I’ve always wondered why Hollywood’s restaurant critics are typically portrayed as power-hungry, pretentious snobs ready to wield their words likes swords.
Laura Gabbert’s new documentary “City of Gold” serves up a dish much closer to reality, and the hero of this food documentary now playing at the Tivoli in Westport is none other than Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold.
Sure, what Gold says has the power to make or break a chef or restaurant: He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic — the only person to receive a Pulitzer for food criticism. But far from pretentious, he’s a well-educated, middle-aged man with a floppy mane of ginger hair who racks up plenty of miles navigating traffic jams in his aging and non-carbon-footprint-friendly Dodge pickup.
In other words, he’s totally relatable and kinda nice.
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I spent a day with Gold while he was in Kansas City in 2010 to judge an heirloom chicken cooking contest, after which he convinced me to recommend somewhere for dinner. I was new to the restaurant reviewing scene, and he generously let me pick his brain. Before parting, he encouraged me to start building a social media presence.
Curiously, the movie does not address in any real depth today’s insatiable appetite for social media or how it has forced Gold and other critics across the country to give up their anonymity. What it does focus on is how Gold has masterfully carved a niche for himself by covering the exotic. These are not the most talked about or anticipated restaurants but the hidden haunts of his beloved city, from spicy Thai, to street tacos, to an elegant Ethiopian.
Gold’s obvious, nurturing and deep-rooted affection for Los Angeles and its mom-and-pop restaurant owners makes him a social commentator for the masses. While sophisticated diners who know their way around a wine list generally eschew that cultural wasteland known as suburbia, unremarkable strip malls are precisely where Gold is mining his culinary gold.
Whether he’s eating from his favorite food truck or stalking an esoteric Korean barbecue, Gold is most interested in understanding how multiple cultures come together on the plate. One of the aha moments in the documentary is when urban planner Michael Dear says of Gold: “A critic of urban living, he creates a map.”
His process of reviewing is more extensive than most. He routinely visits restaurants four to five times, although his record is 17 times. He never takes notes at the table, equating it to taking notes during sex.
(I usually visit a restaurant two, sometimes three, times. I take Instagram shots of every plate and sometimes electronic notes to capture dialogue or a thought.)
Although Gold is a fascinating personality, “City of Gold” ends up being less about criticism and more about the food being cooked in Los Angeles — a “glorious mosaic” of cultural diversity.
Meanwhile, ethnic cuisines are making their mark on our own sprawling landscape: Check out Chow Town’s “KC Fusion.”
The project showcases a city with food from Korea, Scandinavia, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, India, Samoa, Hungary, Germany, Latin America, Spain, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Cuba and France, as well as kosher deli bagels, an Asian fusion food truck and classic American foods with immigrant roots.
These days Midwestern food is going global: Soon the only difference between L.A. and KC may be the traffic jams.