Tales Of A Famous Food Critic

25/10/2015 7:32 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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Messy table with leftovers, view from above

Jonathan Gold knows good food.

Currently the food critic for the Los Angeles Times, Gold's career has seem him dine in more restaurants than you've had hot dinners. So rich in culinary knowledge, his articles have been collected in the book, Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles.

In Australia to take part in the "How I Eat" and "The Future Of Food" events as part of Good Food Month, Gold Spoke to The Huffington Post Australia about his career and the pet peeves of a pro eater.

How did you get your start?

"I suppose I had always been interested in food, but my only training is in music. I was a classical music critic at the L.A Weekly in Los Angeles right after college. In an editorial meeting one day the guy who owned the paper asked if anyone wanted to edit the restaurant guide and I figured it would be a good way to take my friends out to dinner for free.

It actually turned out to be fairly compatible with the way that I wrote. Suddenly my slightly too flowery descriptions turned out to actually have a purpose and the idea of trying to put everywhere I went to into a social or political context actually made sense with food in a way that it didn’t always in the other things that I was writing. I don't have formal training and I have never been to catering school or anything similar."

We don't really have food critics in the same capacity in Australia. How is that line of work perceived in The States?

"Sometimes restaurants can be intimidated I guess. I am not going to mention the name of the restaurant, but there is a new, very good, very informal experimental place that just opened [in L.A] and I walked in a couple of weeks ago. One of the cooks ran back to the kitchen and everybody hid. Occasionally I’d see them peeking their eyes out to see if i'd left, and after 10 minutes they figured out that I was going to stay so…"

You won a Pulitzer Prize for your work. Tell us about that.

"The Pulitzers are the biggest journalism awards in the United States. The one that I won was for criticism. The reason it is important is that no food critic had been so much as even a finalist for one before -- It usually went to book or painting critic or people who write about architecture.

My win was thought to have given some credence to food writing as legitimate, not just as something that was stuck into the Sunday sections of the newspaper. What I have tried to do my entire career is to be able to write about food with the same sort of vigorous critical analysis that you would expect in a review of a book, play or painting. There is no reason why you can't write about food as if it has the same place in our culture as other things."

Do you have any pet peeves you commonly encounter when dining out?

"I think we all do, and some of them are legitimate and some of them aren't.

The one that's been bugging me lately is this tendency for servers to have memorised these long and involved scripts about the menu in general and about each dish. You can't stop them. It can be your fourth time in the restaurant, and you’ll tell them it's okay but if you ask one question about something in a dish they start with the entire description! It’s like a button that you can't turn off."

Have you ever encountered something inedible?

"It was near the beginning of my career, I had been bragging to my then girlfriend, now my wife, that I have the ability to find, by sight only, a great restaurant from a not great one.

We went into one in the Little Saigon neighborhood of Orange County, south of L.A. It had all of the post communist touches -- the cracked vein mirrors, the right type of carpet, and the music was a Vietnamese version of Paul Anka hits. Sometimes, in southeast asian restaurant at least, the worse the music is the better you're going to eat.

There was this dish on the menu that was called “special beef” -- I forget the Vietnamese name for it. I ordered it and the waiter told me “No, you're not going to like this one." I told him I'd been to hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants and I said “I know what I like, give it to me”. He said “No, I don't think so” and I got cracking mad I almost shouted at the poor guy. He said fine.

Meanwhile I should mention the restaurant wasn't very good, and he comes back with this bowl of boiling vinegar into which some organ meat had been infused, and there were scraps of rawhide to which the hair hadn't been completely removed. I felt because I had made such a row about it that it was incumbent on me to actually finish the thing. It was so disgusting! I actually found out later that a better preparation of this is a well known Laotian dish and that is prepared properly it has the most beautiful, luxurious texture and subtle beef flavour. But this wasn't that! I thought they were playing a prank on me."

Do you get treated differently when dining out?

"I don't know because I have never been out as not me. The time that I noticed a small difference I was in New York a decade or so ago to become the critic of Gourmet Magazine, which was the big national food magazine at the time, and I had gotten away with being relatively anonymous for maybe six week in NYC. No critic is ever anonymous for long -- when a restaurateur thinks that they have something to gain by knowing who you are, they're going to know who you are. I went to one restaurant and requested to change the time of the reservation which was no problem, so they had figured out who I was. It was slightly different after that, and I worked out that they had my picture out the back.

But to be honest it's not that different, or it shouldn't be. They can't swap out the ingredients in the kitchen and they can't cook any better than they cook. Maybe I might get a version of a dish that a regular might get as opposed to somebody who just came in off the street, but what I am always trying to find is something that knocks me backwards. Something that is incredibly good.

The “gotcha” approach that a lot of people think restaurant critics have has never really appealed to me. I've closed down too many restaurants with reviews and I don't like it. I would prefer to ignore a place rather than destroy it, which I know is the absolute opposite of what they do in England, and I know that in Australia you have really strict laws and you can get really severe fines."

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