Jonathan Gold, LA's preeminent food writer, has died at 57

jgold-scene-grab.jpgJonathan Gold and Laurie Ochoa in a scene from "City of Gold."

Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times' star restaurant critic and food writer, died Saturday evening at St. Vincent Medical Center, days after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Gold was 57.

He is survived by his wife Laurie Ochoa, who is the Times' arts and entertainment editor, and their two children, Isabel, 23, and Leon, 15. Brother Mark Gold is the associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA and a former columnist for LA Observed.

By now many people know the story of how Jonathan Gold rode the bus between the Westside and a newspaper proofreading job in downtown LA and discovered the small ethnic restaurants on West Pico Boulevard. He started exploring the family-run places and introduced them to Angelenos who would not otherwise have visited many of the restaurants that lay off the radar of the city's other food critics. He freelanced reviews for the Times, LA Weekly and other publications, and in 2007 won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the only food writer ever honored with a Pulitzer, for pieces he wrote for LA Weekly when he was on the staff and Ochoa was the editor in chief.

They both came back to the Times shortly after, and the paper revamped its food coverage around Gold's reviews, his annual list of essential favorites, and his marketability as a popular voice and presence in the national and local community of chefs, journalists and foodies. Gold and Ochoa met at LA Weekly and were married at Campanile in 1990; for years they would take a summer trip to Italy with Campanile's Nancy Silverton.

“He, more than any chef, changed the dining scene in Los Angeles,” Silverton, now the head at Mozza, says in the Times obituary that went up last night. “He really was the ambassador for our city.”

For years Gold has appeared on KCRW with Evan Kleiman, the host of "Good Food" and the former owner and chef at the late Angeli Caffe on Melrose. "My @KCRWGoodFood family lost our brother a man like no other," she posted Saturday night on Twitter. "Such kindness, generosity and erudition."

"City of Gold," a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Laura Gabbert, introduced the critic to a new audience as the film followed him around the city in his old green Dodge Ram pickup truck. "I can’t imagine the city without him. It just feels wrong," she says in the Times obituary. "I feel like we won’t have our guide, we won’t have the soul.”

From the Times obit:

One of the most widely admired voices of Los Angeles, Gold wrote about restaurants for four decades and became indelibly linked with the city in which he was born and raised....

Gold pioneered a different approach to food criticism. His reviews — which appeared first in L.A. Weekly and later in The Times and Gourmet — were predominantly positive and focused on off-the-beaten-path ethnic restaurants, which he preferred to call traditional restaurants (he particularly disliked the phrase “exotic food”). He dismissed the notion of starred reviews and cheered the stuffy Michelin Guide’s departure from Los Angeles in 2010.

“Jonathan understood that food could be a power for bringing a community together, for understanding other people,” said Ruth Reichl, who edited Gold at The Times and at Gourmet. “In the early ’80s, no one else was there. He was a trailblazer and he really did change the way that we all write about food.”

Gold’s Counter Intelligence column, which he began writing in 1986, was an indispensable dining guide for Angelenos, giving them a way of discovering their own city.

“He ended up becoming like L.A.’s translator,” said longtime friend Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food,” which Gold appeared on weekly.

“Do you know how many people have told me that when they moved here they had no idea how to deal with Los Angeles?” she said. “And they used him as a template to learn the city. It made them flip from being afraid and kind of not happy to be here to embracing it.”

With his suspenders, slightly rumpled button-down shirt, mustache and mop of feathery strawberry blond hair, Gold was an easy-to-spot silhouette around town, peering through the order window of his favorite food trucks and sending chefs into near-panic when he would show up at restaurants unannounced.

Reichl, the former food editor at the Times (and later restaurant critic at the New York Times), wrote a piece about Gold for the LAT that ran last night. Sample:

His friends all knew that when he called you, 20 minutes after he’d promised to join you for dinner — at a restaurant or your house — to say he’d hit terrible traffic, it probably meant he hadn’t even gotten into his car. He was always late.

If you were his editor you gave him fake deadlines, hoping that if you could convince him that you needed it before you actually did, you might get the copy on time. Good luck. To Jonathan, deadlines were merely a suggestion.


But what we bonded over was food; I’d never met anybody with such deep knowledge of Korean and Thai cuisine, and he slowly initiated me into the mysteries of pupusas, arepas and tortas. He was a veritable encyclopedia of Los Angeles food, and when Laurie Ochoa (who became his wife) and I took over the Food section of this paper, the first thing we did was ask Jonathan to write for us. His copy, of course, was always late.

“I know it drives you crazy,” he said during one memorable argument, “but I’m worth it.” And of course, he was....

Now, looking back, it seems to me that much as I respected Jonathan, I never really appreciated how much he gave us — or how much he changed food journalism. Long before anyone had used the words “social gastronomy,” long before Tony Bourdain stepped out of the kitchen and onto the television screen, at a time when nobody in America — and few people in the world — understood the power of food, Jonathan got it.

Gustavo Arellano, who counts food writer and author among his many journalism hats, offered the Times his appreciation of Jonathan Gold as an anthropologist of the city and a literary voice.

Southern California didn't just lose its best food writer. When the man I and so many others called Mr. Gold passed away this weekend from pancreatic cancer, we lost one of our greatest and most important literary voices. He was a scribe of a sort we had never seen before, and probably won't again: a champion of Southern California who wasn't a saccharine booster like Charles Fletcher Lummis or the Instagram influencers of today; a chronicler of L.A.’s streets who never bought into the noir nightmares of Raymond Chandler or Mike Davis; a superstar who was never a self-aggrandizer; a nerd who could work in a Beyoncé reference for a review about a dim sum palace in Monterrey Park without coming off as pretentious or over eager.

He deserves a spot in the pantheon of Los Angeles writers, alongside Charles Bukowski, Walter Mosley and Luis J. Rodriguez. His columns have the same defining importance about our time and place as Joan Didion’s dispatches, as “The Day of the Locust.” It was through his work at The Times and LA Weekly that the rest of the country arguably discovered the Southern California that gets buzz today — a dynamic, young, multicultural hub that keeps a tenuous hold on unity through the foods we share and create. Our food in his hands became the prism through which outsiders could finally see the real SoCal.

The trailer to "City of Gold."

Here are tribute columns by the LAT's Carolina Miranda and Robin Abcarian. Pete Wells in the New York Times:

He may not have eaten everything in 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. He once estimated that in the hunt for interesting new things to eat and write about, he put 20,000 miles on his green Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck each year. While driving, he liked listening to opera.

If a new group of immigrants turned up in Los Angeles County, chances were good he had already studied the benchmark dishes of their cuisine in one or more of the 3,000 to 5,000 cookbooks he owned. If a restaurant opened, he probably knew the names and specialties of the last five restaurants at that address. In a 2006 review of a Beverly Hills steakhouse, he recalled going to the same location to eat patty melts with his mother and to drink warm beer that a sympathetic waitress poured into teacups after hours when he was a young punk rocker, all in the first paragraph.

Let's not forget that Jonathan was also a must-read writer about music in various LA publications before the restaurants reviews took off. I've seen several fans on social media recommend this 1989 interview with N.W.A. in LA Weekly.

Some tweets shortly after the news of Gold's death broke on Twitter:

The final tweet from the JGold account:

More by Kevin Roderick:
'In on merit' at USC
Read the memo: LA Times hires again
Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
Recent Obituaries stories on LA Observed:
Doug Jeffe: a remembrance
Jonathan Gold, LA's preeminent food writer, has died at 57
Harlan Ellison, dangerous visionary
Murray Fromson, a fighter to the end
Cory Iverson, 32, California firefighter dies on Thomas Fire
Bruce Brown, surfing filmmaker of 'The Endless Summer,' dies at 80
A salute to Anacleto Rapping, photographer
LA Observed Notes: Photos of the homeless, photos that found homes