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What Jonathan Gold’s Food Writing Career Meant to Los Angeles

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Looking back at the iconic restaurant critic’s legacy

J Gold
Jonathan Gold
Jonathan Gold

Longtime LA Times and LA Weekly critic Jonathan Gold died this weekend after a short diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. The news stunned LA’s food world, with chefs, restaurateurs, food lovers, and more pouring in condolences and fond memories of the man who helped shape the city’s culinary landscape. With heavy hearts, Eater editors try to make sense of Gold’s impact on Los Angeles.

The Gospel According to Gold

There have been many takes on Jonathan Gold’s incredible and truly unprecedented legacy in Los Angeles, from Ruth Reichl to Pete Wells to Gustavo Arellano on down. Angelenos mourned the LA Times and former LA Weekly restaurant critic’s untimely death last Saturday on social media, and it seemed, like Anthony Bourdain, nearly everyone had a positive memory of Gold. It’s no surprise: He was hardly a tough critic and rarely threw shade on even the most ridiculous of restaurants (with the exception of The Olive Garden).

But beyond his work as a prolific and prodigious critic, Gold was the ultimate chronicler of food culture in Los Angeles. Southern California was always one of the most popular landing places for immigrants from around the world, much like Houston, Detroit, New York City, and other large American cities. These communities, he often wrote, were all too happy to serve their own needs rather than cater to unfamiliar palates.

What separated Gold from other critics was his fearless devotion to and endless knowledge of these cultures, his willingness to decipher and seek out the most challenging of restaurants and open them up to the eager hearts and bellies of all Angelenos. He could opine and analyze on the level that even natives could not, though he never imposed his will. He shared knowledge and passion from a place of generosity, not superiority.

Gold began writing about restaurants for the LA Weekly in 1986. He’d long established a formula for reviews, by seeking unique dishes and cuisines in one of LA County’s myriad neighborhoods, and explaining their context. He did it by employing gloriously eloquent and relatable prose, referential to other artistic mediums or cultural touch points but without a whiff of snobbery often associated with restaurant criticism. The formula’s been endlessly emulated since, but Gold never sought to appease a mainstream audience looking for their next anniversary dinner or business lunch. He used a strong second person to draw in you, the reader, to his world.

For Gold, food was the essence of LA’s unique fabric and texture. Food brought LA’s thousand communities together and became a sort of lingua franca of understanding. Curious Koreans could try the exquisite Oaxacan moles just a few doors down from their soontubu shops while hungry college students could dive into a platter of Taiwanese duck tongues. Moneyed Hollywood types could order Thai street food classics with ease while suburban families might share platefuls of hand-pulled Shaanxi noodles. Weary Valley denizens could trek to the South Bay for grilled yakitori skewers while Inland Empire bedroom commuters could take a detour to taste the perfect Hainan chicken and rice.

In the past ten years, Gold’s legend grew from cool-kid, in-the-know circles to a broader constituency thanks to events like the Essentials and LA Times’ The Taste, which allowed thousands of fans direct access to The Belly of Los Angeles’s mind-boggling knowledge. His weekly conversations on KCRW’s Good Food shed light to beach-stricken Westsiders who could chase Gold’s appetite through San Gabriel Valley’s numerous regional Chinese specialties. He went from food blogger hero to every foodie’s idol in the last era of his illustrious career.

When the news Gold’s death came out, folks young and old, regardless of background or interests, shared the story to one another. Gold had reached an iconic status that few writers ever attain in their lifetimes. And were it not for a sudden diagnosis of cancer, Gold could have continued to delve into LA’s endless culinary reaches for years to come. Garrett Snyder wisely points out that perhaps Gold’s greatest legacy is that he spawned a mentality that permeated across the City of Angels and its environs. Angelenos would become their own kind of Goldsters, following in the footpaths of the culinary giant.

Avenues like Yelp and Instagram enabled those acolytes to snap photographs and share thoughts on their food finds. Everyone who wanted to be Gold became Golden, and that passion for adventure, discovery, and appreciation makes this city the greatest place in the world to eat. Gold, once the prophet, became the teacher. —Matthew Kang

Jonathan Gold ordering from a food truck
City of Gold [official]

The Power of You

“Jonathan Gold changed my life.”

That sentence has been repeated endlessly over the weekend by chefs and diners and writers and lovers of Los Angeles at large. It reads as personal, a one-on-one connection between a truly benevolent writer and a single, solitary subject lucky enough to feel his grace. As it should; Gold truly did spend his time with fans and readers — pausing for photos, say, or responding to emails filled with questions on specific micro-cuisines and their hidden locations — as if he himself were endless, a naturally recurring resource to be tapped into with a low smile and quiet certainty.

But in changing the life of readers in Los Angeles, almost one by one across thousands of columns, he ended up changing us all. Gold loved to play up the unknown, to espouse the virtues of the lesser-heard, and to loudly dismiss international accolades as inherently flawed on their very face, at least when it came to his city. On his best days, it’s as if Gold could take the shoulders of every Angeleno at once, look them dead in the eye, and say forget the Michelin guide or those World’s 50 Best lists. The real food, the people’s food, is all around us, he’d tell us. And he’d be right.

For Gold, it was always personal. Raised in South LA, grown by music (his own and others’), and embraced through food, the soul of this city was his, and vice versa. He managed to make room for himself in the corners of recording studios and at the back table of a 15-seat restaurant deep in the San Fernando Valley, or as the lead star in his own documentary, or perched precariously on a modern Danish chair pondering the next hay-smoked course at Noma in Copenhagen. It’s impossible for one person to find equal footing in all those places at once. Unless that person is Jonathan Gold.

It makes sense, then, that Gold’s tell-tale narrative device was the second-person instructional script. His “you will” sentences pushed generations of diners to join him at the table, and to take the ride for themselves. He was always so giving to us, to the city and it’s people, finding ways to say “you” when everyone else just keeps saying “me.” And now, even in his passing, we find ways to continue to tell ourselves just how much he meant to us, individually and collectively.

So if you live in the city of Los Angeles, repeat after me: Jonathan Gold changed my life. —Farley Elliott

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