Pulitzer Prize–winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s soft voice gives the impression that the writer is endlessly contemplative. In conversation, he makes claims, drops names, and parses with authority the particulars of dishes native to less-traveled culinary territories as if he is still making sense of the knowledge he’s dropping, often turning statements into questions. His demeanor is subdued, sometimes brutally deadpan, although he shakes with mirth when he has been especially funny.
In documenting with passion and insight the vast troves of unknown and unsung restaurants dotting Los Angeles’s sprawling patchwork of immigrant-rich communities, Gold’s prose can resemble his more animated live rants. Recommendations often take the form of sweeping imperatives that begin with “You will want” and “Of course, you will have…” Descriptions are exuberant and heavy on analogy. In his review of the Shanghainese restaurant discussed later in this interview, a dish with a name that translates to “braised three strings” is compared to Cousin It, “with a mushroom cap for a beret.” Chicken feet in abalone sauce are “as soft and juicy as a lover’s tenderest sighs.” A crab roe casserole is “suave.” Stacked up against the insipid brews turned out by many restaurant critics—the less knowledgeable, less diligent, and less poetic—Gold’s writing is a long-simmered stock of meat and bones.
Gold and I met for dinner at a modern Korean restaurant in Los Angeles’s bustling Koreatown. Before the first bottle of Hite hit the table, the waiters were exchanging furtive glances, and the freckled man with stringy, reddish hair sitting across from me was anonymous no longer. “I couldn’t be more recognizable,” he said, waving off the notion that a mesh hat, fake beard, or cape would do him much good. According to Gold, after his 2007 Pulitzer victory, the Los Angeles native was pegged in line at a taco truck in the largely Latino city of Bell Gardens. “Hey!” a man yelled, pointing and drawing the attention of all the others waiting for tacos. “You’re that guy who won that thing!”
I. YOU HAVE TO TALK ABOUT SALT
THE BELIEVER: When you’re reviewing a restaurant, do you take notes at the table?
JONATHAN GOLD: No. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have good food memory.
BLVR: What does “food memory” mean, exactly?
JG: It’s complicated, but I can remember the key details of a dish that make it memorable without writing notes. There’s just something about writing notes. Eating is an essential activity. You could take notes while you’re fucking, too, but you’d lose the flow.
BLVR: Is finding new and unique ways to describe food ever a challenge?
JG: Yeah, all the time. Food words are pretty specific. If something’s salty, you’ve gotta say it’s “salty.” There’s no other word that means the same thing. You could say “briny,” but that’s something different. You could use an analogy, but since saltiness is something you have to convey in almost every column—there’s salt, you know? You have to talk about it. You could talk about “stinging” or “mellow” or “well-seasoned,” but you have to talk about salt.
BLVR: Was simply putting food into words at all ever hard?
JG: When I first started doing this kind of writing, I thought food description was something I was weak at. I was very good at talking about why you’d be interested in a particular place and at conjuring up childhood memories. I just worked on it, though. Like with basketball players, you find the part of your game you know is weak and you work on it until it’s your strength. In writing, I can get a flavor pretty close. You can’t taste it, but I can get really close.
A lot of that was reading Balzac’s twenty-page descriptions of somebody’s socks. The nineteenth-century guys used tons of physical description because there wasn’t photography yet, much less movies. In Dickens, the wrinkles in somebody’s jodhpurs actually meant something. And they would have to be described exactly. That transfers to food writing.
Taste, in the act of eating, is concrete, but also abstract in a certain way. How do you describe a flavor? I’ve done music writing, too. How do you describe a guitar solo in a way that hasn’t been done before? My only active training is as a composer and musicologist. I used to think it was funny to do Spin cover profiles and come up with exact ways of describing why Stone Temple Pilots sounded different from Pearl Jam.
BLVR: The reason I asked is because a chef once told me that he liked to see food writers stumbling over themselves to over-describe flavors, because he saw it as a sign he was transcending their ability to put into language what he was doing. I just thought he was being pretentious.
JG: He was.
II. MARCELLA IS RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING
BLVR: If you’re going to a restaurant associated with, say, a specific region of India, you have to know something about it when you’re going in so you know what to look for and how to assess it.
JG: Yes. It’s probably harder now, but a long time ago, I probably read everything there was in English on a particular cuisine before I even started writing about it. I wasn’t going to make mistakes. I was really careful.
I’ve cooked maybe three Indian meals in my life, but I have maybe one hundred Indian cookbooks. When I came across a restaurant in New York that had dishes from Azerbaijan, I didn’t have just one Azerbaijani cookbook; I had three.
BLVR: Do you have a library where you keep all this?
JG: I’ve got a lot of bookshelves and a lot of piles. Sometimes I can’t find stuff. It’s hard.
BLVR: No elaborate organizational system?
JG: It’s mostly by country and region but kind of not. There are ones I cook from and ones I don’t, ones that are more academic, and ones that are more about cooking things.
BLVR: About how many do you have in all?
JG: Three thousand. Could be as many as five thousand.
BLVR: Do you have a big record collection, too?
JG: Huge, but I’m that completely annoying guy with twelve thousand records and no turntable at the moment. It’s embarrassing. It was hard moving back and forth between L.A. and New York, and all I had to move were books and records. I’d leave some behind. I’d acquire duplicates and office copies—and then I’d realize, Oh, I have four copies of Jacques Médecin’s La Cuisine du Comté de Nice, and I’ve used all of them.
BLVR: And they’re all splattered with sauce.
JG: Everybody talks about the internet being the ultimate repository of cooking knowledge.
BLVR: It’s not, though.
JG: It sucks.
BLVR: You look up how to do something and who knows what the hell you’re going to get?
JG: If you know exactly what you’re looking for and how you need to look for it, maybe. But I can’t imagine going into it blind. A lot of times, when you google for the correct recipe—I don’t mean that—no, I do—the correct one, the one you should want—it will not be in the first one hundred results.
BLVR: And no one clicks past more than three pages.
JG: It’s funny how everyone has a bizarre relationship with Google. The knowledge is there, but no one knows how to use it right. What you should do is: if you’re cooking Italian food, Marcella [Hazan] is absolutely right about everything.
BLVR: And she knows it.
JG: And she knows it. Once you’ve figured out what she’s doing and you’ve cooked her thing, then look somewhere else for the variations.
III. THE SWEET SPOT OF CUISINE
JG: Korean food is interesting because obviously Korea has been one of the poorest fucking places on the planet. When you drive through it, everywhere that there could possibly be a rice paddy, there’s a rice paddy. In the countryside, you don’t have a backyard; you have a rice paddy. Their seafood cuisine is low-tide stuff that kind of exists everywhere in the world, but they’re the only ones who eat it—like hagfish, sea squirts, sea hares, or those bizarre sea worms. Ever seen them?
JG: Imagine a tank full of fifty pink, uncircumcised cocks—with the foreskins kind of wiggling. You recognize that this is a sea creature; you don’t necessarily recognize it as lunch. But then you eat it and it’s fine.
BLVR: In the New Yorker profile of you, you talk about how poverty tends to produce interesting food.
JG: It really does.
BLVR: It’s compelling to see the necessity in things you end up enjoying as little luxuries.
JG: Look at Europe, for example. You have the land of plenty—in the low country, plenty of meat and cheese—it’s the cuisine of abundance, and it’s boring. Guys like [René] Redzepi are making huge inroads in Nordic cuisine, but the cuisine of southern Sweden is, like, giant portions of meat and gluey gravy eaten in complete silence in ten minutes.
BLVR: Sounds like Thanksgiving.
JG: You go to parts of Italy; Emilia-Romagna is obviously the rich country, and they don’t do so badly with it, but it’s interesting to visit non-rich places like Umbria or Liguria. I had a friend who was researching something there once. I asked her about minestrone fritto, which I’d had at a restaurant in Bologna, though it’s supposed to be from Liguria. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. She’d had it before, too, and she went to Liguria, and everybody completely denied the dish’s existence, refused to admit that anyone would ever do it. It turns out that it’s not a restaurant dish. It’s what you do with Saturday soup when it’s Tuesday and there’s nothing else in the house. To even say you’re going to have this soup—
BLVR: It’s embarrassing.
JG: It’s embarrassing, and yet that’s the sweet spot of cuisine. Bouillabaisse came about because fishermen were able to sell the dorade and so on, but then they were left with these ugly, spiny, weird things that they chose to make a soup with. It’s like: “Sorry, honey, this is all we have tonight.” Eventually, that became the cult dish of the region.
BLVR: And all the bones and cartilage actually make the soup better. The heads and bones—that’s where the flavor and the texture of the broth come from. I think of a fish soup recipe from one of Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks, in which she talks about cooking the heads, pulverizing them, and squeezing out every bit. It’s this very physical, gruesome recipe. At the end of the day, the fish soup is just that essence you crush out of the fish skulls. The fish soup isn’t three pounds of perfect Copper River salmon.
JG: And, of course, America is so much the land of abundance, we don’t have that stuff.
BLVR: Not even in the rural parts of southeastern states?
JG: Not really. [Food writer] Colman Andrews talks about this. There’s this ravioli that’s traditional in Genoa that includes a bunch of innards. There’s also cow udder in it, and cow udder is chewy and gelatinous—not unpleasant, not much flavor, but texture. If you’re going to make it here, you can’t get cow udder. Presumably there are ten million cows raised in the U.S. for food, and they all have udders, but you still can’t get one.
The brilliant point Colman makes is that it’s a dish of necessity when you’re eating it, because you don’t have much money and that’s what is in the store. If you’re going to special lengths to get this udder, the purpose of the thing is completely defeated. It becomes something different.
Obviously, something transformed in bouillabaisse at some point, because the primary flavoring is saffron, and saffron has never been cheap. I know it grows in Marseille and presumably people were going to the hills and gathering crocuses instead of getting saffron from Persia, but it’s still not something you associate with peasant cuisine.
IV. OCTOPUS INTELLIGENCE
JG: [Pointing at the restaurant menu] They do a great nakji bokkeum—the octopus with the chili-bean sauce you eat everywhere—but they amp the spice up to twelve. They keep the octopus undercooked so it has smoothness as opposed to that rubber-chicken feel.
BLVR: Octopus is often completely ruined. I think everyone remembers the first time they had it done the right way. I had it in Greece when I was in college and it was grilled—charred, perfectly tender—so unlike baby octopus that had been totally hammered.
JG: The first great one I had was a couple years out of college, on my first trip to Spain with my wife. We walked away from the world’s stupidest flea market to this bar where there was a line. We walk in and there’s a giant pot in the corner, and out of it, tentacles the size of Louisville Sluggers are just spilling.
JG: Man, that shit was good. Octopus is one of the things I eat that I worry about sometimes, though.
BLVR: Why is that?
JG: There is an octopus intelligence. I don’t know what it is, and nobody really knows what it is, but it definitely exists. Their nervous system is totally different. You’ve had sannakji? The tentacles will climb up the chopsticks. The suckers will adhere to your mouth. You figure that it’s like chickens with their heads cut off, but then you read about the decentralized nervous system, how they may have “killed it” by ramming a knife through its brain, but that it doesn’t have a brain like we do. Suddenly, what was a fun, gimmicky thing becomes horrifying.
V. FORGET IT—IT’S KOREATOWN
JG: I try to go to restaurants without people from the group I’m writing about. In other words, I have tons of Korean friends and tons of Chinese friends, but I tend to take the Chinese friends to Korean places and the Korean friends to Chinese restaurants. I think blundering through the menu is a lot of the fun.
BLVR: You’re responsible for curating people’s eating experiences, though.
JG: Even though my entire writing persona is prefaced on me not being an expert, I kind of am an expert. I know a lot.
BLVR: Well, by virtue of doing what you have done for so long, you must.
JG: It’s amazing going to a new Chinese place with an un-translated menu and sitting there like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel going, “Uuuuuuuurrrrhh” [stares into the beyond with vacant eyes]. But I’ve done it enough that I can kind of hack my way to something good—either by looking at other people’s plates or the pictures on the menu. Or sometimes I know what region the restaurant specializes in, so I know what the specialties should be, even if they’re not there.
Sometimes the region of the restaurant as indicated by everything is not actually where the owners are from. There is a famous, supposedly Beijing-style restaurant where everyone working there is from Tianjin. You can ask for four or five Beijing specialties. One of my correspondents enjoys this kind of water spinach there that he’s had in Beijing and nowhere else. It’s been his quest for years. You can see him searching for it on Chowhound as far back as 2002. He finally found a place that has it. It’s not a wonderful restaurant—but it is wonderful for somebody. I won’t go as far as to say that every restaurant is wonderful for somebody, but—
BLVR: I try to eat every other meal I eat out in Koreatown. Still I feel I’ve not even scratched the surface. It’s as if it’s unknowable.
JG: I did a piece on the sixty dishes you should know in Koreatown. I could have done forty more, but I ran into a wall. I realized that I still know nothing. Nothing. I can try twenty galbijim, but someone growing up on this stuff, they know it; they feel it. I can taste ten sul lung tang—you know, that milky soup—and I’ll know which one I like better than the others; there’s that dialed-in thing of knowing what it’s supposed to be like. Then again, maybe there’s too much emphasis on that. We’re American dudes, and I can talk to you for two straight hours about what it means to have a great hamburger, but you and I are going to disagree on it. Of course, I’d be right… [grins slyly]
BLVR: Is it because some cultures are more likely to be passionate about food than others?
JG: I think every culture is passionate about food; some are just passionate about food and the food is shitty. Also, there’s a tendency to ascribe superpowers to the people who make a certain kind of food. The fact is, most Chinese have really bad taste in Chinese food. Some have exquisite taste, but just because you grow up somewhere, it doesn’t mean—
BLVR: —that you’re particular or knowledgeable?
JG: Oh, you could be knowledgeable, but it doesn’t mean your taste is good. I don’t know if I’ve actually talked to someone from Pago Pago about Spam, but I’m sure they have ideas about it. At some point, American Samoans averaged a can a day per person! That’s hard-core. I hope that’s a weird apocryphal fact I read somewhere.
BLVR: I’ll fact-check it.
JG: One strange thing about doing what I’ve being doing for so long is that every time I fact-check, I end up running into myself. I’ll be looking at this odd vertebrate I’ve never before seen on a plate, and I’ll find my way to the Wikipedia entry, and realize I’m half of it, yet I won’t remember eating it. Must have been high.
JG: I write mostly positive reviews. I don’t write about places that don’t interest me. I’ve been doing this long enough, and I’ve closed enough restaurants. It’s very strange that forty people can be put out of work because I make an aesthetic judgment. It doesn’t happen in film, because Warner Bros. can survive to fight another day. If the sports section says something mean about Kobe—whatever, it’s Tuesday. I suppose it’s possible to close theater productions. In music, bad reviews haven’t mattered for a while.
BLVR: They don’t at all. On the positive side, with food writing, you can change a small-businessperson’s life.
JG: Yeah, I can take someone who works hard and does a good job and make that person somewhat more prosperous. That’s kind of cool. It’s a small thing, but it’s a real thing.
BLVR: When you have that opportunity to educate readers about someone’s expertise in what they’re doing with food, and simultaneously make that person’s life better, I can imagine that being a wonderful feeling. Do you ever have to review a restaurant just because it’s the new hot shit? And in that case, if you don’t like it, do you still feel qualms?
JG: I used to have this rule where I felt I was allowed to write a negative review if a restaurant had been extravagantly and stupidly praised somewhere else. One example—I actually read about this in someone’s PhD dissertation—was this restaurant in New York called Atlas, being run by this twenty-four-year-old English chap. William Grimes, the New York Times critic at the time, had given it three stars, and essentially said in Bon Appétit or something that it was his favorite new restaurant of the year. The chef was talented; there was a documentary on him last year. But he was in the sort of epic-tale-of-bourgeoisie phase of his career. His signature appetizer was something like live sea-urchin gonads with grapefruit segments, quince Jell-O, and a couple of other things filled to the brim with cold cocoa.
He did a parsley-licorice soup garnished with grated Altoids. The question was not “Is this good or bad?” but “Does this taste like Robitussin or the generic cough syrup that costs a dollar-fifty less?”
BLVR: So you felt it was OK to savage that place, based on it having been praised so highly?
JG: Based on the fact that the place was stupid. It was bad. I have nothing against experimentation in food.
BLVR: But when it’s unpalatable, it breaks the first rule.
JG: And the restaurant closed down. He had another restaurant in Greenwich Village for a while, and one thing he did was blindfold the diners. They were supposed to bob for foie gras dumplings floating in this chilled soup. I couldn’t go there. I didn’t trust what this guy would do if I had a blindfold on. The dumplings could have had razor blades in them or something.
When Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant opened at the London, in West Hollywood, my review was mean enough that the Independent in London ran an article about it on the front page. I take my shots, but I don’t do it that often.
BLVR: You did give Olive Garden a bad review last year.
JG: Most of the really bad stuff in L.A. is douche-food. If you’re going to a douche-food restaurant, you want douche-food.
As a writer of criticism, the consumer thing is the least interesting thing, but as a critic, the single worst thing you can do is send a reader to waste time and money on something—even if it’s something you personally love. You have to indicate the reasons why you love it and they’ll hate it.
BLVR: How often are readers not ready for something you love? The sea worm?
JG: Like the sea worm. There’s a restaurant I wrote about early this year, called Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village. It is one of the most ambitious non-Cantonese Chinese places in the United States in the last twenty years. It’s remarkable for its level of cooking, but it’s really for fresh-off-the-boat people; food for rich Shanghainese who happen to be here.
There’s stuff there that most people are not going to groove on. There’s a dish of bitter melon sautéed with lily buds, which have a strong, herby, medicinal flavor—not something that registers as food so much as cancer medicine. As much as I love crab brains, not everyone thinks crab-brains soup is a good idea. I’m OK with braised intestines, but if you accidentally order a plate full of kishkas, you might not be a happy guy. But this restaurant is so good. There are a lot of lines to straddle. Obviously, I’m ecstatic at the existence of the place, yet I try to indicate that people should like it but won’t. I can’t get away with subtlety with a lot of readers.
VII. SOME WATER AND SOME DATES
JG: [Gesturing at the dining room] A place like this—the chef is self-taught and really good. This is her take on royal cuisine—classic Korean stuff, but done lighter, with more presentation. It’s beautiful, but it’s in a weird place in the market. The dishes are versions of what Koreans think of as home-style food. They’re not exactly like them, though. On the other hand, the non-Korean crowd is coming looking for giant flavors and sensations.
BLVR: Are they looking for authenticity—what they imagine is Mom’s cooking?
JG: The people who aren’t Korean could care less about Mom’s cooking, or authenticity. Korean food has become shorthand for a drunken bacchanal. There are these all-you-can-eat places. There’s a place across the street that’s all-you-can-drink for $11.99. The idea of presenting Korean flavors with a Western aesthetic is missing its crowds. This place will disappear if I don’t write about it.
BLVR: Is eating a good way to learn about a city?
JG: It’s the best.
BLVR: What can you learn from eating somewhere?
JG: If you’re a journalist and you’re trying to chronicle a city and you go to neighborhoods and try to talk to people, they’re not going to talk to you. They don’t want to answer your questions. But when you’re in a restaurant, everybody has a hospitality gene that kicks in. Even the stuff you read about Bin Laden—you could be the prime minister of Israel and if you showed up at his camp, he’d sit you down and give you some water and some dates. We’re hardwired for that.