Los Angeles-based freelance writer and Skift Table contributor Lesley Balla has made a career of covering her city's changing restaurant scene, giving her a particularly thoughtful vantage point from which to reflect on what Jonathan Gold's death means for us all.
— Kristen Hawley, Senior Editor
Having grown up in the Midwest, with post-college stops up and down the East Coast, I admit I didn’t know much about food. I knew about restaurants, in which I worked to support my travels and budding writing career, but the menus, the things I served, were pretty standard Americana.
So, I always tell people that Los Angeles taught me everything about food. Getting a taste of the globe within an hour’s drive inspired me to learn more and more about the world and my adopted city every day.
In truth, it was Jonathan Gold who taught me everything.
Not personally — we were acquaintances as writers in the same city — but simply by devouring everything he wrote. Just like everyone else who followed “the belly of Los Angeles,” his words were transforming. Reading his weekly columns, my early dog-eared copy of Counter Intelligence, and seeing him speak inspired me to hunt down unique restaurants in neighborhoods I didn’t know existed, and eat things I never would’ve considered trying as a kid in Ohio.
As a writer, I didn’t try to emulate him (why?), but sometimes I felt like I was writing for him. As if he would actually see some article I wrote, and we would discuss it over a few slurps of ramen later. The idea wasn’t too far-fetched: I often saw Gold dining out with his family or walking the Hollywood farmer’s market on Sundays. He was so generous with his words and time for budding journalists, writers and general food fans, and he always quick to share deep, only-Jonathan Gold thoughts with so many. He was a true mentor to many and a de facto one to all who entered the field.
Gold’s real gift was that he made you think about food, and the people who cooked it, differently. It wasn’t just the fiery toothpick lamb or the boiled fish in green pepper sauce at Chengdu Taste, grain bowls at Sqirl, or abalone with sunchoke at Providence. It was as much about the chef, the neighborhood, why the place even existed. And, of course, why everyone should go, which was never pounded over your head but delivered more like a subtle nudge laced with intellectual weirdness that required a roadmap to his mind. His selections were never random, his words always with purpose, and it always led to layers of discovery.
Those astute and literary reviews made us all truly appreciate everything there is to love about Los Angeles. He went deep into neighborhoods that not many who lived outside would, and he’d put the hard-working cooks and owners on the same pedestal as any celebrity chef. The food world, the entire LA culinary scene, would not be what it is today if it weren’t for him. Boat noodles in Thai Town, sujuk sausages in Glendale, ganjang gaejang in Koreatown, dim sum in Monterey Park, tonkotsu along Sawtelle, tacos everywhere — these make up the the true fabric of LA, just as much as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Nancy Silverton’s Mozza and Suzanne Goin’s Lucques. He was the Pied Piper of the most intrepid food explorers everywhere.
It wasn’t just the eaters chasing every word, either. A growing generation of chefs followed Gold’s palate around L.A., getting introduced to new flavors that eventually inspired their own take on Angeleno cuisine. When he showed up at their restaurants, his fair and balanced criticism produced life lessons. He wasn’t known as a critic who could ‘make or break’ a restaurant; that wasn’t Gold’s purpose. It was to lift up, to tell a story through food, to connect.
That’s not to say his words didn’t have impact. Many local chefs credit Gold with pushing them or their restaurants to stardom; if he hadn’t supported the food trucks, pop-ups, barely-a-restaurant restaurants, who knows if they would’ve risen to fame. Chefs both revered and feared him, but all knew that his words helped make them better at their craft.
Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow credits his review with changing how she herself saw her now wildly popular restaurant. “In part, because our broadened customer base demanded it and because I wanted to fulfill his expectations, the promise he saw in our work,” she said in an Instagram post. “He was, of course, the guest we were the most proud to please.”
When the news hit that he died suddenly, memories poured in from around the country and the globe. My social media feeds are inundated with thoughts from random bloggers, anonymous Instagrammers, celebrities, musicians, fellow writers, colleagues and friends. The man is truly beloved. But the touching tributes from everyone in the local food world, from chefs to owners, sommeliers, managers and other writers, especially his colleagues and friends from the Los Angeles Times and beyond, really plucked at the heartstrings.
“He supported me like a father, with an open and encouraging but critical voice,” Ludo Lefebvre said on Instagram. “For me, it spanned from Bastide, to LudoBites to LudoBird to Trois Mec to Petit Trois to Trois Familia. He wrote with so much dedication about the LA culinary scene. He was a proud Angeleno and wanted to share everything that LA had to offer with the world.”
“He was the father of our food community,” Roy Choi told the LA Times. “We were all the children in the station wagon, and he was the father, driving us around. That’s what he meant to us. He raised us, not only by what he knew but also through his search. As he was searching, we were learning.”
“He was honest, generous and selfless. He truly was smarter than anyone,” Noma’s Rene Redzepi said. “He had a way of distilling everything that was going on in the world, Into a few clear paragraphs, and always with food as the connecting tissue. You didn’t just get hungry, you understood new things about the world with Jonathan.”
Ruth Reichl, who, along with Gold’s (now) wife Laurie Ochoa, hired Gold to write for the Los Angeles Times food section, says he changed not only how we see food, but also food journalism. “From the very beginning he used restaurant criticism as a way to talk about more than where you should eat,” she said. “He understood, in his bones, the many ways that food is a powerful way to create community.”
As a patron saint to food lovers and writers everywhere, the devout Angeleno and prolific wordsmith will be sorely missed. His voice added flavor to the great bubbling stew that is LA, and it is unparalleled. He helped all of us open our eyes, hearts and mouths to everything that makes this huge expanse so great, and my hope is that his legacy of discovery — of the the city, our neighborhoods, different cultures, dishes, ingredients — will continue to beat on as we search to understand both our own corner and the world as a whole through food. To keep looking beyond the plate for the story, drive a few miles farther than you’re willing to go, to maybe open doors you passed 100 times before and meet those within. Getting to the heart of the Los Angeles, or any city for that matter, means exploring the depths, and there’s no greater beacon than food.
Don’t forget the tacos.
Lesley Balla is a food, drink and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in regional, national, and online publications including Angeleno, Zagat.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly, Eater, Tasting Table and many more. When she’s not discovering the best eats around town, you can find her walking and hiking with her husband somewhere in the San Gabriel mountains, eating oysters and picking berries in the Pacific Northwest, and strolling whatever farmers market is nearby. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LesleyLA.
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