At the opening of the new documentary City of Gold from director Laura Gabbert, there’s a quote. It says, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” The quote is from M.F.K. Fisher, an American food writer, and it puts what we’re about to see in perspective.
The city of the title is Los Angeles. It’s the home turf of L.A. Times food critic and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Jonathan Gold. When we first meet Gold he’s doing what every writer does from time to time; he’s staring at a screen that displays a blank Word doc. Gold is trying to figure out his opening sentence. Then it comes, and he writes. It’s a review for a mobile taco stand called Guerrilla Tacos, an unusual choice for a celebrated food critic to pick as his next critique, but Gold’s choices are always unusual. He writes, “You’re not going to find cooking like this anywhere, except in Los Angeles.” And that’s the point.
City of Gold may be about the life and the work of a food critic, but it’s also about a city; a city that happens to be one of the most famous places in the world, and yet, even for those who have lived there, its true self remains something unknown. “I’m an L.A. guy,” Gold informs as he drives through a sun stroked, palm tree lined, California suburb. “I drive. I am my truck. My truck is me.”
Jonathan Gold writes about those hard-to-find, small restaurants in little communities. Through his writing he creates an image of Los Angeles as a true, multi-cultural society and displays it in a way that tourists or temporary residents will never fully appreciate in the same way an L.A. native can. The people, Gold insists, come together in a haphazard fashion. It’s his job, through his reviews, to map things out; though in truth, what he maps is a less an organized picture and more a mosaic. Using the vast array of food choices as cultural landmarks, Gold points out that in Los Angeles you don’t have to travel to feel as though you’ve traveled far. As one owner of a Korean restaurant states, “I don’t know of any Korean who knows more about Korean food than Jonathan Gold.”
The documentary follows Gold not only through the streets of L.A. but also at home and in the office where he sits with his newspaper editors as they decide where or what he’s going to write about next. We meet his wife, Laurie Ochoa, a former editor-in-chief of the LA Weekly, who shares the story of how they first met; she was a newspaper intern, he was a proof-reader, but when he first walked in the building he looked like he owned the place. Plus, we get to understand the techniques and occasionally the extreme measures a food critic often uses in order not to be recognized or treated in a way different from a regular customer that would either influence or alter a reviewer’s view of the dinner plate.
As an example, the documentary shows how Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic for the New York Times, went in to a restaurant disguised as a frumpy woman. She was treated poorly. She returned to the same restaurant some time later as herself. She was treated as a queen. She then wrote two articles that ran parallel on the same page; one as the frumpy woman, then as herself. The difference was startling, and her point was proven.
Robert Sietsema, senior food critic for Eater N.Y., talks to the camera on the same subject, but in order to keep his anonymity intact, he wears a devil mask under his glasses. In Gold’s case, an overall disguise might be difficult, but he still has a technique to hide his identity when booking a table in advance; he has a series of throwaway phones so that when he makes a reservation there’s no recognizing the number.
He also does his homework. Before visiting a Chengdu Chinese restaurant, he goes on-line, searching for its place of origin on the map, discovering that Chengdu is both the largest city and the capital of the Chinese Sichuan province, and noticing that it’s several hundreds of miles inland. His conclusion is because of its geographical location, the restaurant, if authentic, is likely to have less seafood on its menu.
The ride we take with Gold as he drives throughout the colorful and culturally diverse neighborhoods of L.A. is good company. True to his intentions, in addition to admiring his passion for food and the sense of exhilaration he feels when discovering a dish he’s never before eaten, there are occasionally questions that spring to mind, and they’re not covered in the film.
We see the results of a positive critique – one restaurant owner remarks that overnight, after a Gold review, her tables were suddenly booked to capacity – but there’s never an illustration of what happened due to a negative review.
Plus, there’s the unspoken question of health. In an age where we’re told daily about the need to watch our fat, sugar or salt content, and more importantly, exercise, you can’t help watching Gold eat anything and everything under the sun – from chili dogs, hamburgers, spicy cuisine, Thai food, to rich, gourmet meals; practically anything – and wonder, how’s the blood pressure doing? Gold’s disheveled and unkempt, overweight appearance is clearly the sum total of everything he’s eaten. Presumably, the only crunch he’s known is the one associated with the noise of a deep-fried burrito when he bites into it. Like a bodybuilder who wears his or her sport, Gold also wears his occupation, and it hangs over his pant waistline.
But there’s no doubting his writing and the love for what he does. When he types that the taste of a certain dish “…flashes on your lips with the vibrancy of a Las Vegas sign,” there’s little wonder why his reviews are lauded the way they are. He really does bring you to his table in a way no other restaurant writer does. And when he states, “I can’t tell you how much I love Los Angeles,” he doesn’t have to. Director Laura Gabbert has successfully and entertainingly done that for him.
MPAA rating: R Length: 91 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)