Nothing has made me want to book a return trip to Los Angeles more than Laura Gabbert’s spellbinding documentary “City of Gold.” Although it’s been described as a biography of Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold—and that’s a spot-on description—Gabbert’s film is a passionate love letter to Los Angeles’ thriving culinary landscape, and an ode to the immigrants who have enriched the city’s flavor.
Gabbert’s doc tells the story of how Gold, an eloquent yet soft-spoken writer whose lyrical musings on taco stands and Korean hole-in-walls become the high priest of Los Angeles’ food scene. The first and only food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for food criticism, Gold has been described by many as the Raymond Chandler of food critics in that he approaches something familiar (in this case, street food) and allows us to see it in a completely new light. For example, in his review of the mole negro at a Mexican restaurant named Moles la Tia, he writes “the mole negro is so dark that it seems to suck the light out of the airspace around it, spicy as a novella and bitter as tears.” He adds, “it appears so glossy and rich that I am always tempted to test its consistency by stabbing an index finger into it, and the resulting stain lingers as long as the empurpled digits of patriotic Iraqi voters.” Gold’s reviews aren’t merely a collection of superlatives but poetic stories that invite readers to relive his culinary experiences with him.
Gabbert approaches her documentary in the same way. Framed as a travelogue through the city’s sprawling collection of neighborhoods, we travel with Gold in his ragged green pick-up truck and watch him visit (and eat at) many of the restaurants he helped turn into local staples. The numerous close-ups of dishes like Korean pork belly and Ethiopian wat, will have your mouth salivating and your belly aching. It goes without saying that watching this movie on an empty stomach isn’t advisable.
Unlike most food critics and bloggers who only review the hip and happening joints of their cities, Gold doesn’t discriminate between “high-brow” and “low-brow” restaurants. He’s as likely to cover the taqueria in the strip mall down the street as he is to cover the French Laundry. In fact, he takes pride in his ability to find the diamonds in the rough. Galbert spends time with many of these restaurant owners. One of them, an Ethiopian restaurant owner, tells a touching story of how a single glowing review allowed her to put her son through medical school. Another was able to expand their business from a 10 person hole-in-the-wall to a two-story 300-seater. Stories like these give Gabbert’s film emotional heft and reveal Gold’s impact as a cultural commentator.
Gabbert also spends some time on Gold’s work ethic (he has a penchant for procrastination), his origins as a food writer, his time as a hip hop journalist in the 90s as well as his stint as a cello player in a punk rock band in the 70s. These anecdotes, which are provided by people like his wife, his brother, colleagues at the Los Angeles times and the L.A. Weekly as well as food personalities like Andrew Zimmerman and David Chang, provide keen insight into how he developed his quirkiness and distinct appetite. Some may critique “City of Gold” for its fawning portrait of its subject—that’s a valid criticism—but Gabbert’s film is so warm-hearted and enjoyable, that you don’t mind the minor bumps.
CITY OF GOLD
Director: Laura Gabbert
Screenwriters: Laura Gabbert
Cast: Jonathan Gold, David Chang, Roy Choi, Andrew Zimmern
Producers: Holly Becker, Laura Gabbert, Braxton Pope
Editing: William Haugse, Greg King
Cinematography: Jerry Henry, Goro Toshima
Music: Bobby Johnston
Running time: 96 minutes
Companies: Sundance Selects, IFC Films
Rating: R (for some language)