Eating and chatting over a two hour breakfast with the Pulitzer Prize winning restaurant critic for the LA Times, Jonathan Gold, was more entertaining than any chef/food writer should be allowed to have in one day. And I did it.
I host an online digital show called The Breakfast Show, and my producer and I wanted Gold so bad we could taste it. There were several reasons our mouths were watering over this interview. One, he is an iconic wordsmith, and second, he has turned down every invite to appear on camera or meeting for an interview since he began his career over thirty years ago. I was shocked to learn that seemingly every reality show had been knocking at his door, practically begging him to appear or judge in some fashion on different food-based shows.
After my producer, Jeff, made weeks of calls and emails, much to our surprise, he agreed to the interview. Now, what the hell am I going to talk about to this guy about without embarrassing myself? That’s the real question. I never get jumpy on camera or in interviews but this is Jonathan freakin’ Gold. And it’s his first interview on camera, and it’s with me.
Before I get too deep into the details of our breakfast, allow me to back up a touch. Jonathan Gold has been a fixture in the LA community since the early eighties, when he began contributing to L.A. Weekly after graduating from UCLA. He was the music editor in the 80’s and quickly became one of the paper’s most popular writers. He started his Counter Intelligence column in 1986, uncovering and discussing some of the lesser known ethnic areas of LA. He took the column to the L.A. Times and was also simultaneously writing reviews for high-end restaurants in California and Los Angeles magazines, as well as contributing to national magazines like Rolling Stone, Blender, Spin and Details in their music sections. After almost twenty years writing in L.A., he gave up his post and headed east to become Gourmet Magazine’s restaurant critic. After only a few years serving New York with some of the best restaurant reviews I’ve ever read, he headed back to L.A. and to the L.A. Times as the weekly restaurant critic.
After a very long-running and successful career complete with numerous awards and accolades, Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold is now sitting across from me in a Southern style restaurant in L.A. Immediately my nerves were calmed; he is just another guy that likes amazing food, and in particular loves writing about the underdog, my absolute favorite lane to write in. He even wears suspenders. We talked ham, and why on the West Coast it’s more about the prosciutto than the country ham, and how he sure wished that he could find more restaurants in L.A. experimenting with cured country ham. This was immediately after I admitted being a Southerner, and the reason I chose the restaurant was to determine what Southern food was like on the west coast. We joked that it’s typically like the Epcot version, you know, “Germany Land” of southern food, slightly reminiscent but without substance and soul.
He is intriguing, and he takes several long pauses as he decides what to say, but I appreciate the accuracy in his answers. They aren’t rehearsed because neither he nor I have an agenda. By this point we are deep into giggling about stories we share like two old friends catching up over biscuits and sweet tea. I remember specifically ordering massive amounts of food, so we could just share and try a little of everything. Jonathan’s stories feel much more interesting than mine at this point, but each time I share an experience he is focused specifically on what I’m saying.
I think what I understood and enjoyed most about my time that day was Jonathan’s deep wealth of knowledge and understanding of food. He shared an experience of one of many reviews he had written over the years. It was an ethnic restaurant he was reviewing, and he wouldn’t share the name, but the meal was “the worst meal I’ve ever eaten.” It was laughable. Here’s this guy who can crush or make a restaurant with one swipe of the pen, describing his worst meal ever. He asked me, “Have you ever tried bitter melon? …well, this melon was bitter, but not just bitter, more like cancer medicine.” The soup course was next, and by this time, I’m laughing out loud, because, straight-faced, he says, “The soup was like snot…and tasted as if someone stubbed out a bunch of cigarettes in it.” Then Jonathan turns a corner and goes from joking about how horrible his meal was, into revealing how his experience was more about how he didn’t understand the point of view of the food he was eating.
Any other food critic in any other city would write their review and bash the restaurant for having bitter cancer medicine melon and snot soup. They wouldn’t invest in the idea that possibly, just maybe, they didn’t understand the food. He commented on how horrible it was, that it just couldn’t be this bad. So he made it his mission to understand it: Jonathan ate at the undisclosed restaurant seventeen times before even attempting to write the review. He said by this point, the owner referred to him as his American customer and the waitresses all thought he was looking for a date. Laughing out loud, he finished his thoughts, as he wasn’t prepared to write a scathing review based on one, two, or ten bad meals. He wanted to understand the meaning behind the dishes and why they were being prepared this way. This is what separates Jonathan from the rest of the pack.
As a chef, I have ridden the tide of the highs and lows of food critics and their reviews. As a writer, I have also been on the other side of that equation, doling out my judgement on those sweating their asses off on the kitchen line. Having seen both sides of the coin, I can truly appreciate the dedication and passion that Jonathan Gold has for not just evaluating the food he eats, but truly understanding it. It is a rare and beautiful thing in our rush-around, immediate gratification society to find someone who really takes the time and effort to truly examine something, good or bad. As I sat across that table, I realized and drank in the fact that I was in the presence of a rarity, a food critic unicorn, if you will. To witness it for yourself, feel free to pull-up a chair and be the third party at the breakfast table with me and Jonathan on The Breakfast Show.