The blank page is every writer's nightmare. But for Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and food critic for the Los Angeles Times, it's just another part of a procrastination-heavy writing process.
Director Laura Gabbert's documentary City of Gold opens on the image of her subject sitting in front of a computer waiting for inspiration to strike. He taps his fingers on the keyboard, the cursor blinking incessantly. Without warning, a marvelous review of a local taco truck pours out. His words are spoken in voice over, providing an entry point for the reader to understand the feeling behind the food.
Serving a dual purpose as personal portrait and urban symphony, City of Gold further explores the tricky subject of a critic's role in today's society. For the diverse crop of small restaurateurs that Gold has championed over the years, his endorsement meant instant crossover appeal and added success. The writer's curiosity, deep wealth of knowledge and love for Los Angeles continuously drives him to experiment with new places, thus expanding the reader's boundaries of taste.
The documentary rightfully honors Gold's passion by transcending Los Angeles' vast reaches to highlight some of his favorite neighborhoods and eating establishments. Gabbert follows Gold as he revisits Mariscos Jaliscos in Boyle Heights, Jitalda Restaurant in Hollywood and Meals by Genet in Little Ethiopia, interviewing the owners whose lives were altered forever by his positive reviews. Each has a unique story to tell that challenges the dangerous anti-immigration rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers.
City of Gold takes a stand in support of America's evolving and lasting diversity, which can be directly attributed to the various culinary traditions brought to this country by immigrants. Through his writing at LA Weekly and now the Times, Gold has inspired a generation of readers to be inquisitive rather than dismissive of other cultures, to seek out different perspectives rather than shy away from them.
The film argues that Gold's influence has led to a democratization of the food world, demystifying highbrow French cuisine while elevating the local gems found in a strip mall. This has allowed a number of young new food artists to express themselves beyond the boundaries of their ZIP Code. Kogi BBQ creator Ray Choi sees Gold as the conduit between chef and patron, able and willing to communicate the passion behind the cooking.
While it faithfully portrays Los Angeles as a colorful, sprawling, and dynamic place, City of Gold succeeds less so at getting to know Gold himself. While Gabbert gains access to his immediate family and siblings, these interviews are often trifling and inconsequential to the greater argument. Maybe that's how Gold wanted it, to focus on the food rather than the nuances of his own upbringing.
A greater opportunity might have been missed, though, to dig deeper into why this critic found it so necessary to explore the fringes of his art form. His father's love for classical music and literature are mentioned as influences, but the origins of curiosity are still left somewhat ambiguous. There is a strange reveal late in the film that Gold, who once covered hip hop, sat in with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg while they were recording The Chronic in the early 1990s. So many stories left untold.
It seems knowing the man is less important that knowing the work itself, and City of Gold, while often poorly shot, joyously tracks Gold's way with words and the food he chooses to describe so eloquently. To paraphrase the man himself, people in Los Angeles are used to having their city explained to them by outsiders with no frame of reference. His reviews confront these assumptions by cherishing the possibilities of diversity hidden within the Los Angeles food scene, reclaiming it as a dynamic, real space instead of some movie-star laden wasteland with no substance.