(Writer’s Note: This account was published a week before Jonathan Gold’s sudden, far-too-soon passing. RIP Mr. Gold – thank you for sharing your skill with those who love food).
It’s an early Friday evening, and I’m leaning against a Frank Lloyd Wright property with a glass of rosé in my hand. The Wright joint, a gorgeous near-century-old Mayan Revivalist home known as Hollyhock House, is the crown jewel of Barnsdall Art Park, located a couple miles north of Downtown Los Angeles and some 500 feet above sea level. This gives the rolling mound enough height to create a panoramic view of the city, which stretches far enough to capture a construction crane raised up in the sun-kissed distance, probably somewhere in Westwood. A public radio DJ spins a mix of classic rock and indie music, and I award myself cool points for recognizing the Bowie deep cut and the Father John Misty song. A few dozen folks ranging from young hipster to old hippie are scattered in front of me, some on blankets, others standing and eating sandwiches, most clutching wine glasses. We’re all here to see a Q&A between the Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold and Daniel Humm, the culinary impresario behind New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Los Angeles’ shiny new, already wildly popular NYC transplant NoMad. The latter restaurant’s corresponding food truck sits in the Hollyhock House driveway, but I have no time to wait in line. I’m here for the event, but I’m also here on assignment for a magazine, covering the Q&A, its role in the Los Angeles Times’ 2nd annual Food Bowl event, and the coinciding launch of Barnsdall’s Friday summertime wine tasting fetes. I need to focus on things as they unfold. Besides, I know I’m in the presence of greatness. This knowledge usurps any need for sustenance, rosé notwithstanding.
24 hours earlier, I was coming home from Vegas. Specifically, an annual Vegas trip I’ve been making with college friends for over 15 years. We spent four days carrying on and carrying out traditions both cherished and weird, like playing bingo in recliners (better than it sounds) and spending afternoons playing $1 craps at a “locals only” casino in nearby Henderson (also better than it sounds). We’ve cultivated a few food traditions along the way, too. We always hit Tommy’s Burgers in Barstow on the way up and the Caesar’s properties’ 24-hour buffet pass is essential, both of which may explain why our wives never attend. Over time, we’ve also developed an annual rite of talking about going to the critically acclaimed Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam and never actually getting there. Gold himself was the spark of this woebegone ritual. He called it the best Thai joint in the country a decade ago, a bold statement that turned the place into a must-try venue that somehow has never gotten tried. We held fast to tradition once again, opting to dive into the numbing noodles and cold beef offal at Beijing 9 Noodle House at Caeser’s Palace instead. It was rather enjoyable. Of course, it wasn’t Lotus of Siam.
Back to Barnsdall. A small entourage makes its way toward me from the media table. Gold’s long grayish-brown toussels are easy to spot in its center. He’s in conversation with someone in the group; as he walks by, I hear him say only one thing: “I said that it was the best Thai place in the country ten years ago, and I still stand by it.”
Crap. The tasty memory of Beijing 9’s numbing noodles’ takes a sudden, severe hit. I immediately text one of my Vegas entourage. ”So Jonathan Gold just walked by me, talking about how Lotus of Siam is still the best Thai place in the country. Dammit.”
“Did you let him know that Spice Market Buffet doesn’t have crab legs?” he replies. I smile at the humor, but I’m still culinarily crestfallen. Thankfully, the rosé in my hand consoles me, as do the three yet-to-be-used wine tickets hanging off my wrist.
This is the power of Jonathan Gold. To be blunt, he knows his shit. Pulitzer Prizes don’t get handed out to those that don’t know their shit. He’s the arbiter of food, a tastemaker, and a champion of the mom and pop establishment. He likes the white tablecloth stuff too, of course, but his willingness to be an unabashed fan of the strip mall pho joint or the taco truck in a semi-seedy neighborhood is what makes his voice so damn genuine. He eats like I eat, and I assume like most of you eat. He understands man does not live on four-course prix-fixe experiences alone, and that’s refreshing. Not a lot of people in his position seem to understand this. At least, if they do understand, they don’t convey it very well. When he says Lotus of Siam – which is located in a strip mall, natch – is the best Thai food in the U.S. ten years running, I know he’s right without question. It’s why I’m prepared to propel my trip home by kicking my own ass down I-5.
Gold and Humm spend forty-five minutes in a lively Q&A session. It’s as great as it sounds. The former’s questions coaxes the latter to espouse his admiration for the late Paul Bocuse, the desire to make a killer dish with just two ingredients, and his reaction after Eleven Madison Park earned the distinction as the world’s top restaurant (the Cliff’s Notes version: “Now what?”). My work portion of the event wraps up with the conversation’s end – time to be a fanboy.
I finish my final glass of wine and approach. He’s talking to the PR rep I’d been working with during the gig, which is good – I have a buffer zone so I don’t completely look like some foodie weirdo. My anxiety over how I may appear to him is a bit odd in some respects. I get paid to write about Orange County restaurants and restaurant news, so I’m technically a professional colleague, which means I shouldn’t necessarily be nervous. At the same time, my comparative peon status short circuits this rationale with ruthless efficiency.
“Mr. Gold,” I say with a conscious effort to not extend my hand. “I just want to say I’m a huge fan of yours, and I really appreciate all that you do for the L.A. food scene.” That’s what it sounds like in my head. I’m sure the stammering was filtered.
He smiles and points a finger toward Humm roughly twenty feet away. “Nah,” he replies. “That’s the guy who deserves appreciation. He’s a genius. I just write about tacos.”
All of that nervousness, trepidation, and fear because I’m talking to Jonathan Freakin’ Gold is gone in one humble utterance. Yes, he’s a phenomenal writer, but at his core, he’s just a guy that likes food. That’s plenty of common ground to make the rest of the conversation easy – easy enough to where I feel comfortable with tipping my professional hand.
“So,” Gold says. “Where do you think I should go eat at in Orange County?”
Time stops. My brain cannot comprehend what was just asked. It’s too busy screaming “Gah!” from the depths of its left hemisphere. A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer just asked my opinion on food! What is happening? That’s like Jack White asking my eldest daughter about her guitar playing technique. This shouldn’t have happened but it did. I manage a grin and a strategic, nerve-calming “hmm.” I mention OC’s currently in a culinary holding pattern. I come up with a couple of solid places. I oversell two venues and completely forget about two others. I make sure to mention the beloved hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint our family visits. I replay this part of the conversation on the way home about a dozen times, and it yields a dozen different results. It still seems surreal that the question was asked. It probably will always be, regardless of what happens with my career.
The conversation probably lasted three minutes. I lost such track of time and space, not even The Doctor could have helped. I ask for a photo in one final act of fandom. He obliges. As I leave, I mention I’m going to hit Los Originales Tacos Arabes de Puebla in Boyle Heights – a place I discovered thanks to Gold’s appearance on David Chang’s show Ugly Delicious – and get me an Arabic-style taco on the way home.
“You’re not going to get something from the NoMad truck?” he asks.
I slightly smile. “I’ve had NoMad’s food before. It’s great. But I haven’t had Tacos Arabes yet. I want to change that.” I’d like to pretend I earned me some street cred with Gold for that closing bit of dialogue, especially since I didn’t dare to bring up Lotus of Siam in his presence.