Lauded restaurant critic saw food as a gateway to people

Jonathan Gold, the first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, died in a Los Angeles hospital due to pancreatic cancer, at age 57.
Jonathan Gold, the first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, died in a Los Angeles hospital due to pancreatic cancer, at age 57.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK • Jonathan Gold (above), the first restaurant critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, died last Saturday in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 57.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Ms Margy Rochlin, a close friend.

Unlike some critics, Gold never saw expensive, rarefied restaurants as the peak of the terrain he surveyed, although he reviewed his share of them.

Shiki Beverly Hills, Noma and Alinea all took turns under his critical loupe. He was in his element, though, when he championed small, family-run establishments where publicists and wine lists were unheard of and English was often a second language, if it was spoken at all.

"Before Anthony Bourdain, before reality TV and Parts Unknown and people really being into ethnic food in a serious way, it was Jonathan who got it, completely," writer and editor Ruth Reichl said.

"He really got that food was a gateway into the people and that food could really define a community. He was really writing about the people more than the food."

Gold wrote about restaurants for Gourmet, California and Los Angeles magazines, but the bulk of his reviews appeared in two newspapers - LA Weekly, where in 2007 he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and the Los Angeles Times, where he had been the chief critic since 2012, treating the restaurants of famous and obscure chefs as if he saw no distinction between them.

Each publication hired him twice, with long breaks between tours of duty.

He became the subject of a documentary called City Of Gold, a role model imitated painstakingly and largely in vain by a generation of food writers, a living street atlas of Southern California, the inspiration for a rap tribute in which his list of 99 Essential LA Restaurants was declaimed over the beat of Jay-Z's 99 Problems, and a verb.

When actor Mindy Kaling asked Twitter for a pizza recommendation, she added: "Don't Jonathan Gold me and tell me to go to the San Gabriel Valley."

He may not have eaten everything in his native Los Angeles, but nobody came closer. He rarely went to the subject of one of his reviews without stopping to try four or five other places along the way.

If a restaurant opened, he probably knew the names and specialities of the last five restaurants at that address.

Jonathan Gold was born July 28, 1960, in South Los Angeles, where he was raised. Irwin Gold, his father, was a probation officer assigned to supervise Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, among other offenders. His mother, Judith, was a school librarian who had been a magician's assistant.

While he was in college, Gold walked into the office of LA Weekly, an alternative paper, where he was soon reading proofs and pitching big, doomed ideas about the zeitgeist.

In 1986, he started a column for LA Weekly about the kinds of places where he liked to eat. It was called Counter Intelligence.

Week by week, year by year, he built a reputation for finding restaurants that were virtually unknown outside the neighbourhoods of immigrants, who were often the only customers until he walked in.

Like many restaurant critics, he tried to keep his image out of circulation for years.

Informally, the incognito phase ended when a photograph of Gold celebrating his Pulitzer win in a pink, champagne-basted shirt got around.

Officially, it was finished when he allowed LA Weekly to publish his photograph shortly before the release of City Of Gold in 2015.

In his first term at LA Weekly, he met Laurie Ochoa, an intern and now an editor, whom he married in 1990.

They went to restaurants together and contrived to work together, moving in tandem from one publication to another - the Los Angeles Times, Gourmet, LA Weekly again, the Times again.

She survives him, along with their children, Isabel and Leon.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2018, with the headline 'Lauded restaurant critic saw food as a gateway to people'. Print Edition | Subscribe