Mr. Gold makes a good documentary subject, as he’s affable and interesting to listen to, and even if he weren’t, a filmed tour of L.A.’s best ethnic food hardly sounds boring.
If recent trends hold, it seems a safe assumption that there’s money to be made in documentaries about critics (see: Life Itself, Bill Cunningham: New York) and in documentaries about food (Deli Man, Jiro Dreams of Sushi). So, it follows that someone sooner or later would make a documentary about a food critic. And now here we have Laura Gabbert’s film City of Gold, about the Los Angeles Times’ restaurant critic, Jonathan Gold. Mr. Gold makes a good documentary subject, as he’s affable and interesting to listen to, and even if he weren’t, a filmed tour of L.A.’s best ethnic food hardly sounds boring. (This coming from a fan of, among other things, Rick Sebak’s food documentaries for PBS.)
Early on in City of Gold, David Chang, the much-admired New York-based proprietor of the Momofuku restaurants, slathers some heavy praise on Gold. “I don’t know any Korean who knows more about Korean food than Jonathan Gold,” he says, which is high enough praise when coming from one of his generation’s most renowned chefs, but compounds even further when one considers that Chang himself is of Korean descent, so one would assume he knows plenty of Koreans who know a lot about Korean food. That’s the kind of guy Jonathan Gold is, and not just with Korean food—over the course of City of Gold, we see him speak convincingly and eloquently about not only various forms of ethnic cuisine (be is Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian; anything, really), but about the minutiae of how ethnic food varies from within its home country, not unlike those who can tell you from taste alone what part of Texas the barbecue brisket they’re eating is in the style of.
Meanwhile, Ms. Gabbert sneakily introduces some non-food elements, but she’s handy at doing it in such a way that you never entirely notice that the movie isn’t always strictly about food. I was amused to learn about Gold’s punk rock past, for example, but some bigger, more consequential themes here explore immigration and the current state of the American dream. Also, like the recent animated film Zootopia, City of Gold works as a celebration of metropolitan life, in this particular case Los Angeles—Gold makes a good argument for why many of the nation’s best restaurants can be found there. (A sharp observer will be keen to this theme before ever even watching the movie, on account of the film’s title.)
In the end, City of Gold isn’t of much more consequence than any of the aforementioned documentaries about critics or food, but it does deserve praise (and viewership) for how it starts with a focus as relatively narrow as one particular restaurant critic in one particular city, and somehow manages to keep that narrow focus but also open it up so that it becomes of universal interest and relatability. | Pete Timmermann