An Open Letter to the new LA Times Food critics
Hello Enthusiasts –
Well, we have our answer. The LA Times has announced Jonathan Gold’s successor. Or, successors, as they were. It makes sense that they wouldn’t try to simply pass the mantle to one person. It’s impossible. So, they hired two new critics along with a sort of roving video columnist.
Bill Addison is coming over from a 4 year run as national food critic for Eater. His annual 38 Essential Restaurants list (which, in what I’m sure is a wild coincidence, was published just a day before the LA Times’ announcement) has quickly become fairly well respected in a food industry awash in lists because he literally spends all year eating his way around the country. He hasn’t owned an actual home since May 2017.
Patricia Escarcega comes to LA from Arizona after a multi-year run with the Phoenix New Times and the Arizona Republic. Living in Arizona since she was a teenager, she grew up in the Inland Empire and, according to family lore, her grandmother’s aunt’s tacos are said to have inspired Glen Bell to open his first Taco Bell.
And then, in a nod to the current multimedia journalism environment, they lured another Eater star, Lucas Peterson, who currently hosts their longest running YouTube series, “Dining on a Dime” as well as writing the Frugal Traveler column, ostensibly to recreate his particular brand of quirky video magic in Los Angeles.
These are three brave souls. I mean, who followed Vin Scully as the Dodgers play by play announcer? Who succeeded Chick Hearn for the Lakers? Who followed Tommy Lasorda? John Wooden? (answers: Joe Davis, Paul Sunderland, Bill Russell, and Gene Barlow). I get that these are all sports legends, but you see where I’m going here. Following a legend isn’t easy and rarely memorable, and these folks are taking a shot.
It would have been easy for the Times to go with someone already more familiar with Los Angeles. Get former LA Magazine critic Patric Kuh to quit his job managing Arthur J’s in the South Bay. Bring former LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell back from Australia (which would have been worth it for her Twitter feed alone). Bring Irene Virbila back, who used to share critic duties with JGold. Maybe they tried and these folks wisely turned them down. Who knows? But in any case, we’re getting three non-Angelenos to take on this most daunting of assignments.
It’s easy to see what the Times is doing. (I’m going to focus on the two actual restaurant critics – Peterson is doing a different thing). Bring in a roving national critic (who I’m fairly sure is a white guy) and pair him with a critic who has mostly spent her career diving deeply into one local restaurant scene, and who is proudly a Latina. While they have wisely said that neither writer will concentrate on any particular geography or type of cuisine, I certainly hope they don’t fall into any obvious tropes, asking Escarcega to focus on food trucks or strip mall joints. (That being said, anybody who writes an article headlined “Gas Station Burrito: A Love Story” shows that they have learned a little something from Mr. Gold…). I’m more familiar with Addison and his famous annual list which, this year, included Mariscos Jalisco, n/naka, and Here’s Looking At You. These kinds of lists are designed to spark debate, and I think HLAY was included more to signify a category of “quality neighborhood restaurant”, but these restaurants do show that Addison has at least some familiarity with where things are in Los Angeles at the moment. A quick perusal of Escarcega’s posts shows a solid body of work, if a little heavy on “5 best” or “places you need to eat now”, but that may have been a reflection of writing for an alternative publication like the New Times, which seems to specialize in these kinds of pieces.
That being said, it’s impossible to understand Los Angeles without living here, and they’re both doing that for the first time. Maybe it’s fitting that one of these critics hasn’t really lived anywhere for the last 18 months, while the other grew up in the shadow of Los Angeles and has perhaps a native’s understanding of the region. But eating in Los Angeles once, maybe twice a year is no substitute for being submerged in it day in and day out, a distinction I’m sure they both understand.
So, at the risk of being presumptuous, as, at minimum, a native of Los Angeles, a long time observer of the LA restaurant scene, a sometimes writer about it, and a passionate resident of this great, if still under appreciated, city, here’s my unsolicited advice as they tackle probably the hardest new job in food journalism:
You’re going to be a tourist for awhile, so embrace it. Don’t immediately try to find that obscure food truck or that new ramen place in the San Gabriel Valley where you need an interpreter to order. Bring a fresh perspective to some of our longtime stalwarts. Take a new look at Providence or a.o.c. or Melisse or Republique. Reintroduce us to some of the places we may have started to take for granted. Remind us of our greats.
Let the City come to you. One of the reasons I like that “Gas Station Burrito” story I linked to above is that it shows someone who’s willing to take what their city gives them. The great thing about Los Angeles is the unexpected discoveries, the hidden gems, the fun places you stumble on. Don’t try to be J Gold … but embrace his ethos.
Please, no stars. I know some people want the ease of actual ratings. This place is 4 stars, that place is 2 1/2 stars. But the great thing about J Gold is that he reviewed places on their own terms. In a city like Los Angeles with its dearth of true fine dining but its plethora of breathtaking quality, and its mishmash of cultures and styles, using a star-based system implies some sort of uniform standard or judgment that is simply impossible to impose on this crazy-quilt city.
Start slow. Resist the temptation to debut with a bang. No hot takes. No counter-intuitive “In n Out really isn’t that good” columns. The one thing we hate more than just about anything else in the media world is outsiders parachuting in and trying to describe Los Angeles to us (see what seems like the annual New York Times apology piece for some sort of misguided/offensive/ill-informed/cliched outsider’s view of LA). Resist the pressure to “make your mark” right away. There’s time.
Don’t compare us to anybody else. This one is especially important for Addison. It’s going to be so tempting for a guy who has spent the last 5 years eating around the country to compare Los Angeles restaurants to other places, especially because LA represents so many cuisines from around the country and around the world. But I don’t want to hear that some barbecue place would give some other place in Texas a run for its money, or that some seafood place is as good as anywhere in Boston. LA may reflect lots of other places, but it isn’t like anywhere else. Don’t judge our success by the barometer of others.
For godssakes, please don’t chase Hollywood. Look, I don’t see any evidence in the history of either of these two writers that shows they might do this, but just to be sure … please don’t review a place just because some Hollywood star owns or has invested in it. So many newbies do this – some new place gets attention in Us Weekly or something because Leo/Justin/a Kardashian is involved with it, and they think it would be interesting to review, positively or negatively. If a place earns the stature or quality to deem a review, then so be it. But that doesn’t come just because someone famous wrote a check.
I have no doubt that these are high quality hires (and these come after luring Lucky Peach – a J G0ld favorite – co-founder Peter Meehan in an editor role). I have listened to Addison on the Eater podcast (including one that was posted Friday just before the announcement), and he seems like a humble and exuberant critic. I wasn’t familiar with Escarcega, but she seems like she’ll bring an interesting perspective to the role. And there’s absolutely no doubt that they both understand the sizable shadow they’ll be walking into.
I’m rooting for them – this city has arguably the most vibrant food scene in the nation, yet has a paucity of quality food journalism. So walk in slow, trust your instincts, listen to your colleagues (especially the awesome Jenn Harris), and most of all, don’t force it. This chaotic, sprawled out, unintelligible, polycultural, multi-hyphenate, nutso city doesn’t make sense right away. But it sneaks up on you, if you let it. And once it does – once you really do start to understand it, make sense of it, see around its corners and under its skin – you will fall in love with it. Just like Jonathan Gold did.