#63, Watch three documentary films, 3/3
In case you haven’t heard of him, let me be the one to introduce you to Jonathan Gold. I met him in 2003. He was a regular on KCRW’s Good Food radio program, and I had recently started working there.
He still appears on the radio show. He is also a Pulitzer prize winning food critic who writes for the Los Angeles Times. He has famously written for LA Weekly and Gourmet magazine. I hate to send you away, but here is a spectacular article written by Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker that you must read if you really want to know more about him.
The day I met Jonathan Gold at KCRW, I was pleased that he didn’t recognize my name from a desperate plea for employment that I had sent to him six months before.
I needn’t have worried. He acknowledged me with a distracted nod, and continued to do so every few weeks during the years that I worked there. Even now, I am quite certain that he could not pick me out of a line-up. He had no reason to be aware of me. I worked on the periphery.
My first assignment at Good Food was to make a “Let’s Go To Lunch” guide for our listeners. I was newly graduated from cooking school and super excited to be at the radio station.
I got the job because a few months before, I had taken a class at UCLA extension where, Evan Kleiman, the host of Good Food, was on the panel of speakers. At the end of the class, I summoned the courage to slide two pieces of writing and a resumé onto the desk in front of her. She looked up at me and asked,
I smiled and said, “I’m peddling prose.”
Perhaps she liked what she saw, because the Good Food producer at the time, Jennifer Ferro, called me a few days later and offered me a volunteer position at their “Good Food Live” show. I put my shoulder into that opportunity and hustled hard. A few weeks later, I was offered the assignment on Good Food. It was still unpaid, but I was beyond thrilled with my title of “segment producer”.
I was a bit over eager to please, so, in classic Marina form, I decided to turn my first assignment into a PROJECT. (Yes, there were lots of lists involved.)
I listened to nearly a year’s worth of archived interviews in the span of little more than a week. I dedicated a three ring binder to the information and separated the restaurants by area code. I compiled addresses, dishes, and pertinent restaurant information into a spread sheet. I wrote short summaries of the restaurants using interview notes and lots and lots of quotation marks.
The restaurant reviews were from three main sources: Jonathan Gold, Chef Jet Tila, and Carl Chu, who had written a guide to finding Chinese food in Los Angeles. There were a few interviews from Chef Sang Yoon, but not yet enough to include.
Many of the dishes that were described in the interviews used words that were foreign to me. I entered the business of decoding. I would write out the names phonetically, rewinding the audio and repeating it again and again. I would look through the indexes of my cookbooks for possible matches. If that didn’t work, I would try to puzzle out the names of the dishes from restaurant menus, which were often just noodley, laminated images captioned with the characters of a foreign alphabet. Some of the dish names I discovered while rummaging through the LA Weekly archives looking for clues.
When all else failed, I would email the guys for clarification. I did this with trepidation and always prefaced my note with a paragraph attempting to explain who I was.
Once I had completed the guide, I decided that it would look better with photos so I drove to each restaurant on the list and took photographs of the exteriors. The trek took me all over LA, the San Fernando Valley, and the San Gabriel Valley. I found myself in neighborhoods I never knew existed, sampling foods I couldn’t pronounce. I was in heaven. I was eating in the footsteps of Jonathan Gold.
This is over a decade ago, so most of the restaurants did not yet have an internet presence. There was no iPhone, there was no WAZE, there was no Yelp. I only had a small film camera and some printed directions from MapQuest. I cringe now to see how poorly I framed the restaurants in the photographs I took, but still, they were better than nothing. We didn’t have a budget for color printing, but KCRW paid my friend Pete to put his graphic designer spin on it, and soon we had a booklet. We were proud of its strong design and even of its grainy photos.
In the end, it was a nice bit of subscriber swag. I have torn apart my office today looking for a booklet to show you, but I couldn’t find one. All I could find were my planning notebook and all the old CDs that I used for writing the weekly Good Food newsletters.
I like to listen to the CDs on road trips. If you’ve ever listened to Good Food, you already know that Evan Kleiman has a voice which is friendly and comforting. So, for me, it’s kind of like traveling with my smartest friend; the one who likes to eat well and tells great stories.
The funny thing is, when you’ve listened to hours and hours of someone’s voice in your ear, you become familiar with their speech patterns. You know where the pauses go. You know when they are truly enthusiastic about something, and you know when they are just being nice. You know when they’re tired and you know when they’re agitated. You learn how to listen.
Often the clues are subtle, but voices have tells.
Voices can also be deceiving. Listening to Jonathan’s interviews, I had fabricated a picture in my mind of a man that was tall and clean cut, lanky and gregarious. When I met him in person, I was surprised that he was not terribly tall, his hair was long, and his manner was quiet. He was at ease with Evan, however, and I could hear his smile when she would ask him if he was reviewing a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley yet again.
When I met Chef Jet Tila through friends at a dinner in Thai Town, I treated him like an old pal. Because I had spent long hours listening to his voice, I already knew he was cool and I liked him. In fact, I felt like I had known him for years. He responded to me with equal warmth and we were fast friends. At first, I imagined that there might be some freaky karmic connection between us since we had such an easy rapport, but very soon I realized that it wasn’t just me. He is the same way with everyone. It’s one of his gifts. I still like to tease him that he has that “Elvis thing”, the kind of charisma that people fall into.
He’s a good guy, you can hear it in his voice.
The day I met Chef Sang Yoon at the Santa Monica farmers market during the Good Food market report, I was thrown off kilter. His voice didn’t fit. It was off putting. I found myself staring, trying to figure out what was wrong. The producer of our show was calling him Sang, but I felt like this man was an imposter. It made sense later, however, when he revealed that he had a new retainer and it was giving him a slight lisp and it was changing the way his tongue hit his front teeth. His voice was different.
I had never listened so closely before.
I even thought I could hear the awareness in Carl Chu’s voice that Jonathan Gold would soon edge him out of a job. As well versed as he was on the subject of Chinese food in Los Angeles, (not to mention that he is, in fact, Chinese) he could not compete on the subject of Chinese food against Jonathan’s masterful eloquence, the depth of his research, or the agility of his palate–which had been tested by every mean street and strip mall in Los Angeles.
The truth is, I’m not really sure if that’s why Carl’s interviews stopped, it just seemed that way from the cheap seats. It’s oddly telling, though, that I can remember his kindness but I can’t remember his voice. He would probably say the same about me.
It’s been nearly a decade since I worked at the radio station, but we parted on good terms and I have great memories. So naturally, when I heard that a documentary had been made about Jonathan Gold, I couldn’t wait to see it.
I was a bit surprised, though.
It just seemed like such an extroverted thing for him to do. In my years at Good Food, he was still working hard to stay under the radar. It occurs to me now that I remember hearing whispers that Jonathan Gold had had a brief stint as a performance artist in some crazy artsy show which featured revealing costumes and live chickens. While I doubted the validity of that gossip, I could indeed make room for the notion of Jonathan Gold as the star of a documentary. It can be a pretty short leap from radio when the story is truly compelling.
On the very street where Jonathan Gold started working his way through restaurants, Pico Boulevard, I saw City of Gold last night. I loved it. Here is the trailer.
I found the film riveting. It was wonderful sitting alone in the theater, watching people I am familiar with, eat food that I have followed, in a city I adore– all the while knowing that I am invisible to all of it.
Because that’s exactly how LA is. You don’t have to be a stranger or an intimate, the city is loose enough and large enough that you can be both at the same time. You can wander through spaces in anonymity, and you can be recognized when you want to be. You can be both a citizen and a foreigner, an exhibitionist and a ghost, an intellectual and a nube.
We all sit in our vehicles and move to the sounds and the rhythms of our own traffic, we shapeshift through neighborhoods, and we can connect through the freeways of food.
If we ever lose our way we can look to Jonathan Gold for direction. He knows the way. He has stealthily mapped it, he has driven through it, and he has eaten nearly every inch of it.
272 days to go!