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Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles … and me

Hello Enthusiasts –

Sad times here in La La Land.  Our culinary pied piper got called for a reservation at the big restaurant in the sky.  Jonathan Gold’s unexpected death hit all self-respecting Angelenos pretty hard.  And I’ve been thinking about why that is – after all, most of us have never trekked to the San Gabriel Valley to find the obscure place specializing in food from the Chongqing region he was writing about that week, or we never got to that one street corner at that one specific time to try that one taco truck that he was so eloquently describing.  Sure, many did – but lots more didn’t.  So, why do we mourn a food critic so intensely?  Why did dozens of LA buildings light up gold in his honor in the wake of his passing?

My theory is this:  nobody publicly embodied Los Angeles as well as Jonathan Gold did.  It’s not (really) about restaurants or food or which dish is reminiscent of what region in the world.  His reviews, and his approach to them, were really about who we are as a city.

He is most renowned for elevating and honoring all kinds of food in all kinds of settings.  For him, that obscure taco truck had just as much potential – and could be just as good or worthwhile – as any temple of fine dining.  Just ask Roy Choi.

But … isn’t that Los Angeles, in a nutshell?  I always say that it’s unfair to compare Los Angeles to other big cities.  Or, more accurately, it’s misleading.

(My closer friends will forgive the next section, which they’ve heard me say at least five or 500 times.  I’ve probably even said it before in these “pages”.  But here goes.)  New York and Chicago and San Francisco and even places like Miami are easy to love (or hate) because they are what they are.  They don’t elevate the individual or the quixotic or the hard-to-explain.  When I’m feeling provocative, I say that New York and San Francisco are like a hooker (or gigolo, I suppose) on a Saturday night: “here I am, take me or leave me.”  You either want/like these cities as they are, or you don’t – and you can pretty much figure out where you are going to fall on that spectrum within a few minutes of setting foot in them.  I knew I would love New York the first time I set foot there; my brother knew he would hate it.  That’s how those kinds of cities are.

Los Angeles doesn’t give itself up quite that easily.  To torture the analogy even further, we’re more like that odd looking guy or girl in the corner.  The one that doesn’t immediately say “here I am, take me or leave me.” Maybe not that great looking, but potentially more interesting underneath.  You have to put a little work in. You have to get to know Los Angeles.  You have to unfurl its layers.

And what’s great about that?  It’s great because Los Angeles can be the kind of city YOU want it to be.  It is a ‘found’ city.  It honors and elevates the individual.  It honors the work.

In nosing around for this blog post, I came across a HuffPost piece by Edward Goldman, who is KCRW’s art critic.  And he makes my point much more eloquently, with a better (and less racy) analogy.  To wit:

“Every time a snooty visitor to LA asks me, ‘Come on, Edward, how can you love this city? You can’t compare it to the beautiful cities you’ve lived in or traveled to.’ To which I reply, ‘Thank God it doesn’t look like any other city in the world.  Yes, it’s a totally unique city, a creature all its own.’

Just think about all beautiful historic cities as purebred horses that people breed, train and admire. And all of a sudden, you are confronted with a strange animal like no other you’ve seen before. Though it looks remotely like a horse, it’s three times bigger, and its proportions are totally wrong. Its hind legs are shorter than its front legs, its neck stretches up into the skies, and its ridiculously long tail with a brush on the end looks like an upended palm tree. What the hell is the name for this creature? Of course, I’m talking about a giraffe: a beautiful, exotic animal who cannot and should not be compared to a common horse.”

So, if you try to compare Los Angeles to any other famous city—a comparison in which LA will always lose—you are totally missing the point. I see this beautiful, exotic and slightly weird metropolis of ours as a ‘giraffe’ of a city.”

Relate that back to Mr. Gold.  Fine dining restaurants are easy to figure out.  They have clear menus, full of ingredients you mostly recognize, are well designed, and clearly telegraph their intentions.  They are purebreds that people create and develop, and that their patrons admire and extol.  Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t … but it’s going to be what it is, regardless.

But what about that local Thai hole in the wall?  The one you’ve driven by a bunch of times without even noticing.  Or the one that’s not even near your neighborhood.  It’s not easy to figure out.  It may serve ingredients you’ve never heard of.  And interior design?  I mean, maybe a few trinkets from home or some funny posters that were laying around.  This place does not grab you by the collar and say “great food served here.”  It’s not as outwardly attractive.  You have to figure it out.  You have to put a little work in.

Or maybe you don’t like Thai food.  OK … there might be an Ethiopian place or a Cantonese place or a taco truck or maybe just a neighborhood beer joint with the same ethos.  The kind of place that you have to make the effort to figure out. In any of those cases, you have to realize that it’s not a purebred horse, and it’s not supposed to be. But it can be beautiful and exotic and compelling all on its own, like a giraffe.  (and giraffes happen to be my favorite animal, so I’m totally stealing this analogy from now on)

Anyway … Jonathan Gold made the effort.  He put the work in.  He didn’t bring that outsider’s sensibility that drives all us Angelenos crazy – like that reliable once-a-year New York Times piece that tries to decipher some other “wacky” LA trend.  He understood Los Angeles in his bones, on its own terms.  He realized that, at its core, that hole in the wall Thai place was probably run by a native (or once descended) Thai person cooking mostly for their Thai brethren.  But he, uniquely, stuck his head out the door and said “Hey!  Everybody else!  This food is really good.  You should come on in.”  And isn’t that Los Angeles?

And, of course, never underestimate the power of the written word:  as the only person to ever win a Pulitzer for food writing, he made these places interesting … relatable … compelling.

Another inkling that our reverence for J Gold wasn’t just because he was writing about food:  many were surprised to learn that he originally used to write about music and was, in fact, one of the first writers to put N.W.A. on the mainstream map, becoming an early champion for Dr. Dre and eventually Snoop.  Some people even credit (or blame) him for coining the term “gangsta rap.”  Of course, he didn’t ‘discover’ them, and talent that significant would have (hopefully) gotten discovered regardless … but isn’t that the exact same talent, just in a different context?  He saw something that was uniquely Los Angeles … honored and understood it for what it actually was and not for what an outsider wanted or expected it to be … and was able to explicate that for a wider audience in a way that would make them want to know more about and experience it.


Now … after all this grandiose self indulgence, here comes a little more: my own experience(s) with the legend.

I used to be involved with something called the Sporting Life.  Which was mostly a social/networking group for bartenders, bar owners, liquor reps, and people generally interested in the cocktail scene.  Our Sunday afternoon gatherings eventually grew to include hundreds of folks but in the early days, it was probably 15-20 people comparing notes, recipes, and general industry knowledge.  I was standing in Bar Keeper in Silverlake (an amazing store if you’ve never been, full of obscure alcohols and vintage barware from across the world) during one of the earlyish meetings.  Not too many people there, and we were just … hanging out.  And I look towards the door and I see John Coltharp (now head bartender at Seven Grand) talking to this – well, if I’m describing my thought process at the time honestly, I thought “that’s nice that John is talking to the ‘community’ person (is he homeless?) who walked in.”  He’s disheveled and kinda overweight with longish stringy reddish hair and didn’t look like any cocktail person I had ever met.  (this was also pre-LA Times days and before the days when he consciously shed his disguises, so he wasn’t visibly famous yet).

So, being the Good Samaritan I am, I walk over to rescue John.  So he says “hey, Glenn, meet Jonathan Gold.”  I’m floored.  We start chatting and he says he’s working on a story for LA Weekly.  John wanders away and I spend 10-15 minutes chatting with him.  I make some undoubtedly lame joke about the next hole in the wall he’s going to review, and he says “everybody says that, but I review lots of fine dining places, too.”

Anyway, I remember few of the specifics.  But what I do remember is that he was open and happy to talk to anyone and wasn’t looking for the next person to hit up.  He was just soaking it all in.

And, unsurprisingly, his resulting 2009 piece – The New Cocktailians – was the first one to really capture the LA scene exactly right.  It didn’t try to compare LA to New York or London or wherever.  It captured not only the players and the places (many, now, lamentably gone – but many still going strong!), but h0w it all fit with Los Angeles, and how the cocktail scene here was uniquely a creature of this city.  Often, insiders are the worst critics of pieces like that, even positive ones – well, it’s not quite like that, or the reporter forgot this, or he didn’t understand that.  Not this one.  We all read it and said “finally, somebody got it right.”

Cut to just a couple years ago at the launch of the first LA Times Food Bowl, the monthlong citywide food celebration of which Mr. Gold was the inspiration, face, star, and general reason the event was created in the first place.  It’s at Spring in Downtown (probably because everyone could walk there from the Times), and it’s full of food industry insiders, journalists, bloggers, influencers, whoever – all of whom are far higher than me on the food chain.  I’ve seen him at a couple things since that run in at Bar Keeper, but haven’t spoken to him since.  So, I wait my turn and finally get a chance to chat with him.  The first thing I say is “I feel sorry for you at events like these.”  And he, generous as always, shrugs and says “Eh.  It’s why I’m here.  I don’t mind.”  So I bring up our brief encounter at Bar Keeper and the New Cocktailians piece and tell him how much it meant to a lot of folks.  His eyes light up and he says he remembers all of it.  We start comparing what bars we like and why.  I mention Everson Royce Bar and he agrees – “I spend entirely too much time there” – and I say that the bar food is way better than it has to be and we compare notes on the burger they serve and before 30 seconds have passed, it’s like I’m just talking to … a fellow enthusiast, I guess.

I venture the courage to mention that I have a blog, and he asks me the name so I tell him.  He looks up for a moment and says “I think somebody told me I should check that one out.”  I have some friends at the Times so I mention a couple of them and he says “no, I don’t remember who, but I think it was someone at a bar downtown.”  What do I say to that?  Resisting the urge to pull out my phone and pull up this very website while standing right there, I sheepishly mumble something about not winning any Pulitzer Prizes any time soon and he says “look – anybody who cares enough about this stuff to write about it, and who can get anybody to read it, and who tries hard enough to understand it should keep at it.  Just be generous about it.”

Just be generous about it.  That sums it up in a nutshell.  I try to be generous here – I write about things I like and mostly shut up about things I don’t.  Los Angeles is a generous city, if you learn how to let it be.  And Jonathan Gold was a generous man, in his reviews and in person.

Saying someone was a civic treasure or an icon or a legend or any other of those bigdeal words gets thrown around too often.  But in a city like Los Angeles, spread out and diverse and heterogeneous and chaotic and quixotic as we are, it’s pretty hard to find someone who we all agree on, and who we all cherish.  I never went to a restaurant because Jonathan Gold said I should.  I didn’t even like the type of food at many of the places he reviewed – in fact, I would often pick up the Saturday section of the LA Times and go “oh, look, another random noodle place in the San Gabriel Valley.”  Talk about taking someone for granted.

When I picked up a recent Saturday section of the Times, and there was no Jonathan Gold review, and I knew there never would be again ……