If Park City, Utah wasn't already a de facto LA neighborhood during the Sundance Film Festival, it absolutely was on Tuesday, with the premiere of City of Gold at the Library Center Theatre. Laura Gabbert's long-anticipated documentary about Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold brought Koreatown (and many other ‘hoods) to the mountain town, filling the 486-seat theater for the first of its five Sundance showings.
"It's about so much more than just food and Jonathan Gold," said Guelaguetza's Bricia Lopez. "It was like a love letter about LA's people and culture. It was beautiful seeing real stories and real restaurateurs, and how LA has progressed through the eyes of different cultures." Lopez also tweeted that the movie made her cry. "I was crying throughout the whole thing," she said, starting with the story of how Jitlada's Tui Sungkamee was able to send his daughter to college.
It was like a love letter about LA's people and culture
Lopez was the only LA restaurant owner featured in the movie who was also in the crowd, though Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos caught an hour of the film before decamping to the parking lot to prep 300 sweet potato, Oaxacan cheese, feta cheese, almond chile, fried corn and chive tacos.
"The idea was to possibly bring the truck, but that truck's a piece of shit, so [we couldn't] take it across a third of the country," Avila said. "But I said, ‘I've got the taco rig, I can do it old-school like we used to do at Handsome, and fit it in the back of my Scion.' So we just decided to roll like that."
[Courtesy of Sundance Institute]
Most of the Sundance screening audience stayed through the closing credits, which features a bonus scene of Gold cooking spaghetti carbonara and porchetta for his family. Then they gave the critic a whoop-filled, partial standing ovation when he joined Gabbert for the Q&A.
The first question came from a dieting audience member who said the movie was too painful to watch until the hagfish scene. "How do you force yourself to eat a hagfish without gagging?," he asked.
Once you get used to the very particular textures it's not (meaningful pause)....so bad
"No foods are inedible," Gold replied. "All foods make sense within their context. Within the context of Jae Bo Du, the seafood grill in Koreatown, you've had the grilled clams, you've had the oysters, you've had the fish. And then they come and they plop the hagfish on the grill, and it writhes around for a while, which is very discomfiting to watch, but once you get used to the very particular textures it's not (meaningful pause)....so bad."
Later in the Q&A, Gold admitted he has warmed up to the county's letter-grade food safety system ("I've been getting food poisoning a lot less"), while Gabbert revealed some vague but tantalizing news about her next film.
"I have one, but I can't say what it is yet," she said. "It's another culture documentary, and it takes place in Los Angeles."
"The one I've been trying to talk you into?" Gold responded.
"Yes," Gabbert allowed. "It was Jonathan's idea."
Two more of Gold's responses from the Q&A:
You have the great power to make a restaurant wildly successful, and conversely. How do you handle that, when you can kill a business?
"That's something that comes up a lot. I've been a restaurant critic for 30 years. And I have sent several places to their graves. It's strange, because, say, if you're a film critic, and you write a bad review of Batman, somehow Warner Bros. is going to live to fight another day. But if you have an aesthetic judgment about a restaurant, especially in something like the LA Times, then, y'know, suddenly 40 or 50 people are out of work. And usually people who own bad restaurants aren't evil, they're just bad at their jobs.
And so, I take it very seriously. I probably eat at four or five places for every one I review. I write negative reviews--I wrote the first negative review in the history of Gourmet magazine--but I'm judicious about it, and I try to be constructive. I'm not going to tell you about the place that serves lamb barbacoa out in an industrial park in Commerce. Most people aren't going to end up in that restaurant anyway, so why would I tell you it was bad? Mainstream restaurants that open with a ton of publicity and have big lines outside and can handle it, that's a different matter."
"Can you tell us how you feel about Los Angeles compared to New York and San Francisco, which are always considered the foodie capitals of America?"
Not by me. New York obviously has a fantastic restaurant scene, and if you're looking for restaurants of a certain level, there are more of them in New York than anywhere in the world. It's just a grand place to be on a grand expense account.
But, because the cost of operations are so ungodly high, if it takes $10 million to open a restaurant, the restaurant doesn't belong to the chef. It belongs to the person with the money to open a restaurant. And that tends, to me, to be the New York experience.
Obviously there's a ton of traditional cooking in New York too, but in New York, everybody takes the subway, or most people take the subway, and people are really aware of one another. So if a Korean family is going to open a restaurant, even in a deep, subway-inaccessible part of Queen, they're gonna have the idea that somebody who isn't Korean is gonna come in there, and they're gonna have some idea of how to accommodate the food to their tastes.
I think one of the great things about Los Angeles, which is insular, which is divided into so many communities, and where we drive in cars, and where we tend to entertain at home as opposed to entertaining at restaurants, [is that in] a lot of the communities, the restaurants tend to cook for each other. When Mr. Kim comes in on a Thursday afternoon because he wants to eat the noodle soup that his mom used to serve on Thursday afternoons, he's gonna get that. And if you come in and you order that noodle soup, you're gonna get that noodle soup. You're not gonna get sort of an accommodation to what somebody thinks is your taste. Sometimes, insularity can be a good thing.