“One of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten is deer penis,” says food critic Jonathan Gold. “I was reviewing this Vietnamese restaurant, and it was this strange place that had enough different kinds of penis on the menu that it was almost like a specialty. They had ox, they had goat, they had – god help me – hog. So I ordered a hot pot, and I had one small, tentative bite. The texture is exactly how you’d imagine it.
“The worst part, though, is it’s probably something I’ve been served a hundred times without having any idea of what it was. It just shows up among those dodgy bits.”
It’s an occupational hazard for Gold, who is a restaurant critic and columnist for the LA Times. A champion of Los Angeles’ culinary underbelly, he places as much gastronomic value on the downtown taco truck (or the Vietnamese place specialising in penis) as he does on the up-market fine diner.
He’s the subject of City of Gold, a 2015 documentary by American filmmaker Laura Gabbert. The film had a brief run at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) last year. Now it’s back, showing at ACMI until February 27.
The film is a portrait of the writer. We learn about Gold’s life and career, including his beginnings as a music writer and editor and self-described “failed cellist”. We see his relatable battles with procrastination and writer’s block, and the affectionate frustration his editors feel when he repeatedly fails to submit his copy on time (he is swiftly forgiven once they read his work – he is, after all, the only food writer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize).
We learn about Gold’s review-writing process; how he visits a restaurant four or five times (his record is 17 times) before he reviews it; and how he always books at the last minute, and always under a pseudonym (he officially renounced his anonymity last year, but there was a time when it was impossible to find an image of Gold in which he wasn’t shrouded in gauze or wearing a dinosaur mask).
We also witness the influence Gold has on the LA dining scene, and the power he has to make or break a restaurant with his reviews. In one scene, Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown, says to the camera: "One day my dad walked in and says, ‘Where did all these white people come from?’”
The film is also about Los Angeles. For Gold, food criticism is as much an anthropological exercise as it is a gastronomic one (“I would always rather eat food that is genuinely expressive of a culture,” he says), and his tireless search for the most-authentic Hainanese chicken or Oaxacan mole takes him (and us) into the city’s most-colourful neighbourhoods, and the lives and stories of their inhabitants.
In an interview with Eater, Gabbert says: "The film is in some sense a love letter to Los Angeles ... but it's also about how we live... in a post-modern city. The sprawl, the diversity, the complexity of it, and how we can discover and find compatibility with other cultures through food."
It is Los Angeles as we’ve never seen it, and a much more appealing and vibrant version than the LA of Hollywood.
City of Gold is screening from Feb 5 to 27 at ACMI. Tickets $13–$17.