Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

jonathan gold

los angeles
food
jonathan gold

interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
portrait by BRAD ELTERMAN

As we were printing this issue, Pulitzer-Prize winner Jonathan Gold, the most famous food critic from Los Angeles, died suddenly in July 2018 at 57. For four decades, he embraced the sprawling landscape of Los Angeles, seeking out many of its best, far-flung restaurants, with cuisine from various communities, giving everyone an opportunity to discover this vast and fragmented city. Jonathan Gold’s death is a devastating loss for the food world, but also for his legion of fans who followed his annual list of the 101 Best Restaurants in Los Angeles. We were very happy to talk with him in a strip mall in Echo Park. This might be his last interview. Los Angeles will miss him.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You started your career as a musician and music critic — what did you learn from it?
JONATHAN GOLD — My degrees in music and composing helped me learn to analyze and to put words to abstract sensations. As it turns out, this was a good fit for food — if you can describe one thing, you can pretty much describe another. In the same way that I used to pride myself on being able to give people the impression that they were hearing music even when they were just hearing words about music, I tried to do that with taste. One of the things that was both my strength and my weakness is that I had training as a composer and as a musicologist, so I know the technical and exact ways to describe something. But with food, that same exactitude doesn’t really exist. So, you get to make up a language that’s your own. And you have to use certain things, right? If something is salty, you have to say it’s salty. You can use a metaphor around it. You can say, “Whiff of the sea.” You could use “saline” or “brackish.” But it’s better to just be direct. You have to just be direct because the food vocabulary is so impoverished. It lets you do a lot of interesting things.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Do you write easily?
JONATHAN GOLD — You can ask my editors: it’s still a pain. [Laughs] Every time! And I’ve been doing it for 35 years. You’d think it would be easier, but it’s not. My daughter wishes to become a writer, and I don’t think it’s encouraging for her! [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — How did you start?
JONATHAN GOLD — I’d always written about food, hip-hop, and punk rock in Los Angeles. I wrote the first big article on N.W.A. I was in the studio for a little bit of the recording of Straight Outta Compton. I’ve been hearing those guys at shows since they were teenagers. I’d spent a lot of time hanging around their studios at the time — which were in Torrance. They’d tell me to be there at noon, and I’d show up at three, and they’d show up at seven. [Laughs] Over a period of months, people got used to having me there. At one point in the process, Snoop’s bodyguard killed a guy. The guy came up and drew his pistol, and the bodyguard, who was a little inexperienced, instead of driving off, shot him. This was in a park on the Westside.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Were you there?
JONATHAN GOLD — I wasn’t there for the shooting, no. I basically stopped writing about hip-hop because I got tired of writing stories that contained the phrase “surrendered to police.” I had been a crime writer all my life — I didn’t want to be a crime writer anymore. I was in love with the music, but the posturing wasn’t so fun. It was just devastating, right? Then Biggie got killed, and then Tupac got killed. Tupac was like this really sensitive, gifted guy who started hanging out with hip-hop people to sort of prepare for this movie that he was in called Juice. And I think he may have gotten a little bit too into it.

EMILIEN CRESPO — As a critic, you don’t necessarily make friends. And that credibility comes from that? Even recently, with your fairly mixed review of David Chang’s first restaurant in Los Angeles, Majordomo.
JONATHAN GOLD — I liked a lot of things in the restaurant, and there were a few things I thought were really stupid. I wrote about those, and that’s what everybody’s concentrating on. But it happens. You have to be willing to lose friends, or your criticism means nothing.


EMILIEN CRESPO — Speaking about your job as a critic, you stopped being anonymous a couple of years ago. Do you think that changed anything
in your practice? Do you think restaurants now are artificially trying to please you?
JONATHAN GOLD — Well, the thing about critics is that they may claim to be anonymous, but they’re almost never anonymous. There are probably a couple who get away with it. I think Marina O’Loughlin in London does a pretty good job. It’s basically a pretense: you have to pretend that they don’t know who you are, and they have to pretend that they don’t know who you are. And you’re looking at them pretending not to notice you, pretending not to notice them noticing you noticing them. It gets into so many levels of meta-noticing that it’s just ridiculous. I decided that it was probably time to end the charade. That it was more natural. Now, people in restaurants know who I am more. I mean, not necessarily the people who work in them, but customers and such.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Sure. You are, still to this day, the only food critic who won the Pulitzer Prize.
JONATHAN GOLD — Yeah.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What, if anything, did that change?
JONATHAN GOLD — I’m not sure it changed anything. I mean, it made me more nervous. [Laughs] But other than that, more or less the same.

EMILIEN CRESPO — So, I went to each one of your favorite 101 restaurants [the annual “Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants” list of restaurants in LA].
JONATHAN GOLD — You’re kidding. All 101?

EMILIEN CRESPO — I’m done with the Jonathan Gold Challenge, if there’s such a thing! [Laughs] It seems that you leave a lot of room for restaurants that are country-specific, on the cheaper side, and slightly out of the way, maybe in strip malls like the one we are in right now.
JONATHAN GOLD — Yeah. One of the things that makes Los Angeles an interesting food city, unlike most others, is that the barriers between high and low don’t exist as much as they do in most places. That you have a place like Guerrilla Tacos, for instance. The chef, Wes Avila, has a haute-cuisine background. He studied with Alain Ducasse. He worked at your high-end restaurants here, and decided to go off and do his own thing. But he has relationships with suppliers — he gets the best sea urchins and the best vegetables, and the best meat from people that everybody wishes they could get pork from. But instead of serving it on a $150 tasting menu, he’s serving it on a taco and charging $7 for it. And people complain, “Wait, this taco costs $7?!” And you want to say, “You don’t understand.” [Laughs]

EMILIEN CRESPO — How do you discover new places? In the documentary, you have your pickup truck that you drive around in.
JONATHAN GOLD — I still do a lot of that. I mean, probably almost two-thirds of the places I do are the ones that anybody who had my job would do — the new restaurants with the chefs and the blah, blah, blah. But instead of doing the 13th-best Italian restaurant of Beverly Hills, I think it’s much more interesting to drive down to Torrance and go to an izakaya, or to go to the San Gabriel Valley, or to look for Salvadorean food.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Have you felt an LA food renaissance in the past five years? Or is it something that has actually been happening gradually since the ’80s?
JONATHAN GOLD — It goes in waves, I guess. In the ’80s, around the time of the Olympics, there was the first world awareness of Los Angeles as an international city, rather than a pleasant place where movies were made. You had LA chefs opening restaurants in places like Paris. And in New York, restaurants were looking to Los Angeles for inspiration. Things that seem old-fashioned now: casual fine dining, where you don’t have to have the tablecloths and the candles, and comfort food, where you pay $24 for pancakes.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Wolfgang Puck, with his restaurants Ma Maison and Spago, for instance?
JONATHAN GOLD — Yeah. And the idea of fusion seemed more important. It went all over the world. I mean, we’re talking dining, but of course culturally, too. Recently, I think the thing that’s been happening in restaurants is you’re getting chefs with these classical-training backgrounds — they may have cooked with some of the best people in France, or the most important restaurants in New York. Whereas, at one point, fusion was mostly European-American chefs who were using Asian flavors to exoticize their food. This time, it’s second-generation-immigrant chefs, who are using the classical techniques in order to energize their food. And some of the flavors and structures are really profound. And I think that there’s the sense that for the first time around, everybody is recognizing it’s an international city. This time, it isn’t from without — people admiring us, people admiring the diversity. The diversity is just punching its way out of the bag, you know? And some of what’s coming out is stunning.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You talked about Guerrilla Tacos and a lot of that accessible ethnic food that you can find in food trucks by the road. But at the same time, on your 101 list, the number-one restaurant is Vespertine, which is, on so many levels, the opposite of that. I think you called it “Gesamtkunstwerk” — a total work of art: everything is thought of, from the architecture to the scent when you enter, from the custom-made soundtrack to the clothes. It’s complex, polarizing, intellectualized. Is there a bit of a contradiction to you supporting both of them? Or is that something that LA just has — the extreme experiences of restaurants?
JONATHAN GOLD — I think it’s possible to hold two opposing thoughts simultaneously, right? [Laughs] And just because one is beautiful doesn’t mean the other one isn’t also beautiful.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And do you think, for instance, that with chefs becoming rock stars lately, restaurants might have focused a bit too much on the plates, versus thinking about the atmosphere and the service?
JONATHAN GOLD — I like a place that’s pleasant to be in. But in some of my favorite restaurants, your elbows stick to the table. [Laughs] And they probably haven’t changed the tablecloth underneath the yellowing vinyl for five years. And there’s a torn piece of calendar on the wall, and they’re brusque with you, not because they want to be mean but because you’re entering their environment. One of the things that makes Los Angeles different from other world cities is that the chefs doing Thai food and Korean food and Mexican food and Salvadorean food are not cooking for some imagined American audience. They’re cooking for themselves. And if you want to come in and take part in it, then that’s great, that’s fun, but you just have to realize that you’re on the sidelines. Sometimes, there’s service that’s just so gorgeous, you barely realize that it’s service. Your glass is filled, and your wine is explained. But so often it comes across as somebody overexplaining your food to you. Or telling you where the daikon sprouts are from.

EMILIEN CRESPO — A bit like a Portlandia episode.
JONATHAN GOLD — Yeah. I don’t think LA’s as bad in that respect as New York is at the moment. New York is just intolerable.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Right now, who are the new chefs that are doing interesting things in LA?
JONATHAN GOLD — We have seen a big rush of chefs from other cities to LA in the last year. Because there’s sort of that vacuum at the top of fine dining, the places that would be on the world’s 50-best list that we really didn’t have here so much before. I would say: Shibumi, where chef David Schlosser is. He’s a white guy, but for many years, he worked for some of the best restaurants in Japan, and he’s completely obsessed with the ideas of fermentation, freshness, and seasonality. And it’s a lovely restaurant. I would say that chef Sang Yoon is doing lovely work right now at Lukshon. He’s somebody who has a food lab where he develops all kinds of stuff. Lukshon seems like a casual restaurant, and sometimes he’ll come up with an absolutely brilliant dish, and then you’ll never see it again. But it’s a place to see experimental food at a really high level. And the third one I think people may not think of going to is a place called Taco María, which is a bit far from the city. It’s in a particularly strange mall, an hour south of town, with hipster stores around. Carlos Salgado’s cooking these tasting menus of dishes that are deeply inspired by Mexico, with a high level of finesse. And there’s a lightness and delicacy of touch. The other thing that he’s doing is bringing in tortillas — which nobody pays attention to, really, but it’s possibly at the very heart of Mexican cooking. He’s getting his beautiful heritage corn from Southern Mexico to make his tortillas and his huaraches. You feel lucky enough to have any of those — they’re just as important as the more key dishes.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Do you think LA is one of the greatest cities in the world right now for food?
JONATHAN GOLD — I think… We don’t have that many restaurants at the very, very top expensive level as New York would have, or Paris or Copenhagen. But I’d rather eat in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What would you say are some of the iconic dishes of Los Angeles?
JONATHAN GOLD — Wow. What would you say? Would a Kogi taco be one of them? We’re still in the middle of the avocado toast. You can roll your eyes at it, but it’s still everywhere. And the thing is, it’s everywhere in the world by now. But our avocados are better, and our bread is really fucking good. There’s a Sichuan dish called Toothpick Lamb. And it doesn’t exist in Sichuan, of course. A guy did it here. It’s basically a nice, spicy cumin lamb dish. But they stick toothpicks in it so you can eat it as finger food.

EMILIEN CRESPO — It was invented in LA at Chengdu Taste, right?
JONATHAN GOLD — Yeah.

EMILIEN CRESPO — How would you define California — and especially LA — cuisine?
JONATHAN GOLD — The things that go into LA cuisine are: one, we’re at the center of a great agricultural region; two, the astonishing diversity of people from all over the world, in sufficient numbers to be cooking for themselves. And number three, I think we reward creativity in a way that’s difficult in other places.

EMILIEN CRESPO — From your point of view, what cities are competing with LA in terms of gastronomy?
JONATHAN GOLD — I mean, obviously San Francisco and New York are. Especially the East Bay by San Francisco has some extraordinary stuff. The scene in Copenhagen is much smaller, but I find myself there every year anyway. Mexico City, obviously. Tokyo? Singapore? The one that I think that’s sort of coming into its own, in a way that nobody expected, is Houston. It has every disadvantage, but it has really strong immigrant populations. It has access to decent food, and people care a lot about it.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What drives you crazy about Los Angeles?
JONATHAN GOLD — Although I very much like the ecstasy of movement, of driving, it is taking longer and longer to get anywhere. That has become a major part of life for everybody. I think that’s probably the main one. I do love to drive.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And finally, besides food, what’s great here?
JONATHAN GOLD — I love the people and the ease of life, of course. I love the fact that, especially where I live in the city, I’m only 10 minutes’ drive from a national forest with steep hills and plunging rivers and forests and things that you absolutely don’t expect to have so close to the big city. And I might be romanticizing this a little bit, but I think Los Angeles is a place where you can be whoever you want to be. You can come from someplace else, make up the person that you want to be, and boom, you’re that person. In the way that you can walk down some blocks in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills or Pasadena, and there’ll be a Craftsman house alluding to 19th-century Japan, you’ll see a Spanish hacienda, you’ll see an Italian villa, you’ll see a Tudor house. You’ll see architecture from 10 different parts of the world, and they’re all together on the block, and somehow it seems to fit.

END

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Los Angeles issue #30

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