'City of Gold': Sundance Review

City of Gold
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
An enjoyable and edifying look at the influential food critic Jonathan Gold.

Laura Gabbert's accessible and informative close-up documentary of Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold.

All manner of writers have been trying to make sense of Los Angeles for years and, arguably, no writer has succeeded in making the sprawling, amorphous, eclectic and increasingly diverse metropolis seem more approachable, comprehensible and delicious than Jonathan Gold. The first and only food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, Gold is the great democratizer of his profession, placing food truck tacos and Chinese mini-mall noodles on the same gastronomic plane as French haute cuisine or expense account sushi. Laura Gabbert's accessible and informative close-up documentary City of Gold appreciates all this and usefully puts the man in context as it accompanies him around the city while he offers a running commentary on his enviable job.

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Unlike, say, his friend and forerunner in writing about food found off the beaten path, the trim Calvin Trillin, Gold is what most people probably think food critics must look like: fat. He uses suspenders, wears his thinning gray-blond hair very long and jokes that his environmentalist younger brother must work hard to make up for the fact that he, Jonathan, drives the least fuel efficient vehicle made in America, a big pickup truck. And Gold is behind the wheel a lot. Whenever you read him in the Los Angeles Times, he always seems to have discovered some great hole-in-the-wall Korean or Guatemalan joint down in Long Beach or the San Gabriel Valley, or somewhere else that takes an hour to drive to from wherever most of his readers live.

But, as Gabbert rightly stresses, his range represents the first and most important reason that Gold is great. Unlike the food critics of yore, who mostly covered the chi-chi French and Italian restaurants favored by the upper crust, Gold concentrates on real-people food, family-run places that may have had their first incarnations as sidewalk stands opened by newly arrived immigrants, simple establishments that never expected reviews or white people, but were, rather, there to serve authentic food to their own constituencies.

The food that Gold is most known for writing about is the food that directly reflects the rapidly changing ethnic dynamic of his ever-morphing city. He tellingly relates the story of how, right after he graduated from UCLA, he spent a year eating his way down the entire 15 miles of Pico Boulevard and in the process learned everything there was to know about Mexican and Central American cuisine.

This appetite, abdominal and mental, has persisted ever since. He is seen as easily identifying the individual ingredients in esoteric dishes from far-flung regional Chinese cuisines as he does at a familiar French restaurant. He is, physically and attitudinally, the diametrical opposite of Anton Ego, the pretentious, egotistical restaurant critic in the film Ratatouille.

The film feels somewhat arbitrary in structure and contains too much unnecessary filler in the way of driving and aerial shots, but it includes a solid range of admiring professionals from the restaurant and journalism worlds commenting on Gold's contributions. It also offers personal information of undoubted interest to longtime readers: Gold grew up in an art-obsessed family, is a classical music expert who played cello not only with the UCLA Symphony but onstage with a punk rock band in 1979; wrote extensively about hip-hop, and shares a house with his wife  (L.A. Times entertainment editor Laurie Ochoa) and two kids that, unsurprisingly, is bulging with books. He has experienced crippling writer's block, suffers greatly from procrastination (his editors testify that he's terrible with deadlines), has no dietary restrictions and usually visits a restaurant four or five times before writing about it.

One question that is never asked—can Gold cook?—seems to be answered at the end, when Gold is seen with his family preparing a large repast. He's a man of large appetites, interests and influence, which is well reflected in this enriching film.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Director: Laura Gabbert
Producers: Laura Gabbert, Holly Becker
Executive producers: Braxton Pope, Jamie Wolf
Director of photography: Goro Toshima, Jerry Henry
Editors: Greg King, William Haugse
Music: Bobby Johnston
91 minutes