City of Gold
CITY OF GOLD, documentary, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Food writers Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl are eating fried grasshoppers. “If we’re going to survive as a species,” Reichl proclaims, for one thing, we’re going to have to get over our phobia of insects as food. That idea — that “the great human ill is contempt prior to investigation” — beats just below the surface of this accessible, enlightening documentary by Laura Gabbert, which profiles Los Angeles-based Gold, the only food critic thus far to win a Pulitzer.
If you saw the 2007 animated film Ratatouille, you’ll remember the lanky, acerbic, arrogant restaurant critic Anton Ego. Gold is quite the opposite of that: plainspoken, unpretentious, well-informed, and generous (both of body and of spirit), a champion of the taco truck, the hot dog stand, and the strip-mall curry house. “His empathy level is higher than anyone else’s,” claims chef David Chang.
Gabbert accompanies Gold as he navigates the streets of Los Angeles in his pickup truck, visiting Tehrangeles, Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, and his favorite spots for Thai coffee, mole, doro wat, and less-than-tempting obscurities like slime eel. We spy on him from the next room as he writes on his laptop. We also meet his wife, editor Laurie Ochoa, and their two children. We learn a little about his upbringing and his love of classical music (he played cello from a young age) as well as hip-hop and punk. The film is loose, relaxed, and admiring, which means it’s also short on emotional stakes. The closest it comes to conflict is revealing that Gold is a first-rate procrastinator. His editors testify to the “psychotic levels of email and phone and text harassment” required to get him to meet his deadlines.
Sure, Gold sits down for meals with buddies who also happen to be culinary luminaries (Peter Meehan, Reichl, and Calvin Trillin), and he visits some high-end restaurants as well. (Watch for the angry-panicked twitch on the face of chef Ludo Lefebvre when Gold walks into Trois Mec. It’s priceless.) But this film — and Gold — aren’t really interested in a story of Tinseltown or La-La-Land. Rather, this is a parable of Los Angeles as a microcosm of America and the American dream. It’s a meditation on culture and coexistence — which, incidentally, could be the source of its appeal to the non-food-obsessed in the audience.
“We are all strangers, together,” Gold rhapsodizes, adding that what many people don’t understand about his city is “the magnitude of what’s here, the huge number of … cultures that live in the city who come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion.” L.A. is — and by extension, the U.S. can be — a place where first-generation immigrant Americans can start businesses, raise their children, and send them to school so they can become doctors or businesspeople or whatever else they dream of being. Gold talks about a place that’s “less a melting pot than a great glittering mosaic.” That sounds like somewhere I want to live. — Laurel Gladden
Just can’t get enough: Jonathan Gold