Is food just food? Or is a well-cooked potato, as the acclaimed restaurant critic Jonathan Gold suggests, like “an aria”? It’s one of the things we ask ourselves all the time, eating being one of our favourite things — and in a way — our livelihood. Six months have flown by since Gold, who became the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, passed from pancreatic cancer, but his legacy lives on in Laura Gabbert’s 2015 documentary, City of Gold.
The film follows Gold in his pine-coloured pickup truck as he roams the streets of Los Angeles where he lived, pointing out his favourite spots for Oaxacan grasshopper soup or spicy pad see ew, Thai rice noodles stir-fried in soy sauce. This is no Chef’s Table or even Man v. Food, and Gabbert doesn’t pretend that it is. While Gold often ate in and wrote about expensive restaurants and ambitious chefs looking to reinvent the idea of dining, his heart belonged to the working-class neighbourhoods where immigrants have settled — cheap eateries and ethnic diners that cemented themselves into the city’s culinary culture.
It began in his early 20s, when he embarked on a mission to try every hole-in-the-wall restaurant and street vendor on a 15-mile stretch of Pico Boulevard. In one scene, Gold, who studied classical cello and started his career in journalism as a music writer, remarked that “Criticism is criticism,” whether it was writing about a punk rock concert or hot dog stand. In a way, he was not just a food critic, but a social commentator who used food as a colourful portal to the soul of Los Angeles, and in extension, much of urban America.
City of Gold takes you through a sprinkling of his daily life: a work meeting with his editor (his wife Laurie Ochoa), conversations with his two children, and him writing on his laptop at the dining room table. These little nuggets alternate with gliding shots of large supermarkets and old cinemas as Gold monologues about himself. He talks about his upbringing in a family of activists and about his difficulty meeting deadlines at times. There are also interviews with his associates who pay tribute to his quirks and genius, including David Chang and Andrew Zimmern, who points out that Gold avoids the “all-too-common cultural sin of contempt prior to investigation” in his writing.
It is part biography and part food adventure, and much of it works because of Gold’s affable personality. His enthusiasm for food and life in general radiates from his large body, and as opposed to the preferred anonymity of many a critic, he is warmly received by restaurant owners, cooks, and servers alike, many of whom are grateful to him for the opportunity to build their American Dream. After all, City of Gold is a testament to that very faith, and it’s as good a reason to watch the film — even if you think you have no interest in criticism, or food.