I wish I was writing about movies, but I walk into that Trader Joe’s almost every other day.
There’s three reasons for that: I love grocery stores, I love food and I cook all the damn time. And when you cook all the time, you tend not to have a refrigerator full of endless pre-packaged things. In fact, your fridge is often pretty bare because you are constantly buying fresh produce, which means you need to restock every couple of days. So you basically live in grocery stores.
There are three stores right around the corner from me: A fancy pants cheese shop with gourmet food, a Gelson’s and a Trader Joe’s. Often I go to all three in one fell swoop. The cheese shop has a bunch of specialty items for when I’m splurging. At Gelson’s I can get better quality of meat and fish, fresher eggs, etc. But for any brand items of equal quality? Trader Joe’s has infinitely better prices. Hell, most items are a whole three to four dollars cheaper (including the bottles of booze). I always feel weird walking in with so many little bags of different items from the different stores, but no one ever says anything. It’s implicitly understood what I’m doing.
Trader Joe’s is a big national corporation, but I always smile at their substantial effort to make their stores feel like they are a part of the community. Sometimes they employ nakedly obvious tactics, like the touch of assigning a local neighborhood street sign to each checkout counter, but there’s a way that it works. My store in particular is in a high-density pedestrian area that gets a weird amount of foot traffic (for Los Angeles). People usually don’t do massive amounts of shopping for the week, they often just bring their bag, pick some stuff up, and walk home. But since there are so many people I know in the neighborhood, I almost always bump into said neighbors (there are also a lot of popular character actors who live in the area, which makes it feel more of the same).
I walk in this area pretty much every day. I walk to the gym close by. I get my haircut here. This little spot of Hyperion between Rowena and Griffith Park Blvd is one of the communal centers in a city that seems to have so few. Heck, I was at that Trader Joe’s on Friday, picking up some Gournay to make omelettes. And if I had gone at about my usual time on Saturday?
I would have been in the middle of a hostage crisis.
“Hostage crisis.” Two words that elicit as otherworldly a feeling as you can get. It started as I was writing and I heard some helicopters. This is not a strange occurrence in L.A., but then I was hearing A LOT of helicopters. Something was definitely up. I checked twitter and I didn’t even have to see the specific location named, I could tell from the picture that it was our grocery store. And there was a hostage crisis. The suspect had already shot people.
Thus started a surreal, endless stream of trying to get information and checking in with the all the aforementioned neighbors to be sure they were okay. One friend who lived even closer said she actually heard the gunshots. I poked my head outside the house to look down the street and saw all the police swarming, but I’m not in the habit of walking up to potential shoot-out locations, so I hung back and just…waited? I’m not sure that’s the word for it. The excruciating situation lasted for hours, and so many in the neighborhood just had to stand around, pacing and watching the news. It’s hard to characterize feeling simultaneously awful, worried for people and lucky all at once.
Writing about the intersection of movies and culture is a weird job because you are always having to come at things through the lens of cinema. But that’s often how society operates, too. For instance, the vast majority of people’s understanding of and preconceptions about hostage situations are informed by, you guessed it, movies.
Hell, I’m certain the suspect in this shooting got all his ideas about what to do from the dozens of hostage situations that appeared in films over the years. Pick your given example: The Negotiator, Die Hard, Hostage, Inside Man, Argo, etc. These films focus on the interplay of hostage dynamics and the relative nobility/selfishness of the hostage-taker’s goals, but very rarely do they put a stamp on how real-life hostage situations always end: badly.
For outside of terror and political motivations, the act of taking hostages is largely about the delusion of finding a solution to an impossible situation. The hostage-taker is often someone on the run and feeling terrified. They have a clear emotional problem here: feeling powerless and doomed. And, in case it’s not obvious, men are grotesquely bad at handling “loss of power” and will often do anything to recoup it. So taking a hostage is usually about creating the feeling or illusion of control. That’s all they’re really trying to solve, but it’s a short-term solution that only makes it worse. The moment comes where they realize the hostage situation is beyond their control, too; that’s when they’ll either be ready to finally give up, or, more-terrifyingly, go out guns blazing with the murder-suicide instinct.
These details are not the “fun” part of the hostage movie. They are the dark, sad, humane part that only films like Captain Phillips really seem to touch on. But in our lack of addressing these issues, our other-worldly sense of what “hostage taking” is really about becomes part of a noxious intersection of movie tropes and mistruths. And the realism and unrealism fosters an ouroboros, ever coiling up and perpetuating a misleading idea. And it’s usually not snapped into focus until a “movie situation” becomes very, very real to people.
Eventually the ugly, tense drama subsided. The suspect was apprehended, but not without great cost. At one point during the altercation I retweeted the words of Alberto Corado, whose sister worked at the store and with whom he couldn’t get in touch. Some hours later he would report that she was indeed shot in the altercation and had passed away. When the articles came out with her a photo, it’s always a strange experience to suddenly see a face in thew news that you recognize. I’ve had this happen with people I knew well, and was already aware that it would be coming. But often you don’t think about it when it comes to those who are so on the fringes of your life.
You might not think about it, but you likely recognize many of the workers at your local grocery store. You know the cashiers that make friendly chit-chat and ask you what you’re cooking and you know the ones that exchange mere pleasantries. I never knew Melyda Corado’s name before, but I recognized her instantly. Just the other day I asked if they were bringing back their espresso pods and she said she thought more would be coming in soon. We all have these kinds of tangential, seemingly meaningless interactions with people. We barely think about them. But suddenly, events like this snap the shape of your world into sharp relief. This person had a whole life. This person had a brother. And I was suddenly watching them have to grieve in the real-time horror of social media. She had a family. A world of people who will miss her. It’s a lesson at the very center of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, which uses the exact metaphor of a grocery store line to find empathy with people we share our social space with. And to use a phrase from a column from just the other week, this person was my neighbor.
As I was trying to parse all this out and comment on the insanity of this situation with my friend, when he texted me another bit of news from the day: “OMG JONATHAN GOLD DIED.”
Growing up in Boston I was already in love with seafood. Oysters. Fried clams. And heck, there was nothing better than a cold beer and a lobster roll after a day of literally shoveling shit. (Everyone I knew did manual labor jobs growing up). For a lot of people this food is considered delicacy, but it was really just townie food to us. Stuff you eat at local bars with real-deal fisherman (most of whom are Portuguese) where no one checks IDs. Heck, when you’re sixteen, seventeen you can pick up a day or two on a lobster boat, which sounds like a romantic job, but it’s a tiring-as-hell gig for kids who don’t know better. This was the culture I grew up with, but it sure as hell gives you a base of understanding. Meanwhile, I was starting to get into cooking in my own right. It starting with grilling outside with friends, but then I started reading Mark Bittman’s recently released How to Cook Everything, which is the best introductory cookbook in the world. Soon I was moving onto complicated Bon Appetit recipes, which taught me the valuable lesson of “always just go for it.” Who cares if you don’t know what you’re doing? You’ll figure it out. By the time I was in college I was making giant batches of food for all my roommates.
Then when I moved to Los Angeles, I starting going to truly fancy restaurants for the first time in my dang life (it turns out my previous definition of “fancy” wasn’t even in the ballpark). I’ll be honest, I was largely trying to impress someone I was very much in love with. But the experience turned out to be so eye-opening. It was my first experience with was then called “haute” cuisine, a term that has thankfully gone out of vogue. But I felt like my brain was on fire. Everything was new. Everything was tapping into my deepest curiosity. I was more bewildered than amazed. I was trying old Los Angeles institutions like Spago and attempting to get a handle on this new world, trying to find some kind of foothold into it.
Then Jonathan Gold changed my life with a review.
It was for a new restaurant that was opening called Providence, and it happened to be the place right around the corner from where I was living at the time. It was the first restaurant from Michael Cimarusti, the former chef of the Water Grill, and Donato Pato. It was a fine-dining seafood restaurant and it was supposed to be the best new place in the city. I was already obsessed with seafood, so I was inclined to go…but it wasn’t just that, it was the way the critic wrote about it. It was unlike any food review I had ever read. It was plain-spoken. Unhurried. Deliberate. But it somehow managed to evoke the ethos of the place completely: the harmony of food, people, and space that makes a restaurant special. Jonathan Gold had written the piece. And he had convinced me. I simply had to try this restaurant.
I had never done a tasting menu in my life. The cost of them was exorbitant and I was a young kid making a whole $24,000 a year (which goes quick in L.A.). But I saved up. I literally had nightmares about my credit card being declined for something so extravagant, so I took out wads of cash just in case. I felt like such a child playing adult. I had one jacket with buttons missing. To make matters worse, I had walked into other fancy restaurants some months ago and could always feel the judgmental leering. Like I was out-of-place. All these fears built up so much and then…
I walked into Providence. Instantly, they were incredibly kind to us—and not in a put upon way. They were just earnest people. It was so unexpected. The whole time they talked to us like we were, you know, people. I told them about how Gold’s review made me want to come and they said they’d been hearing that for weeks. I told them that we had never done a tasting menu like this before and they were so sweet. Because the truth is, they were just as excited for us to be there as we were. I’m sure their time would have been better spent on the guy in the corner spending five grand on wine, but they talked to us instead. They were excited. The loved how much we were loving it. I was grinning ear to ear, getting drunk on the best wine I’ve ever had in my life. It felt shared.
I remember every single dish with clear acumen. A little honeydew melon beer. A drop of lime gelee with oysters. Turbot with the tiniest melon balls and bacon. The half-cooked salmon with the fish-skin chip. I had given notice ahead that my dining partner didn’t eat pork, but they not only handled it with kindness, they replaced it on her risotto with truffles (this is practically unheard of, most places charge you $50 extra for even saying the word truffle, let alone substituting it for a couple of dorks). It was one of the best experiences of my life. And from that point on, I had two simple goals: 1) I want to come back as soon as humanly possible. And 2) I want to be able to cook as well as this.
I knew instinctively that I didn’t want to work in the restaurant industry (I already had one ridiculous dream thank you very much), but I knew this was going to be a huge part of my life going forward. All my money suddenly went toward cooking and food experiences. Literally. All of it. I would stop by Providence literally every time I could afford it. Often sitting at the bar. I became friends with everyone who worked there. From Matthew DeMarte (who now runs their other restaurant Connie and Teds), right up to Donato and the chefs. I somehow convinced them to give me certain secret recipes under threat of death. I took the cooking classes there. I listened to Cimarusti talk for hours about how to buy fish. I volunteered there. Which might sound glamorous, but I assure you it’s not. You peel fava beans or work the tamis for hours. It’s all the little insignificant jobs that would take up the time of people whose amazing culinary talents were best put somewhere else. But I kept my eyes open. I listened. I learned.
It was a second home. I got to meet heroes of the industry, not just from within L.A., but the world at large. When I started making more money as an adult, I would save up and travel the world, getting to meet the heroes who trained my favorites like Alain Passard. I cooked incessantly. I threw 12 to 26 course dinner parties. I absorbed Cimarusti’s no-nonsense passion for sustainable food, for caring about the sourcing of food and the dock-to-dish program he started that helps you understand where all your fish actually comes from. Providence made me a better artist, a better thinker, and a better person. It’s where I fell in rapturous love with food and I will never, ever stop. Maybe I was always on this path, but going to Providence that first time opened my world up to something so much more.
And it was all because Jonathan Gold convinced me to go.
I tell that story because the specific is always universal.
And Jonathan Gold changed countless lives, not just mine. If you’ve never seen the documentary City of Gold, please do so. Immediately. It’s a lionizing work that somehow doesn’t feel like it lionizes him enough. Because Jonathan Gold really saved the Los Angeles restaurant industry and maybe even the city at large. I’m not kidding one iota. Before Gold rose to prominence, Los Angeles was regarded as an “unserious” food city full of flash-in-the-pan restaurants that catered to celebrities. Scenesters would flock to these restaurants, making reservations impossible, all before becoming a ghost town in a mere few months. (When I first moved here, that flash-in-the-pan restaurant was called Table 8 and I’m pretty sure a bunch of Angelenos just went “oh yeah, I remember that place!”) But all the while, there was a Los Angeles that wasn’t being talked about in popular food criticism.
Except by Jonathan Gold. He was running a column in the ‘90s at L.A. Weekly called “Counter Intelligence” that would later become a book. It captured his entire ethos succinctly: finding neighborhood gems in strip malls, ethnic cuisines, and all the parts of Los Angeles that no one else was writing about. He understood so succinctly that Los Angeles was a culinary gem in its own right, full of cultures and intersections that reflected the same dexterity of New York, but knew that it didn’t just feel like that at first glance. Because in New York, everything bounces off everything else in immediate vicinity. In Los Angeles, you have to comb through segregated neighborhoods to find the proverbial gold. As he would later write, here were his five rules for dining in Los Angeles:
“ONE: If the restaurant you have been directed to lies between the 7-Eleven and the dry cleaners in a dusty strip mall, then you’re probably at the right place.
TWO: The restaurants with the longest lines are either better than their competitors or fifty cents cheaper. Try and know the difference.
THREE: There is no shame in avocado toast.
FOUR: The best choice is always the restaurant 15 minutes further than you are willing to go.
FIVE: The taco honors the truck.”
Those five rules are utterly perfect. But it wouldn’t be until Gold moved back to the city in 2001 and became the food critic proper for the L.A. weekly that he would get the pulpit he needed to reach the growing food culture in America at large. His 99 essential restaurant lists (later becoming his 101 ranked list) became the food bible for the city. A seal of quality unlike any other. His writing? Transcendent. By 2007 he was the first food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. And as his work grew more popular, his reviews started to really change lives. Not just for the smaller restaurants like the Ethiopian institution Meals By Genet, but especially for every kind of restaurant in the city.
A lot of people mistake Gold’s entire ethos for being part of classist rebellion. And in a way, it is. To some critical minds, putting strip-mall restaurants like Chengu Taste and Jitlada in the league of fine-dining is that act of rebellion in and of itself. But he was also the most fair, ethical, and accurate judge of high-end food on the planet. Not just because of his aforementioned championing of Providence (which would be number one on his list for years and years running), but other incredible L.A. restaurants from Nancy Silverton, Niki Nakayama, and too many others to name. He made people’s careers. He walked into Ludo Lefebvre’s joint and the sheer terror and lack of ingredients inspired him to cook up the duck fat fried chicken that make him famous. Gold was the critic who famously walked into Blue Hill the night they were trying to get rid of all the asparagus and Dan Barber, said fuck it, we’ll serve him asparagus. Both decisions paid off. Because had a nose for a chef’s passion, dedication and point of view.
He could sense any insincerity. He never fell for the glitz and glamor of restaurants that were supposed to be big splashes, but didn’t have the craft to back them up. It was always about the food. It was always about the larger mission. It was always about helping. Unlike most critics, he never really wrote stinging reviews (I wish Pete Wells would take note). Instead, he talked to chefs about their focus. Roy Choi famously credits Gold for helping him figure out who he was, which helped build the Kogi empire. All of this came from a place of outrageous empathy. Gold was just a humble writer who suddenly found himself with the responsibility of being a king maker. And he did not take the responsibility lightly. Which isn’t to say he was being self-important. If anything, Gold seemed more unassuming as the years went on. He simply understood the power of his words and thus spoke carefully.
When I say that Gold was the best critic in the world, it’s not just because he was a great writer who made it seem effortless (because there was a great deal of effort, and he was famously late with every single deadline), but because I think he understood the function of criticism implicitly. He understood his job was to put words to something indescribable. His job was to see people. Understand them. And help clarify their vision. He didn’t have a judgmental bone in his body, but he could cut to the heart of any matter like no one else. Last year, he even made a decision that “shocked” everyone when he named Vespertine the best restaurant in the city (unseating Providence for the first time). They were shocked for two reasons. One, Vespertine is the kind of hyper-ostentatious restaurant that seemed antithetical to what people incorrectly believed were his values. And two, because his initial review seemed more exploratory and amused then it did glowing. When pressed on the matter, someone asked him “Do you even like Vespertine?” He answered with something I think about every damn week:
“I do, but I’m not sure that’s a relevant question.”
The unspoken truth is that Gold was fighting for a new restaurant that was giving everything it had. That was taking risks and backing it up with daring, delicious food and, also, struggling. Fine dining restaurants are a gamble when it comes to finances. Often, the best they do for investors is just break even. By putting Vespertine at the top of list, he was fighting for the future of fine dining itself. He was encouraging more of a world that looked like this. It came from a place of empathy that was fighting for Los Angeles. Just as he did with everything. When the Michelin Guide stated they would no longer be covering Los Angeles, citing the incorrect vision of “flash in the pan celebrity obsession,” he didn’t cast off the decision as highfalutin nonsense. He fought tooth and nail against it because he understood that Michelin stars could only help restaurants in his city (for instance, upon receiving the incredible honor of two stars, Providence’s international clientele doubled, especially with people from Japan who were craving the best seafood the city had to offer). He always fought for Los Angeles. There are no six words that characterize him better. Except maybe his own.
In City of Gold, he said the following, “if you live in Los Angeles, you are used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills and take in what they can get to within 10 minutes in their rent-a-car. The thing that people find hard to understand is the magnitude of what’s here. The huge numbers of multiple cultures that live in the city and come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you can find the most beautiful things.”
It is in the fault lines that Jonathan Gold taught me so much. People often come here wanting “good Mexican food,” which I now realize is the equivalent of saying “American food.” He taught me the difference between Oaxacan food and that which comes from central Mexico or the Yucatan. Recently, I had a meeting with a filmmaker who wanted Mexican food, so I took him to Gish Bac. A hole in the wall on Washington Blvd. that most people would probably overlook. An hour later, that same filmmaker is flipping the fuck out over the goat barbacoa because it’s THAT GOOD (if you’ve never been to Gish Bac, please read about it and go). Gold shaped everything. He shaped how I bought groceries and understood my neighborhoods. He taught me the miracle of the Katafi dough I could find at Armenian markets (instead of plain old phyllo). He’s the reason I knew about Mitsuwa before it became Woori. He taught me about local ingredients. He taught me food itself.
Simply put, he was the reason I would go to three grocery stores in a single trip.
There’s a reason people often mentioned Gold in the same breath as Anthony Bourdain. He saw food as the gateway between people. He made white people better. He taught them to be more open. To treat people like neighbors. He taught people to listen and share food. He fought massively for immigrant rights. He taught people to see a better America. And his impact was undeniable. He was not just the best food critic, nor the best critic at large…
I consider Jonathan Gold to be the best writer in the world.
And now, he’s gone.
Just as Bourdain is gone. Just as there’s a hostage situation at my grocery store. Just as we separate families at the border. Just as young men with guns run around being violent toward women and shooting people. You may want to politely inform me this is all unrelated, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel unrelated. This is America. And the problem with the fault lines of our culture is that where there’s beauty, there’s also friction. And it feels harder to bridge gaps when people are running around like it’s the god damn end of the world. I’m sure it probably seems like it to them. Tectonic plates shifting that swallow them whole. But all the while, the aggressors in this world don’t realize: they are the friction. And I’m struggling with America because I feel like we’re losing all the people who are trying to bridge the gaps while the ugliest among us are making earthquakes.
I want to be writing about movies and not writing about hostage situations next door. But the ugly news just keeps falling at my doorstep. We live at the intersection of media, food, politics, mental health, toxic masculinity, and our best and worse selves. For many, these ideas are abstract talking points. But then they get shoved in your face as reminders that this is all very, very real. Not only that, for many, the ugly intersections are what they have to deal with every damn day of their lives. We can talk all we want about the scariness of a hostage situation, but the truth is the shooting made as much news as it did because it happened in part of the city where these things don’t happen as much. It’s just another privileged truth we ignore, but one that matters deeply. Because we all live on the fault line. And there’s always so much to lose.
Today, I’m tired of losing people. I’m tired of losing heroes. I’m tired of losing the kind person who told me more coffee would be coming in. I’m tired of the whole spectrum of loss. I’m tired of talking about guns and arguing for the simple, kindergarten-level-truth that we should care about other people. I wish there was some sentiment that goes beyond that. Some hopeful notion about a better tomorrow. But I’m just too tired.
Today there’s just sorrow.
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