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AJC food writers remember Jonathan Gold

Last weekend, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold passed away from pancreatic cancer. Current and former dining critics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflect on Gold’s legacy.

A source of inspiration and commiseration

“The idea of celebrating the glorious mosaic of the city on someone else’s dime was completely fun and completely, exactly what I wanted to do,” says LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold in “City of Gold.” The 2015 documentary brings to life Gold’s insatiable curiosity for food, his quirky personality and sometimes-unconventional work processes.

Last weekend, when I heard the news that Gold, 57, had died, I did what I suppose many of his fans did, I watched “City of Gold.”

I never met Gold, but I felt a bit of a bond hearing him confess that, as a food critic, he felt like he was “getting away with something” as he dined on someone else’s buck. I reflected on his gifts as a writer: to make his readers feel like invited guests at his table, and to articulate observations in a singular, Gold(en) way. I marveled at his procrastination skills, dodging and weaving editors frantic for him to file an already-overdue story. I commiserated when I noticed that the letter F was missing on his computer keyboard. It’s not as if the man didn’t work for his meal.

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Gold churned out copy for numerous publications in his storied career. He dutifully fed voracious readers of the LA Times, Gourmet and LA Weekly, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2007, the only food writer to claim such an award.

In the span of a few weeks, we’ve lost two magnanimous voices – the other is Anthony Bourdain – who used food as a gateway to cultural understanding. The consolation is that their body of work remains, one that we all can savor over and over, and one that will undoubtedly continue to inspire current and future storytellers .

Ligaya Figueras is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution food and dining editor, and its lead dining critic. She joined the AJC in 2015.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold died at age 57 of pancreatic cancer, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was diagnosed with the disease earlier this month. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sundance)

Mourning loss of ‘one of us’

At the end of April, I found myself at the James Beard Foundation’s media awards ceremony in New York. From across the crowded room came a text from an Atlanta buddy — a nervous nominee. He didn’t know a single soul at his table: His only company was a flask of bourbon.

“There are two empty seats over here,” I texted back. “Why don’t you join us?”

Naturally, the second I wrote that, who should swoop in to fill the chairs but The Belly of Los Angeles and his wife.

Jonathan Gold was the most influential restaurant critic in America and one of the great culture arbiters of our time. He was also frumpy, funny and famous for missing deadlines.

When word arrived that he had died, just a week shy of his 58th birthday, it didn’t seem right to me: I had just seen him . I was also jolted to discover that we were born the same year.

More than Bourdain, Jonathan Gold was one of us: A newspaperman with ink in his blood and birria on his bib. His wife, Laurie Ochoa, is one of us, too: a talented editor and writer, and the mother of their two children.

So what did I learn from my dinner with Mr. Gold? Eat well. Write well. Savor every moment. I’ll never forget the way he gestured to a server that he wanted more wine. Holding up his glass with one fist, he poured from an imaginary bottle with his other. “Fill ‘er up,” he seemed to say. “And make it quick.” Pure Gold.

Wendell Brock is a dining critic and contributing food and culture writer for the AJC. He worked as a staff reporter at the AJC from 1982 to 2009.

Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold died last week. Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times (American-Statesman Staff)

Now-silenced voice of a generation

Jonathan Gold was the greatest voice in a generation that changed everything. Not just among food writers, but also among chefs and the dining public. Before this generation came along, a restaurant was a restaurant, a business that operated within parameters of food and service, of setting and amenities, and of timing and price. And a critic was a critic, someone who stood as a proxy for the guest and served as a kind of consumer advocate.

When dining out became more of a travel adventure and less of a piano recital, Jonathan saw and steered the change. He made his role that of a cultural explorer. He chose not to deal with the parts of reviewing concerned with a 20-minute wait beyond a reservation time or an unfilled water glass. Instead, his “Counter Intelligence” column became something that chronicled human experience around the table.

Jonathan wrote to engage the reader in experience, and he handily collapsed the distinction between the high and low culinary arts. He was a known champion of noodle shops and taco trucks, but he also wrote of Noma in all its guises around the world, and of the the most expensive Wagyu beef steak Wolfgang Puck served.

When this critic was himself criticized, it was for being too positive, too eager to enjoy his meals. Yet when a prominent restaurant needed a takedown, he was unafraid. Just three months ago he tackled Majordomo, David Chang’s problematic entry into Los Angeles, with a clarity that showed both the restaurant’s shortcomings and its pleasures. Clarity. That was his gift as a writer. A clarity that imbued his reviews with all kinds of shading and nuance. He didn’t need the tropes or a standard review. In every word he wrote he communicated his feelings. When he found something worthy of a new obsession, you were hopeless to resist. It would soon be yours.

John Kessler worked at the AJC from 1997 to 2015 as a food writer and dining critic. He now lives in Chicago.

Breaking career ground with a ‘fork’

Jonathan Gold’s career spanned several food “eras,” but his work at LA Weekly and The Los Angeles Times remains a testament to a kind of criticism that went beyond the confines of discovering flowery new ways of saying “velvety,” or “smooth” 14 times in one week. His writing redefined how food writers write, and how readers think about food.

He seemed far more interested in what food meant, than what it necessarily tasted like. Certainly he provided the necessary 411, as all critics do, on what he was eating and why. But it was the “who” and “where” of food that was his true language.

In 2007, the year after I lost the Beard award to him, he won the Pulitzer. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is clearly remarkable enough, but No Food Writer Had Ever Won a Pulitzer Before. A ground had been broken, and Gold was holding the fork-pronged shovel.

I didn’t know in 2006 what I know now. My name was read as a nominee alongside one of our greatest writers. I’ll take that as a win. Because losing to Jonathan Gold is a little like winning by any other definition.

Meridith Ford was the dining critic for the AJC from 2004 to 2010, and is currently a contributing food writer.

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