine. And now if a noodle shop opens up in a weird block with an untranslated menu, the first week it's open there's going to be like three mentions on Chowhound, and four Yelp reviews... In a way, the thing that's becoming underrepresented is the mid-level restaurant. They used to be all you ever heard about. If I owned a bistro and hotel in Beverly Hills, I'd be really pissed off.

Thinking more about the way you approach reviewing. It caused quite a stir when the LA Times decided to drop their star system, and you had been doing un-starred reviews anyway at LA Weekly. Do you feel like there's any downside to not having stars?
Sometimes. You want stars when you're in a town where restaurants are substantially identical. I've got to say, like New York in the 80's, Paris maybe even now. New Orleans throughout its history. Where you're going places that have very close to the same menus, and are serving different groups of people. It's completely understood what the difference between the two star restaurants and the three star restaurants is. It may have something to do with the food, it may not. The stars were done away with before I got there, but it was probably done as a present for me.

Another aspect of your sort of approach to criticism that I wanted to ask about was your stance on anonymity. You've done public appearances, you did MAD, you haven't been completely sealed off behind closed doors, but you don't run a picture with your reviews.

The people who think they're anonymous are just kidding themselves.

There's some key ways of looking at this: One, restaurant critics have never been anonymous, right? Never. The people who think they're anonymous are just kidding themselves, because when a restaurant has that kind of financial involvement in knowing who one of their customers is, they're going to know. So officially, the moment I stopped being anonymous is the day I won the Pulitzer at which point, the Pulitzer guys ran a thing. Even one of the interns, not the interns, one of the social media people at the Weekly ran my picture in an excited blog post, and it's like, by the time I realized and had it taken down it was on every food blog there is. Of course, no other country has anonymous reviews, even for Paris. Although, the Michelin inspectors make a pretty good try.

When Adam Platt went unanonymous, he wrote that anonymity isn't the critic's greatest tool anyway, that surprise is. What do you think is the greatest tool in your toolbox?
The greatest tool in the toolbox is — as a critic of anything — your job is to basically, at least on a world historical scale, know more about the restaurants you're going to than even the people doing it. You know why they're doing things. Even if not specifically, you know why on a historical scale they're doing things. You have dishes, you taste dishes with the allusions to things, and you know what they're alluding to. You're coming across a dish, like a standard from new Nordic cooking or an elBulli thing, and your job is to know what that is. In the day of the internet, it's even more important. There was a restaurant with a really good review in Gourmet, that had essentially "borrowed" half their dishes from [Martin] Berasategui outside San Sebastian. I knew that then, but it was just a passing thing. But now, if somebody does a thing of green apples and foie gras, all it takes is five seconds on Google.

You've spoken before about how the internet has been really a boon to people's knowledge like in your MAD talk. Is that ever a challenge to your position as a critic?

...I suppose I'm at the point in my life where I don't have to worry about "am I relevant?" every single minute. But I work my ass off. I work very hard and I really don't like being wrong.

Jonathan-Gold-MAD-Symposium-Authenticity.jpg
Jonathan Gold at MAD. [Screengrab: Vimeo]

How has your role as a critic changed over the years?
I don't know. I still kind of write it the same way. I didn't really change my style in any way I think, when I went from the LA Weekly to Gourmet. I didn't change it when I went from Gourmet back to the Weekly, and I didn't really change when I went back from the Weekly to the Times. Again, now with the internet, I'm not sure. The LA Times definitely has more influence and more weight. People pay a certain amount more attention to what we do. There is the kind of institutional gravity and stuff, but if you're a great critic, you can be a great critic anywhere...

I think the worst thing you can do is write down to your readers.

When I was at the Weekly, I figured that if I said something came with a sauce bordelaise, that I'd have to explain what it is. When I was at Gourmet, I didn't have to explain what a sauce bordelaise was, but if I made an allusion to Daft Punk, then I'd have to explain what that was. [Laughs] At the Times, maybe I slightly explain foreign word phrases more than I would. There are really good intelligent readers who read me every week, that won't necessarily know the difference between tonkatsu and tonkotsu. I think the worst thing you can do is write down to your readers. Especially doing what I do, right? Everybody eats three meals a day, everybody is an expert on something in food, even if it's just the way that they like their scrambled eggs done.

Critics in smaller cities have really had a tough go of it in the last few years with layoffs and slashed dining budgets. Why do you think it's so easy for papers to get rid of dining coverage when people are more interested in food than they've ever been?
The key thing, keeping a critic is really expensive... A, the expense of hiring them; B, the expenses are a ton; C, this is something that happens in small publications more than bigger ones, but if you're in a publication that depends on restaurant advertising, then if your critic is good, then he or she is going to cause problems for you at some point. Your expenses are going to make you want to put a bullet in your head.

Unless you're a completely food obsessed city, and you're like Savannah or Charleston, New Orleans, or San Francisco, San Francisco's not a small market. There's not that much interesting stuff to write about a lot of the time. You know, traveling around the country, you're going to a mid-sized place like Kansas City, which has 20 really good restaurants. Or Reno, which has not 20. There are full time critics, and it's so hard. You don't want to review the Olive Garden, you know...

I reviewed the Olive Garden when I was at the Weekly. It was April Fool's Day, I was meeting my photographer at an Olive Garden near the Santa Anita race track as kind of a joke, then I was going to say "Ha ha, this is where we're really going," but I got caught in traffic and I was 15 minutes late, and by the time I got there she was already upstairs drinking the grasshopper, and well into the unlimited bread sticks. [Laughs] So I stayed for the meal. So many letters. So, so many letters, a lot of which were calling me elitist. Most of the places I review are cheaper than the Olive Garden.

I'm very unlikely to review the new 500 seat restaurant from whatever giant corporation is coming to town. Is that a service to the readers? I don't know.

It's very unlikely I do the Olive Garden at the Times ... As far as personal prejudice comes into these things, I will admit that at the Times, I am extremely likely to review a tiny restaurant in a weird neighborhood with a chef who has tables on saw horses, and I'm very unlikely to review the new 500-seat restaurant from whatever giant corporation is coming to town. Is that a service to the readers? I don't know. I guess if you look in the pop music end of things. In the pop writing world, there was a huge argument about this. All the people who are sort of pop-ists who feel that it's important to write about [Justin] Bieber or [Justin] Timberlake or [Britney] Spears, because they are so insanely popular. With their criticism, they're trying to pare out the reasons for the popularity. That equivalent hasn't yet popped up in food writing. Somebody's going to do it, somebody's going to figure out a way to do it. To tell the truth, I'm not sure that the corporate machinery you find [at] T.G.I. Friday's is any less profoundly corporate than the infrastructure behind Justin Bieber. Now that I say that... Oh man, do I have to write about this now?

I was offered a really lucrative consulting thing with one of the really famous restaurant chains.

What did they want from you?

Making a big change at this chain would change the way America ate more than working with all the brilliant CIA chefs in the world.

I thought they wanted me to help them with the direction the food was going, I think possibly they were thinking of me more as a spokesperson. I had the talk. There was the idea that making a big change at this chain would, in a lot of ways, change the way America ate more than working with all the brilliant CIA chefs in the world, right?

Why did you decide not to do it?
I realized, A, it would be impossible for me to write about food ever again; and B, what I would have to be selling wasn't what I wanted to be selling. When a place has 1,500 outlets, they ain't shopping at the farmer's market.

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