There's no pathway to becoming a restaurant critic but if you were to build one, you probably wouldn't think of reconstructing Jonathan Gold's life, even though he nails it every week in erudite, funny, acute reviews in the Los Angeles Times. Gold grew up in LA drinking Dr Pepper and eating Jello and iceberg salads. He played the cello and listened to Mahler. He read a lot.
Then he found punk, discovered disruption, and played cello in a punk band while wearing an eye patch and a bow tie. He lurked in the studio with Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg and wrote about it for Rolling Stone. He livened up a boring stint as a proofreader by eating his way along Pico Boulevard, a 25-kilometre artery that runs from Downtown LA to Santa Monica, from El Salvadorean chicarron to All-American chilli fries. He started writing about food for the LA Weekly in 1984, developing a style of criticism that honours the taco truck as deeply as it does veal jus or souffle, that elucidates and celebrates immigrant success stories, that steers the reader to unpromising mini-malls to eat things they didn't know they might want (Vietnamese braised deer penis, for example). All of it – every last tamale and dumpling - is a loving paean to Los Angeles. In 2007, Gold became the first (and only) person to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
He is the subject of a new documentary, City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert. It wasn't easy to convince writer to become subject. The filmmaker first sat down with Gold after she bought dinner with him at a school fundraiser. She suggested making a film. He said, "no way". But the pair kept running into each other at kindergarten drop-off and, eventually, she wore him down. The film is a fond look at Los Angeles through Gold's food prism: it's his LA, as explored in his dirty green truck, devoured over and over again. It's the LA where you can't hang out your washing because your Korean neighbour is drying fish on the line, where a food truck vendor Tweets about asado and you instantly know what you're having for lunch, where the afternoon light shifts and suddenly you start to feel a new kind of hungry.
If anyone is going to help the rest of us navigate the world of restaurants, it's Jonathan Gold. Please sir, tell us how to eat.
How to choose a restaurant when you're travelling?
"I'm obsessive: I'm on the internet, I talk to people. The key thing is to find somebody – whether it's a person or a guidebook or a sous chef in a parking lot – who has sensibilities close to yours. When walking by restaurants, you could automatically cross off the places with menus in foreign languages and pictures of spaghetti bolognese. You're looking for a place that's happy and bustling but maybe not too crowded. It should smell good. And with particular cuisines, there are regional dishes that I want to see on the menu, even if I'm not going to eat them. There's a brilliant Thai restaurant in Los Angeles called Night + Market. They have a dish on the menu, a blood soup with MSG sauce. It's basically cooked blood with Thai herbs scattered over the top and some lime, aromatics and a Thai chilli honey sauce that apparently always has MSG in it. You take a wad of sticky rice and swipe it through the soup and you get the blood and the herbs and the sauce if you want it and it's brilliant. Even if you think pork blood is revolting you probably want to be in the kind of restaurant that serves it."
How to order?
"Go for the things that are a little odd and off centre. There is no reason for a chef to have goat liver on a menu unless he really, really likes goat liver. You want to get what the chef is proudest of and that means eschewing the clichés. If I'm out reviewing with a bunch of people and someone orders the caesar salad I almost want to smack them. My kids are drilled; they know that they're not allowed to order the chicken without asking."
What do customers do wrong?
"No chef is going to be happy if you order your steak well done. In Hollywood you have to show your mastery over the kitchen and your type-A masculinity by ordering a dish your specific way. So you want the Dover sole but you want it steamed instead of a la meuniere, and instead of the lemon sauce you want the caper sauce that goes with the veal. Some chefs roll with that but most chefs tear their hair out. In LA right now you see quite a lot of menus noting that "substitutions and modifications are politely declined".
What is exciting you right now?
"I'm just back from Italy. I had an antipasto that was a real mic drop, high in the Apennines on the border of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. There was the best gnocco fritto (fried bread puffs), so light, so crisp, so golden. There was Prosciutto di Parma from down the road, pickled vegetables, the only sun-dried tomatoes I've ever in my life enjoyed, polenta that had been cut into sticks and deep-fried so it was crunchy, squacquerone (fresh cream cheese) and a little dish of preserved black cherries. It's a dish you could have in no other place. It was the epitome of what it was.
"Here in Los Angeles, I'm about to write about a new restaurant called Cassia and its chef Bryant Ng. The most exciting thing happening in LA food at the moment is created by chefs who came to the country at a young age or are the kid of immigrants. They grew up in a particular food tradition, then went off to study cuisine, usually French, at the very highest level, then they come back and use those techniques and ideas about flavour to comment on the food they've grown up eating. At Cassia, Bryant Ng does a pot au feu except the spicing is a northern Vietnamese pho rather than the traditional French. It is perfect in every way."
Join us for a very special event with some of the brightest minds in the food biz. "How I Eat" will be a conversation about eaters and eating between Chris Ying (editor in chief, Lucky Peach), Jonathan Gold (LA Times critic and Pulitzer Prize winner) and Terry Durack (SMH chief critic) moderated by Myffy Rigby (Good Food Guides Editor, Good Food Month Creative Director). Afterward, we will host the Sydney premiere screening of Jonathan Gold's documentary, City of Gold. Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery Rd, Sydney. October 25; 10am for a 10:15am seating. $35pp general admission. sydney.goodfoodmonth.com