Documentaries are funny beasts. I never know when I’m getting into one what the agenda truly is or if I’m being suckered or brainwashed. Two types of documentaries never fail to interest me. The first; sensational historical horror stories and ghostly tales. The second includes anything to do with food. So when I saw the trailer for Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be looking the thing up and seeing what the fuss was about.
Gabbert is a true professional with a tidy list of documentaries to her credit, including Independent Lens and the award-winning Sunset Story, which distinguished itself at the Tribeca film festival in 2003 for Best Documentary Feature. She focuses on her subject, which in this case is Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer-prize winning writer and food critic for the Los Angeles Times.
I heard about Jonathan Gold long before I saw him. The New Yorker calls him “the high-low priest of the Los Angeles food scene”. The Seattle Times says his writing is “riveting”, and the San Francisco Eater proclaims him “one of our country’s most prolific writers”.
So like most people, I was surprised to find his countenance so unassuming. He wears dark pants and comfortable shoes, low-profile button-down shirts, and suspenders – always. He drives an old Dodge pickup. In fact, he spends an exorbitant amount of time driving around the boroughs of Los Angeles, in search of the very best culinary contributions the city has to offer.
I was alone in the theatre for a morning showing of City of Gold, so I made free to laugh, sigh, and exclaim. Gold takes the camera crew to L.A.’s taqueria Kogi, famous for its Korean barbeque, introducing us to a watermelon salad with Thai feta, chili, and lemongrass. I literally moaned. And when he explains that he doesn’t take notes on his culinary adventures, I looked up from my laptop. He says, “You could take notes when you’re having sex too, but you’d sort of be missing out then.” Point taken.
Gold has tackled many firsts. He was the first food writer to feature divey establishments like the humble food truck and the mom and pop. He was the first to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for food commentary, and one of the first to drop his mask as an anonymous critic. But his hopes and hungers run deeper than that. In writing about the city, Gold has been able to encourage cross-cultural diversity, in some cases bringing droves of thrill-seekers to flailing restaurants just on the verge of closing their doors. He is passionate about inclusivity and believes that the greatness of Los Angeles itself can be traced to the racial variegation built into its very bones.
Laura Gabbert carefully frames Gold’s story, consciously remaining unseen, unheard, and painting a beautiful portrait of Jonathan Gold against the backdrop of teeming Los Angeles. Gabbert’s lovingly drawn work contrasts sharply with that of other documentarians. You will not find precious voiceover narration or snippets of the director’s voice luxuriantly setting up interview questions here. And thank the gods for that.
The music underscoring it all is fantastic and reflects Gold’s own taste, which ranges from early Elizabethan motets to Wagner to Maggot Brain. He draws deft parallels from music to food and back, and he gets to, having studied Art and Music at the University of California in Los Angeles.
While profiling one of his favorite Vietnamese restaurants, Gold points out another outlier and giggles a little at the name of the joint; Pho Kim. He also puts a stop to any pronunciation issues concerning the dish. It’s not “foe”, my friends. It’s “fuh”. And that’s coming from Jonathan Gold himself.