A man of many interests, Pulitzer Prize-wining LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold, visiting Melbourne ahead of the Melbourne International Film Festival screening of Laura Gabbert’s doco about his career, City of Gold, has also written extensively about film and music.
“I always liked writing about things other people aren’t,” he says. “If everybody in the world was listening to the same kind of music I liked, I would go to Compton, South LA or to Inglewood and go to soul shows, hip hop and blues. You had people selling half a million records literally out of the boot of their car. It was spectacular, and it’s almost the same thing in food.”
Though Gold acknowledges the latest celebrity chef restaurant favoured by movie stars has its place, he’d much rather be writing about the local taco truck killing it, mini-mall restaurants with no English language menu or a young punk chef experimenting from a pop-up sharing its space with a coffee cart.
Spanning the length and breadth of LA’s sprawling, multicultural metropolis, his ambitions started out small. “It was an ideal way to take mates out for free, but it also turned out to be a good fit for my appreciation of physical detail, my obsession with geography and lingering on one single detail, expanding it out,” Gold laughs.
His career has subsequently taken him all over the world, but this is his first trip to Melbourne since the mid-90s. He’s looking forward to dining at Ben Shewry’s Attica. “I love talking to Ben because he thinks about food in such an interesting way. He tried to get me here for his WAW food festival, but I couldn’t, so I’m glad to get to finally eat there.”
We meet at Polēpolē, Little Collins’ East African-inspired bar and eatery, with a cheery Gold, sporting a stripy shirt and suspenders, remarkably compos mentis considering he disembarked a 16-hour flight only a few hours earlier.
Our grazing feast takes in a tangy black angus porterhouse cured biltong Gold praises for being unafraid to, “bring out the funk a little bit,” and a wild boar and walnut cigar with a salted ash crust that deftly cuts through the unctuousness. He’s also taken by the squid ink and preserved lemon aioli accompanying Berber-style seared scallops and chorizo.
Acknowledging his fascination for food trucks, with LA igniting the trend back in 2008, I tip him off to the opening of Welcome to Thornbury, Melbourne’s first permanent food truck park, this Friday.
“If you have a restaurant with a $16 million build out, it’s not your restaurant,” Gold says. “There’s a lot of people with a stake in it, and you can’t just be free to do it as you want. If you do a pop up, it’s like fuck you, your investment is $30,000 maybe. It’s nothing you can’t afford to lose.
“The truck serves as a gathering point for people who really know about food to see what a chef is doing, but it also allows other people to see what first rate food can really taste like. You’re probably converting some of those people over to bigger projects.”
It’s not all about street eats, though. René Redzepi’s Noma is Gold’s favourite dinner to date, with one of the world’s finest chefs set to open an outpost in Sydney next year. “What he’s doing is incredible.”
Gold wasn’t immediately convinced, however, while researching Redzepi’s cookbook in advance of flying to Copenhagen. “It’s probably the single most douchiest thing I’ve ever read. I’ve grown to understand it, but it’s very much ‘gather the moss from the north side of the log.’”
It all made sense on arrival. “I’ve never been as blown backwards by a meal. It’s funny, right, I’m supposed to be the bard of the taco truck, but he had figured something out. He has this idea of how to make narrative cuisine that nobody else knows how to do.”
In terms of trends, Gold favours a diligent focus on locally grown, sustainable produce, but there’s room for magic tricks, and he says Redzepi has that nailed. He’s not overly sad to see the back of nouvelle cuisine, recalling a particularly absurd dinner at London’s Alistair Little. “There was this enormous plate the size of this table, and there was like a tiny little pheasant sausage the size of your pinky toe in the middle with one blueberry.”
Valuing his critical distance from chefs, he avoids forming fast friendships, though LA’s Nancy Silverton is a rare exception. “She’s actually one of the better chefs in town, but every time I write about one of her places I have to put a disclaimer in it, and people think I’m bragging.”
He also found it quite confronting allowing Gabbert into his life and work for five years, establishing fast rules that she couldn’t record him while reviewing, shoot at his home or get his family on camera. The last two didn’t stick, largely because his family wanted to be in it, much to his bemusement.
A Pulitzer Prize and a doco about your work are sure signs you’ve made it, but does Gold still believe in the power of the critic in this age of bloggers and instant social media verdicts?
“People talk a lot about the death of the critic, but it’s almost the death of the bad critic,” he says. “In any culinary city, there’s only a few places that open each year that are doing really interesting things on an intellectual level. The most important thing you do as a critic is try to engage that so that their food will be more interesting and more people will be interested in going.”
Image credit: Zimbio