Food is a universal language, a way of connecting to people through one of the most pleasing senses. It presents the opportunity to get a literal and metaphorical taste of a culture one may never be able to experience first-hand.
Within the past 10-15 years, food has developed into a modern art form and gained just as much cultural relevance as fashion or entertainment. While the demand for creative cuisine is at an all-time high, so too is the idea of shared food criticism. With applications for smartphones like Yelp and Foursquare, they allow common restaurant-goers to play the role of food critic as soon as their meal is finished.
But how does the idea of regular restaurant goers as critics affect the role of a professional food critic? In Laura Gabbert’s new documentary, City of Gold, the embodiment of professional food criticism is presented in the form of renowned Los Angeles Times critic, Jonathan Gold.
The film captures Gold’s personal and professional life as he travels from eatery to eatery tasting whatever foods he comes across. Weaving in testimonies of people whose restaurants were reviewed by Gold with accounts of the cultural diversity that abounds throughout Los Angeles, the film diverts itself from typical biopic documentaries by focusing on a man’s passion for food and analyzing the internal and external factors that make his particular food criticism unique. Also serving as a subtle love letter to the unique qualities of Los Angeles, the film explores what it means to find beauty in small things and the importance of shining a light on those who deserve more recognition.
City of Gold begins with a simple quote, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” If Jonathan Gold had a life motto, this saying would be as close to it as any. The movie immediately brings us into Gold’s food-centric world where casual trips to taco stands and obscure restaurants are a daily occurrence. Gold acts as a cartographer and conquistador, mapping out the various communities of Los Angeles County and venturing to every establishment that he can conquer.
One thing to note about the film is that instead of presenting tantalizing food-imagery as a way of connecting with Gold’s work, it largely focuses on the stories behind the meals and the people who make them. Including the trials and tribulations of the families who worked so hard to recreate the cuisine of their home countries are expressed through interviews and vérité footage.
While food appears to act as the main subject of the film, it is merely a vessel for other subtle aspects of Gold’s personal life to be brought to the center of the story. We identify with Gold when he’s the flawed yet larger-than-life family man that his readers may not know. Whether he’s enjoying a lunch-date with his wife, taking his kids to art museums, or avoiding his colleagues to procrastinate on his reviews, Gold is always presented as a relatable guy who you’d want to grab a taco with.
The film de-mystifies the man by allowing you to ride in the passenger seat of his car and by placing you at a table with him when he tries new places. We get the sense that he is someone who not only loves what he does, but plays along with his revered L.A. critic status.
One of the biggest points of the story is that food is a catalyst for diverse stories and provides the opportunity to get acquainted with other cultures. The film highlights unusual locations that many people who are not familiar with Los Angeles (and those that are but fear exploration) might not know about. City of Gold actively combats L.A. stereotypes of superficiality to present a sprawling city of various groups and cultures. There are shots of the city’s landmarks that are filled with real people who are not necessarily associated with the “Los Angeles lifestyle”. In doing this, the film plays out into Jonathan Gold’s creed of giving a voice to those who don’t often get the type of recognition that they deserve.
The inclusion of diversity is a treat in a time when there is such controversy over minorities being represented in the media. City of Gold manages to take the diversity conversation and fuse it with something that no one needs to speak a certain language to understand: food.
People may have different upbringings, values, and beliefs, but food is a unifying connection that only requires a willingness to try something new. Jonathan Gold may be looked at as someone who speaks for Los Angeles, but in actuality, he is a messenger of societal change and inclusion, someone who uses their art form to speak with a culture of people whose voices aren’t always heard. That is why professional food criticism is still relevant.
The Orange County Film Society was fortunate enough to have director Laura Gabbert appear for a Q&A session following the screening. Laura spoke about moving to Los Angeles in the 90’s and the initial discomfort she felt upon her arrival.
After reading some of Jonathan Gold’s reviews, she began to explore the area and eventually eased into the vibe of the city. Later, she found out that Jonathan Gold’s children as well as hers attended the same school, which led her to ask Gold if she could make a documentary about him. Gold hesitantly said yes but was not entirely comfortable with the idea as he is a very private person when it comes to his personal life.
Being in front of the camera was a new experience for Jonathan but he entrusted Gabbert to tell his story the way he wanted it to be told. She also spoke about the difficulties of financing the film and how that shaped the final product. Gabbert talked about the incredible importance of editing in the documentary world and how she went about omitting certain scenes that she felt did not fit into the film. The OCFS was honored to host Laura Gabbert and her film and thanks her for her time as well as those who attended the screening.