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Los Angeles Is Now a Very Big City in Search of a Food Critic

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What happens when America’s most talked-about food city loses its voice?

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Jonathan Gold Writing
Jonathan Gold
City of Gold documentary
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

There is a new haze over the city of Los Angeles today, as the workweek wakes up the untimely passing of longtime Angeleno and beloved Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold. Remembrances of all kinds keep pouring in, and the news cycle surrounding his death will continue across the country and the world for days to come. But the loss of Gold is ultimately a municipal one; he was as integral to the undergirding of Los Angeles as its freeways.

So now the question becomes: What happens to a city that has lost one of its most prominent cultural chroniclers? How does a region of nearly 20 million people, filled to the brim with immigrants and cuisines and the endless expanse of block-by-block possibility, attempt to replace one of its fiercest cheerleaders? And what does Los Angeles’s restaurant industry do when there is no real critic left?

Gold managed to transcend the insular food community and become a part of the modern LA zeitgeist as he traversed the city from his pickup truck, Pulitzer Prize in the rearview. Restaurants of all stripes and sizes revered him, chefs put up photos of the man in their kitchens, and entire communities waited with bated breath to check his next review, hoping it would shed some light on the wonderful work being done there.

Now there is no one, at least not at or near Gold’s level. Here’s how the LA food critic landscape has shifted (or, really, cratered) in the past half-decade: In 2012 Besha Rodell had to follow up Gold’s star-turning tenure at LA Weekly, and she managed to bring an anchoring presence to the alt-weekly’s food pages, crafting her own restaurant star rating system along the way. But she’s now nearly a year removed from the decision to return to Australia, and writes for the NY Times.

Longtime LA Magazine critic Patric Kuh now runs the floor at The Arthur J, an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan Beach, while continuing to turn out well-researched books on food, Los Angeles, and beyond. The Orange County Register continues to publish James Beard-winning critic Brad A. Johnson’s reviews, but his reach is often geographically limited, leaving the core of the city of Los Angeles untouched.

It’s hard to think the Times would not inevitably fill the giant Gold void, yet both Rodell’s and Kuh’s roles have sat empty at their respective publications since leaving. Last fall LA Weekly, Gold’s former home and the site of his Pulitzer Prize-winning columns, cleaned house under new ownership, firing its food staff and ultimately hiring the largely unknown Michele Stueven to handle restaurant discussions. A boycott of the publication overall is still ongoing, and many restaurants have been loathe to work with the new owners on events or advertising of any kind. Garrett Snyder leads LA Magazine’s recently expanded food section, which publishes capsule reviews along with profiles and features. But Snyder isn’t anonymous and doesn’t publish reviews weekly.

Gold himself had not written a review for the LA Times in more than five weeks, owing to a sudden diagnosis of the pancreatic cancer that ultimately took his life at age 57. It’s unclear when, or even if, a new review will appear for the paper under food section editor Amy Scattergood, but with mayor Eric Garcetti and new Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong both tweeting out their condolences on the loss of Gold, it’s clear the job remains as vital to the publication and the city as ever.

In some cases, national publications have tried to step in. It’s a mixed bag filled with hot takes about Roy Choi’s Locol and Food & Wine best new chef wins, but those stories don’t create the same kind of meaning for chefs and diners as some locally-entrenched, constantly-reporting name would. Los Angeles deserves a local critic’s voice.

The next one to arrive at the LA Times, or anywhere in Los Angeles, will hope to one day become as entrenched in the fabric of this big, elusive city. But in the interim there is no one. A city without representation from the Michelin folks, a city that routinely gets the short end of the James Beard stick, is now without its biggest culinary champion.