Food criticism depends a great deal upon evocation. That's how it's most often praised: the writer whisks us into the restaurant, dines beside us, makes us taste the meal. And that need – to conjure with prose an experience of the senses – may be why the form seems such fertile ground for excellence. A restaurant review ought to be among the most purely functional breeds of criticism, contingent as it is on the fickle tastes and budgets of prospective diners. And yet, often it's the best-written – the most eloquent, the most expressive, even the most beautiful.
Jonathan Gold has long been the clinching argument for food criticism's literary merit. As critic for The Los Angeles Times, and as critic for L.A. Weekly before that, he has sculpted a body of work as impressive, and as serious, as any colleague in more esteemed fields. Gold won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. That award helped vindicate the genre. And now here arrives City of Gold, a new documentary by Laura Gabbert, which takes Gold and his duties as its estimable subject. Gabbert's film is part portrait, part city symphony. It celebrates Gold as a fixture of his native Los Angeles and L.A. as in thrall to its stalwart guide.
Momofuku's David Chang briefly attests to Gold's repute, declaring, perhaps hyperbolically, that he "doesn't know any Korean person that knows as much about Korean food as Jonathan Gold." Chang distinguishes Gold from other restaurant critics by highlighting his "empathy level." But is it empathy that underwrites Gold's greatness? That he is a genius many people consulted in the film eagerly agree. The dimensions of that brilliance, meanwhile, regularly elude them.
Much is made of Gold's far-and-wide city travels, his ethnic daring, his enthusiasm in the face of a cheap or unappetizing meal. Probably, yes, readers do appreciate that the leading food critic in L.A. will eat any sort of cuisine in any sort of neighbourhood – a courtesy one will never enjoy in, say, Britain, where the vocation remains swathed in the luxury of haute cuisine.
On the other hand, this emphasis on exploration misses the point. It isn't Gold's omnivorous sensibility that makes him a valuable critic; nor is it his taste, which by most accounts is unimpeachable. Gold is important because Gold is a great writer. No further argument necessary.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the most compelling thing in City of Gold is its subject's own words, read aloud by Gold and others in voice-over. A passing reference to a dish as "spicy as a novella and as bitter as tears" ought to be enough to convince the skeptical of the writer's distinction. Many of the film's interviewees seem inclined to defend Gold as somehow above food criticism: he's venerated for his activism, his authenticity, his contributions to the public good. This is the wrong approach. If Jonathan Gold is a genius, it isn't because he has emerged superior to the humble practice of writing about food. It is because he is an exemplar of the trade. Any argument for Gold goes further: it is a testament to how great such work can be.