At a time when people—on diets or not—are food obsessed, Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic and the subject of a marvelous documentary, City of Gold, led the people of Los Angeles and his fans around the world to new culinary adventures. His death, this weekend at the age of 57, is devastating for all of us—his fans, his friends, but most of all his family, the LA Times Arts and Entertainment editor, Laurie Ochoa, and his two children, Isabel, 23, and Leon, 15.
The first time many years ago that Jonathan met me in his green Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck after a lecture I was giving to a Jewish group somewhere in Orange County, we headed to several of his favorite places for goat and tongue taco. Unlike so many people, Jonathan, the only food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, seemed to have all the time in the world. His brain was encyclopedic, combing through books piled high everywhere in his house and websites to learn about esoteric cuisines around the city of Los Angeles. He was slightly awkward, slightly shy and such a kind man.
I met him, when visiting Los Angeles, often with my family and his. Jonathan delighted in leading me astray, having me taste new finds such as matzo balls wrapped in bacon or the brisket at a new deli. We ate together in delis, peeked into food trucks, and once, a few years ago, he picked me up from Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. When I told him how good it was, he said that now that he was going to the LA Times, he would have to try it. He much preferred grungy ma and pa run restaurants.
Jonathan traced his interest in food to his childhood. Born and raised in LA, he was 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,” Jonathan told me for an article for Tablet. “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.”
In that 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 LA is great,” he once told me. According to Jonathan, there was a hierarchy of delis in LA with Nate and Al’s at the top, Lenny’s, a show-bizzy place, and Junior’s for the middle class. Brent’s is “filled with arrivistes from the valley.”
His favorite was Langer’s. For Jonathan, Langer’s was “unreconstructed deli. All the deli owners in this country are third generation, who have decided that what people really want is chicken salad and club sandwiches. Langer’s doesn’t make any claims to be anything but a deli.”
As a freshman at UCLA, where he studied art and music, a huge passion until his death, Jonathan 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 remained a hobbyist cook, Jonathan 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 had a special knack for finding what’s new, or unusual, or particularly good to eat.
Even though Jonathan gave up on any notion of becoming a restaurant chef many years ago, he still cooked at least five times a week at home. “Before I go out to restaurants, I cook for my family from the farmers markets,” he told me for an article for Tablet. “One of my criteria is that the dinner at the restaurant be as good as the dinner left behind. I really resent it when it isn’t. Going out and eating something substandard infuriates me because I can get good ingredients at home.”
When asked what he made for breakfast one day, he answered in a fashion that seemed to sum up everything about a Jewish foodie in Southern California: “Chilaquiles, basically eggs with leftover corn tortilla chips stirred with a little salsa and finished off with Mexican sour cream and a sprinkling of chopped herbs. We call it Mexican matzo brei.”
A month ago my daughter Daniela and I had lunch with Jonathan and his son Leon at Freedman’s in Silver Lake. Jonathan wanted us to try this hipster deli and especially the brisket and the potato pancakes. Six days ago we exchanged emails where he told me he was really ill. I had no idea how ill.
We have lost a soul who so loved Los Angeles that he became the greatest decipherer of the city’s food for every single inhabitant. No one will be able to replace Jonathan Gold.
Related: L.A.’s Jewish Top Foodie
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.