To eat your way through a city is to find its heart. No one would know that better than Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, the subject of Laura Gabbert’s agile and perceptive documentary City of Gold. As passionate about his hometown of Los Angeles as he is about tracking down the most sublime taco, Gold has built a career by fanning out into the city’s marvelously varied ethnic neighborhoods to find the out-of-the-way gems that most traditional restaurant critics would ignore. A good review from Gold can turn the tiniest food truck into a gastronomic hot spot. The lives of the people who run these modest establishments–some of them fairly recent immigrants–can be changed in a snap. The lives of people who really love to eat are enriched beyond measure. Everybody wins.
But what if you live nowhere near Los Angeles? What can a rave from Gold mean to a famished Chicagoan or a New Yorker with a growling stomach? Beyond his curiosity and good humor, Gold is a sensational writer, able to parse the elusive intricacies of a superspicy Korean soup or a bold, velvety Ethiopian stew in a way that makes you forget you don’t actually have a spoon or a triangle of bread in your hand. (In 2007, while working at the L.A. Weekly, Gold won a Pulitzer Prize, the first to be awarded to a food critic.) Gold also sees far beyond the plate in front of him. “Cooking is what makes us human,” he observes in City of Gold. Or as University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Dear puts it, Gold is a “critic of urban living,” supremely attuned to the diversity of Los Angeles. “His culinary mapping becomes a cartography of the region.”
Writers, people who spend a great deal of time tapping away at a bunch of lettered keys, don’t always make the most galvanizing documentary subjects. But Gabbert does a near miraculous job of showing us the day-to-day texture of Gold’s work life, allowing us to sit in on meetings with his editors (who occasionally betray exasperation with the happy-go-lucky loops and curlicues he adds to his sentences before getting to the point) and revealing why he doesn’t take notes at the table (he says he’s “more involved in serving the music of the meal”). Balding, elfin and quick-witted in a kindly way–with the Santa shape you might expect from an adventurous eater who will try just about anything–Gold shows us that the real work of a writer happens far from the keyboard: mostly it involves being alive to the world around us. But there’s no reason to set out on an empty stomach.
This appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of TIME.
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