Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic who became the first (and only) journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize for food criticism, died Saturday evening of pancreatic cancer, the LAT reported. He was 57.
Gold is credited with being one of the first restaurant critics to laser-focus on what he called “traditional” cuisine — “I hate the word ‘ethnic,’” he said in 2009. With his forays into off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, Gold made the act of discovery part of the thrill; he would seek out the cuisines of communities on the fringe, and argue for their placement in the fabric of not only a city’s dining scene, but its culture at large. In the beginning, the perch was entirely his.
“When I first started writing about, let’s say the San Gabriel Valley, I was the only person writing about the San Gabriel Valley,” Gold told Eater in 2014. “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.”
Gold’s long career in criticism dated to the mid-’80s, when he launched his “Counter Intelligence” column at LA Weekly (a 2000 Counter Intelligence book, which featured more than 200 columns that had run to date, was pointedly subtitled “Where to eat in the real Los Angeles”). He also had two stints at the LA Times, was the NYC critic at Gourmet for two years, and contributed to countless publications.
And Gold was generous with his views on the finer points of food criticism and his role as critic. Here now, some of those thoughts — a window into what made Gold, as Eater LA says, a “singular voice in LA’s multicultural restaurant scene”:
On how he’d conduct research, as told to the New Yorker in 1999: “I go into a fugue state, like the Aboriginal dreamtime, when you go on long, aimless walks in the outback. That’s how I feel driving on the endless streets of Los Angeles County.” “
On his written voice, to the Mercury News in 2012: “Everybody has their own style of writing, but it’s something about the sort of physical description I do that seems to work well with food. I could also be a pornographer, but that’s kinda not my kick. But they both describe bodily functions — it’s that sort of really, really intimate physical detail.”
On how he viewed his role, to Munchies in 2015: “Well, I am trying to democratize food and trying to get people to live in the entire city of Los Angeles. I’m trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors.”
More on the above, to NPR in 2016: “As much as you would from a novel or a painting or an opera or movie, you can go to a restaurant, and eat a meal, and look at the people around you and smell the smells, and taste the flavors and learn something about the world that has a lot to do with what’s on your plate.”
On his relationship with his readers, to Eater in 2014: “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.”
On the importance of the service-journalism aspects of criticism, to the Believer in 2012: “As a writer of criticism, the consumer thing is the least interesting thing, but as a critic, the single worst thing you can do is send a reader to waste time and money on something—even if it’s something you personally love. You have to indicate the reasons why you love it and they’ll hate it.”
On the importance of context in criticism, to Eater: “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.”
On his methods, in the 2016 documentary City of Gold: “I very rarely take notes in a restaurant; I’m more involved in observing the music of the meal. I mean, you can take notes when you’re having sex too, but you’d be sort of missing out of something.”
On dropping the pretense of anonymity in 2015: “The game of peekaboo is harmful both to critics and to the restaurants they write about. If chefs truly can cook better when they know a critic is in the house, then restaurants without an early warning system are at a permanent disadvantage. A critic who imagines himself invisible may find it easy to be cruel. At a moment when serious criticism has all but drowned in a tide of Yelpers, Instagram accounts, tweets, Facebook sneers and bloggers who feel compelled to review a restaurant before it even opens, the kabuki of the pose is a distraction.”
On why he mostly wrote positive reviews during his second LAT stint, as told to the Believer: “I’ve been doing this long enough, and I’ve closed enough restaurants. It’s very strange that 40 people can be put out of work because I make an aesthetic judgment. It doesn’t happen in film, because Warner Bros. can survive to fight another day. If the sports section says something mean about Kobe [Bryant] — whatever, it’s Tuesday.”
And finally, once more, on the universality of criticism, in a speech excerpted in City of Gold: “Criticism is criticism. An aria is in some way equivalent to a well-cooked potato.”