Jonathan Gold is not your average restaurant critic. His LA Weekly column, Counter Intelligence, is testament to that fact, featuring reviews not only of five-star, obscenely expensive, impossible-to-get-into restaurants, but also of ethnic, hole-in-the-wall eateries: the push-cart vendors, the tiny taquerías, the street-side quesadilla stands. His latest accolade further separates him from the crowd: a Pulitzer Prize, the first for a restaurant critic in the award's 90-year history.
Gold, 46, began at LA Weekly in 1982 as a proofreader, but by the mid-'80s he was one of the alternative paper's most popular writers. In addition to reviewing restaurants, he also has served as music editor and edited several Best of LA issues.
He started Counter Intelligence in 1986. He then moved the column to the Los Angeles Times from 1990 to 1996 while also writing for California, Los Angeles, Spin, Rolling Stone and Details magazines. In 1999 he became Gourmet magazine's New York restaurant critic, where he was twice named a National Magazine Award finalist in criticism, another first for a food critic. In 2001, he moved back to Los Angeles, revived Counter Intelligence and continued to write for Gourmet.
The Pulitzer Board commended Gold for "his zestful, wide ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater."
Q: What first drew you to restaurant criticism?
A: I'd always been obsessed with food, but, like any young writer, I'd written about a million things. I'd done a piece on health insurance that my editor had liked, and he asked me if I would be interested in working on the Restaurant Guide, and kind of got started from there.
Q: Your column, Counter Intel-ligence, includes an incredibly wide range of restaurants, from street vendors to fine French cuisine. How do you pick the places you review?
A: Largely, I drive around a lot. If I see a Cambodian liquor store, and then three months later it turns into a food market, and then three months later, a full-fledged restaurant opens up next door..I'll get to review it. I also do the places with press releases and agents, and all of that.
Gold says that he eats at about five restaurants for every one he reviews.
Q: According to LA Weekly, you started Counter Intelligence "as a way of exploring Los Angeles' ethnic neighborhoods, places that often go underreported in other papers." What do you try to accomplish with your reviews?
A: Los Angeles is incredibly big and incredibly diverse. The city just doesn't end. [The column] was something I really wanted to do to drag people to places they normally wouldn't go to, not just places within their enclave. Because the restaurants here are so inward looking, it's possible to find a restaurant that Mr. Kim comes to every week to taste soup that tastes like his mother's, and we get to eat that all the time.
As a reporter, when you go into neighborhoods where you are distinctly unlike the people there, they can be hostile. But sitting over a bowl of noodles, people are charming.
By "inward looking," Gold means that restaurants within Los Angeles can cater exclusively to a particular demographic or ethnic group without worrying about whether they appeal to a broader audience.
Q: What is your favorite review, and why?
A: I suppose my favorite review was one I wrote for Gourmet magazine. I did a piece for the Rome issue; I went to a place called Al Moro. I went there for 10 to 12 days in a row, trying to break the code. I'm still not sure if I succeeded, but it was fun trying.
It was really interesting because it is a tourist restaurant. It's about six steps from the Trevi Fountain, but it also has clientele of Roman actors and politicians; it serves both. Of course, [the actors and politicians are] in front rooms, and the [tourists are] in the back..but it was interesting to observe that dynamic. It was [Federico] Fellini's favorite restaurant.
Q: On the other side of the spectrum, what is your least favorite review, and why?
A: One out of every eight or nine columns is going to be a stinker – but I prefer to forget about those.
Gold's writing is as creative as the places he picks to review, with adjective-packed images of everything from food to ambience to chef. In one review, he depicts the fruit inside a local bakery's doughnuts as "moistened with a translucent gel that lubricates even the occasional white-shouldered berry with a mantle of slippery sweetness, oozing from the sides, turning the bottom of the pasteboard box into a sugary miasma in the unlikely event that the doughnuts actually make it home." In another, he describes a local chef's style as "rooted in the clean flavors and unusual juxtapositions of classic nouvelle cuisine..the rubbery pop of mustard seeds against the juiciness of roast meat, the liquid crunch of undercooked zucchini against the softness of poached fish."
Q: Your reviews are filled to the brim with evocative language. Has there ever been a restaurant that you had trouble finding words to describe?
A: Most restaurants are really boring, and I'm lucky that as a critic, I've been able to write about really expensive restaurants, as well as people's food, cultural food, and I try to avoid the middle.
I'm always thinking, when I'm eating food from some obscure Chinese region that I hadn't heard of last week, how lucky I am that I have a job where I don't have to review the 250th generic Tuscan place in the hills.
Q: You were quoted in LA Weekly as saying, in reaction to your Pulitzer win, "What this represents is the triumph of the proofreader." Can you expand a little?
A: My first job in journalism was as a proofreader. I spent six or seven years doing that. It's just a wonderful place to see how journalism works. It's like working under a car--you get to see how it operates, what writers do that works and what writers do that doesn't. I'm very proud of being a proofreader, and had I not been, I don't think that I would have nearly the care for my writing that I do now. To me, the overeducated proofreaders and copy editors and copy chiefs are the publication's lifeblood.
Q: When you're not reviewing restaurants, what are you eating at home? Do you cook?
A: My wife is the editor in chief of LA Weekly, with very long hours, and I have two kids, so I cook probably five nights a week. I love cooking; I don't think it would be possible to be interested in food without being interested in cooking. I cook mostly Mediterranean or Italian and French food, more sunny French food than butter-and-cream French food.
I have three- or four-thousand cookbooks, I'm obsessive that way. You can't walk through my house without tripping over them. I'm able to justify it to myself by saying that it's research for my work, which it is.