RIP to the greatest food writer there was
When I started this thing back in March, I knew I wanted to write a newsletter, and I knew I wanted it to be about restaurants, but I had to ask myself why I loved them and how I could express myself in a way that felt unique. I realized that while food has everything to do with it, my infatuation with restaurants is mostly about being in a place with a certain kind of energy—defined chiefly by the people who have poured their hearts and souls into crafting and operating such an establishment, and partially by the cast of characters that dine there. Dining at a restaurant is, or at least has the potential to be, the most natural, jubilant, and nourishing transactional experience there is. The moments in which, as a diner, you can recognize that; those of being on the receiving end of a collaborative effort to provide pleasure; those of being treated with warmth and kindness; in essence, moments of human connection and understanding—that is what I want to dwell on. To that end, I don't want to ruminate negatively. There is a time and a space for that, and don't get me wrong, I engage in pessimistic critique all the time—in person, on Twitter, in tips on Foursquare. Yet I have no interest in chronicling my bad experiences at length. Instead, I want to consider what makes a great meal special and how certain places (people, really, who more often than not, I don't even know) bring joy.
Still, I didn’t think I’d use it as a platform for anything more than thinking about my experiences eating out. And yet here I am, less than two months after the loss of Anthony Bourdain, addressing for the second time in Some Things Considered’s short history, the death of a hero. How could I not? More than anyone else, the above sentiment was inspired by Jonathan Gold.
It’s hard to grapple with the death of someone, who, like Bourdain, had such a distinctly individual and positive cultural impact. In acknowledging, and lifting up, immensely talented people from outside of the mainstream, they opened doors for all of us that we otherwise wouldn't have found on our own. As Andrea Chang writes in her news-breaking obituary for the Los Angeles Times, "Gold was mission-driven as a critic, hoping his food adventures through the city’s many immigrant enclaves would help break down barriers among Angelenos wary of venturing outside their comfort zones." It is this fact that makes it easy to think of the two as like-minded pioneers. Similarly, as Ruth Reichl writes for the same newspaper, "He wrote enticing prose designed to take us out of our safe little territories to mingle with other people because he knew that restaurants aren’t really about food. They’re about people." And yet the two of them were different in crucial ways. They were both journalists, although only Gold was a critic. Tony was a chef turned author turned TV personality who told stories of people around the world, while Jonathan was only ever a writer—and all about Los Angeles.
He did a brief stint in New York, at Gourmet, in the early aughts; he traveled to places like Copenhagen to eat at and then write about Noma, as many critics do; and was a music reporter for a while before he settled into food. But he was Los Angeles. He was born there and grew up there, but most significantly, he loved it, deeply, and he knew it, profoundly. He was an academic and the food of L.A. was his subject.
I am not from L.A., nor have I ever lived there, but I've grown to know it quite well through annual visits to see family, and these days also to see friends, many of whom are New York expats who've decamped to the sunny city—a foil to the intensity of Manhattan, the right place to be if you're making a career in entertainment, and often the only other place New Yorkers can think of actually existing.
I always liked L.A. because it made me feel good. When you land at LAX, get behind the wheel, and start cruising down Lincoln Blvd, maybe with the sunroof down, clear blue skies above, it's hard to wipe that smile off your face. As a kid, I loved the Santa Monica Pier and The Original Farmers Market, and of course, the proximity to Anaheim. You know what else I loved, though? The sushi and the salads and the tacos. As I got older and I came to appreciate food, even more, I discovered Jonathan Gold. It's he who made me understand the city, beyond the weather and the driving and Hollywood. It's he who, beyond reuniting with loved ones, made me long for my next trip out west even before the current one was over. It's he who I can thank for my never-ending list of, in the words of Pete Wells, "pupuserias, bistros, diners, nomadic taco trucks, soot-caked outdoor rib and brisket smokers, sweaty indoor xiao long bao steamers, postmodern pizzerias, vintage delicatessens, strictly omakase sushi-yas, Roman gelaterias, Korean porridge parlors, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle vendors, Iranian tongue-sandwich shops, vegan hot dog griddles, cloistered French-leaning hyper-seasonal tasting counters and wood-paneled Hollywood grills with chicken potpie and martinis on every other table" to try.
There's somewhat of a reason to read reviews of restaurants in a city you don't live in if it's a city that you at least get to spend time in now and then. Though, I read Gold's reviews because he was a magnificent wordsmith. He wrote in the second person so that you became him. You could almost taste what he tasted, too, because of his brilliant and unparalleled ability to describe the physicality of food so richly. Take his very last review, of Bavel, for example:
"Menashe’s hummus is magnificent, a ring of silky, airy purée surrounding a big spoonful of chunkier, denser stuff; a green rivulet of olive oil; smears of spicy, smoky harissa and green puréed herbs. The pita has inflated into a sphere on the hot fire, but its interior has the lovely, evolved gluten network of a slow-risen country loaf. And as you scrape the bread between one density and the other, through the oil or not, the dish becomes an essay in the nuances of texture and fragrance, a nifty, chefly trick." He was a poet. And my god, do I want to go to Bavel. When I first read this, as was often the case with his reviews, a part of me yearned to get on the next flight out to L.A. But no, I could wait until my next trip, and that's because he left me satisfied enough. He let me feel how he felt:
"You will be drinking salty island wines from Sardinia and the Canary Islands. Your date will barely hear you above the din. You will wonder whether there is a point to an old-fashioned made with lamb-fat-washed bourbon or a pisco sour with pink peppercorns, and you will decide that there might be. You will probably be having a very good time."
RIP, Jonathan Gold. Your absence will be sorely felt, but your influence will forever live on.
Related and recommended:
Jonathan Gold's Anthony Bourdain obituary, one of the last pieces he wrote [LATimes]
Gold's marvelous review of Bavel (also linked above) [LATimes]
This thread from food writer Francis Lam so perfectly explains Gold's genius [Twitter]
A lovely 2009 profile on Gold from Dana Goodyear [New Yorker]
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