Not that Gold himself isn’t an extraordinary subject. The movie premiered at Sundance in 2015, a week after Gold publicly abandoned his career-long attempts to remain anonymous, citing the impossibility of keeping your face a secret in the age of Instagram, as well as a belief that “the game of peekaboo is harmful both to critics and to the restaurants they write about.” This is just as well, because on camera he’s a resplendent figure with a mane of graying strawberry-blond hair, a freckled face, and keen eyes that light up when he peers through the window of a taco truck. “You’re not going to find cooking like this anywhere but L.A.,” he explains.
Gold grew up in South Central, and the movie reveals glimpses of his youth—the meticulous hierarchy regarding the Jewish deli his family shopped at, his time playing the cello in a punk band, how he fell into the exploration of ethnic cuisine because he was bored in an early job as a proof reader. But Gabbert seems less interested in Gold the person than Gold the critic, and his extraordinary influence as a champion for off-the-radar restaurants and chefs in Los Angeles. (For extra insight into the former, read Dana Goodyear’s 2009 New Yorker profile of Gold, which includes an anecdote about how he once burst into tears in a restaurant in an anxious fit after spending the day on a mission to sample the city’s espresso.) Gold and L.A., she proposes, are an almost impossibly perfect match of city and surveyor, where Gold, like Reyner Banham before him, maps out the complexities of its ethnic enclaves, one meal at a time.
As he drives around in his oversized Dodge truck, Gold points out highlights on the culinary map—a joint where they put boiled ox penis in your pho here, an “art-directed take on Korean street food” there. He stops to greet a man whose hot-dog spot has closed, but who continues to hawk butterflied dogs from a cart right outside. Gabbert interviews Ludo Lefebvre, whose face becomes cement-tight, and who starts berating a sous chef when he sees Gold sit down at a table. And, more tellingly, she talks to Genet Agonafer, an Ethiopian chef whose son funded her restaurant with loans he took after finishing medical school, and whose business was bleeding money until Jonathan Gold reviewed it. Suddenly, she says, “I could not cook the doro wat fast enough.”
Gold clearly has an extraordinary palate, but his interest in food comes across in the movie as almost abstract—you get the sense that it’s simply a vehicle for accessing his real subject, which is people. As a young reporter, he explains, he learned that if you try and talk to strangers in the street, they shut down, but if you strike up a conversation in the context of having a meal, you can more easily connect. He visits a restaurant four or five times before he writes a review, explaining that his mission is to achieve “exhilaration, infatuation, and, if you’re really lucky, understanding.” Food, he seems to believe, is simply what keeps us alive; cooking is what makes us human.