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L.A.’s Jewish Top Foodie

Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold on his family, his favorite delis, and what makes food Jewish

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Food critic Jonathan Gold (left) at the 2011 L.A. Craft Beer Crawl. (Caro Scuro/Flickr)

Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold shows up every year at L.A. Weekly’s annual Gold Standard fundraiser. After all, the food-and-wine benefit was named for him, and its proceeds benefit Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit where his brother Mark was, until recently, president. But this year, as Gold stood at the entrance of the fundraiser, dressed in striped gray trousers and a pink plaid shirt, something was different.

The March event—held at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile, featuring food and drink from some 50 of Gold’s “essential” restaurants—was also a farewell for Gold. He was leaving L.A. Weekly, where he started writing 30 years ago, and moving the next day to the Los Angeles Times to become the daily’s restaurant reviewer. So, for many of the chefs and owners of L.A.’s thousands of ethnic restaurants that he brought to the fore over the years, this was a chance to thank him.

Susan Feniger, one of the chefs at the event, who made a refreshing mint lemonade alongside Chinese moon cakes, said of Gold, “To have a local restaurant critic who is drawn to dumpy or street food places—that is, in reality, what food is about.”

Gold has been to thousands of off-the-beaten-track restaurants in L.A., often holes in the wall with amazing ethnic dishes. Most restaurant critics don’t bother with such places, opting instead to focus on mainstream venues; Gold, in contrast, has redefined the mainstream.

“There is nobody like Jonathan. He is brilliant,” said food writer Ruth Reichl, currently editorial adviser at Gilt Taste. “He is a person who lives in his head in some way. I don’t claim to know his interior life, but it is very rich.”

Part of that richness comes from Gold’s Jewish upbringing, which has affected his interest in food and writing. Although Gold has interviewed thousands of people over the years, he finds himself on the other end of interviews far less often. And in those instances, Gold doesn’t usually discuss his Jewishness. So, I caught up with him recently, after he started back at the Times, to talk about his childhood, his career, and how being Jewish has influenced him.

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The first and only food writer to win the Pulitzer—in 2007—Gold traces his interest in food to his childhood. Born and raised in L.A., he is the son of a Jewish probation officer and a Christian Scientist teacher and librarian who converted to Judaism when they married.

“I grew up in the most Reform family possible,” Gold told me. “My dad’s idea of being Jewish was dropping us off at religious school and reading the newspaper. My father always felt more Jewish in the delis than he did in the shul. Sundays were deli day at Junior’s or Canter’s.”

Perhaps that childhood deli day lay some of the foundation for a lifetime of food writing, day in and day out as if a religion itself.

“Deli food in L.A. is great,” he noted. According to Gold, there is a hierarchy of delis in L.A. with Nate and Al’s at the top, Lenny’s, a show-bizzy place, and Junior’s for the middle class. Brent’s, says Gold, is “filled with arrivistes from the valley.”

“My favorite is still Langer’s, because it is unreconstructed deli,” he added. “All the deli owners in this country are third generation, who have decided that what people really want is chicken salad and club sandwiches.” Like many L.A. foodies, Gold prefers Langer’s pastrami with its crispy bread, and the restaurant’s tangy Reuben sandwich: “Langer’s doesn’t make any claims to be anything but a deli.”

As a young boy, Gold wanted to be a poet, but his other calling kept getting in the way. “Half the poems were about food,” he recalled with a laugh. “My interest in food became systematic. In my senior year of high school, I had dinner almost every night with the parents of my girlfriend, the daughter of Chinese college professors. They made four courses of simple, home-cooked food every night.” Gold watched in the kitchen. “I remember the one food she was protecting me from was tofu. Being a non-Chinese person, she thought I would find it disgusting,” he said. “That was what she was protecting me from!”

As a freshman at UCLA, where he studied art and music, still a huge passion, Gold worked at Milky Way, a kosher restaurant on Pico Boulevard run by Steven Spielberg’s mother, Leah. “I was the beginner of beginner of chefs,” he said, “chopping vegetables, putting things in the oven. I also had the particularly odious job of looking carefully at each egg to see if it was fertilized or not. I didn’t last there very long.”

While he remains a hobbyist cook, Gold decided to leave the actual cooking at restaurants to the chefs. But he devoted his life to food as a writer. And as a critic, he has a special knack for finding what’s new, or unusual, or particularly good to eat.

“Jonathan has this weird radar,” said Nancy Silverton, the chef of Mozza and a longtime friend with whom his family vacations each year in Umbria. “He studies guidebooks, especially the Slow Food Guide to Italy, so by the time you show up at a restaurant and it is closed, he could just find the next best restaurant in town. His knowledge is not necessarily first-hand, but he retains so much at each dinner that is so shocking. He is an incredible foodie, he really is so passionate.”

That passion carries over into his writing. Reichl praised his hard work: “What makes him such a great writer is his curiosity and vast knowledge on a million different topics.”

“He knows he is good but never good enough,” said Reichl, who started working with Gold in the mid-1980s, bringing him to an earlier stint at the Los Angeles Times and then Gourmet magazine before his return to L.A. Weekly a decade ago. “As an editor it is frustrating because he won’t give it up.”

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L.A.’s Jewish Top Foodie

Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold on his family, his favorite delis, and what makes food Jewish