Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at 57 years old. The announcement, first reported by the L.A. Times, has stunned fans, friends and food lovers alike. It is an immeasurable loss for Los Angeles. Gold was world-renowned for his beautiful and nuanced writing, which, more than any food critic before or after him, celebrated all the flavors, histories and cultures of Los Angeles, most notably under-represented ones. The Times reported that the Los Angeles native was only recently diagnosed with the disease. His wife, Laurie Ochoa, arts & entertainment editor there, told the paper he died at an L.A. hospital surrounded by family.
When I first heard the news, I thought about his wife, who was my editor at the Weekly from 2001 to 2009, and their kids (they have a son and a daughter, whom I met as little ones at Weekly events years ago). My heart goes out to them. [Ed. note: A GoFundMe has been created for Gold’s family.]
I also thought about his peers and the people he inspired. I’d been in his presence many times, especially at the old Weekly offices on Sunset Boulevard. We’d say hi but didn’t converse much because he was kind of quiet and, in all honesty, I was a bit intimidated by his talent. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. As a fellow Angeleno who grew up reading the L.A. Weekly, I was a fan of Gold’s long before he became known for food coverage. He was an extraordinary music writer who wrote about artists as varied as N.W.A and The Germs for the Weekly, Snoop and Dr. Dre for Rolling Stone and Soundgarden for Spin. He wrote the kinds of profiles that made music lovers like me want to be journalists, as I’d imagine Lester Bangs did for Cameron Crowe.
“I learned how to write at L.A. Weekly, largely under the tutelage of Bob LaBrasca, whose preferred method of getting a writer to change an offending passage was to read it back to him in a sarcastic tone. I found my politics at the Weekly, possibly the result of concussions sustained while butting heads with the editor, Jay Levin. I learned about love and loss and betrayal and loyalty and the inadvisability of changing so much as a comma in the copy of Michael Ventura. I edited a humor column whose conceit was that nothing in it was actually funny, and I edited so many “Best of L.A.” issues that I still have to be constrained from constructing paragraphs in its entirely too-imitable form. I even found true love at the Weekly — I was a proofreader, she was an intern, and half the place’s male staff sustained whiplash every time she would pass by the photocopy machine in her tightest pair of jeans. (We’ve been married for 18 years).” —Excerpt from Between the Lines, a piece Gold wrote for L.A. Weekly’s 30th anniversary
Counter Intelligence, his food column, began in 1986. He moved from the Weekly to the Times in 1990, and later became Gourmet magazine’s New York restaurant critic; Ochoa also worked there. When Ochoa became editor-in-chief of the Weekly in 2001, he returned with her, and his “99 Essential Restaurants” issue became the L.A. food bible. Back when anonymity was a food critic must, only his silhouette was shown for a question-and-answer column about food featuring reader letters (“Dear Mr. Gold”). He also had a regular piece in the Weekly called “First Bite,” in which he delivered his first impressions of a restaurant.
Gold won the Pulitzer in 2007, the first food critic ever to do so (and the only one since), while at the Weekly. He returned to the L.A. Times a few years later, expanding his beloved eatery list to 101. In 2016, a documentary about his life, City of Gold, was released to much acclaim.
I don’t think there is a journalist or restaurant fan in Los Angeles who did not admire this man’s work immensely. And how could we not? The way he put words together was pure poetry. He had a gift for descriptiveness, but he was never wordy. Every phrase, ancedote and analogy had value, and collectively his thoughts and perspectivies on food (and music and culture) came to live up to his moniker. His take on eating in L.A. and, in general, was indeed the gold standard.
He did for L.A. what Anthony Bourdain later did for global cuisine, and he did it for much longer; because it was on a local level, it might have been more impactful, too. Gold brought attention to the international fare and experiences available here in L.A., gearing his reports and reviews not to outsiders, tourists or fine-dining snobs but to the average Angeleno who did not know about all the tasty and usually affordable offerings right in his own backyard. The attention Gold gave local businesses big and small helped the restaurant industry, local chefs and mom & pop joints alike not only survive but flourish. From hidden mini-mall eateries to the off-the-beaten-path holes-in-the-wall to food-truck faves, Gold’s coverage not only informed us about the myriad of multicultural flavors out there but also educated us — about the inspirations, the abundant fusions, the people and the places, in a style that was singularly his own. He wrote about food the way he wrote about music, vividly and vibrantly, making us feel as if we were there with him, experiencing what he was experiencing.
Jonathan Gold’s writing not only expanded our city’s knowledge and appreciation of food, it enlightened us and made us hungry for more. Though he’s gone, his memory will linger like a satisfying meal, and thankfully he left behind so many delicious bites for us all to enjoy. Read some of his best here.