In Memoriam: Jonathan Gold

Jonathan Gold peering into a food truck as a woman takes his order

Last weekend, the food world was stunned and saddened to lose its most influential writer.

What I think is more important to understand, though, is that the world at large lost one of its kindest and most authentic souls.

Jonathan Gold was a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic. That is to say, a rarity. And from what I know of Jonathan, that’s an apt description of him not just as a writer but as a human.

Jonathan’s writing was anything but common. He had a manner of stringing thoughts and words one after the other as if they were recklessly careening along in a way that made you hold your breath and wonder where the heck they were headed. Something like when you hear the squealing of tires and instinctively turn to catch a glimpse of a convertible chasing after whatever the future moment brings. To turn away doesn’t even register in one’s consciousness.

Though Jonathan’s manner of writing was uncommon, the places he chose to write about were not. He haunted food trucks and mom and pop places. Affordable places. Real places. Places that had a story to tell. A story that wasn’t manufactured by a PR team. A story that no one else would bother to tell. Jonathan, though, was a storyteller. And he told stories not just of food but of people so convincingly, people not only heard what he had to say, they heeded it. Countless kitchens remain in existence simply because he wrote so compellingly about them. “You want these guys to succeed,” he says at one point in the IFC documentary City of Gold in reference to the numerous unknown food destinations in the LA area that embrace the cooking of a different culture but fall in the shadow of the city’s more glam menus. “The thing that people find hard to understand is the huge number of cultures that live in this city who come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. We are all citizens of the world. Strangers together.”

I can’t fathom selecting a single article or two of Jonathan’s as an example. Google him. And watch the documentary.

Truthfully, I didn’t know Jonathan that well beyond his writing. Although I know enough.

I can tell you that I almost lost my position as an editor at a glossy magazine because he was more than a little tardy on deadline for an article I’d convinced him to write. And I can tell you if I’d been let go, it would have been worth it for the article he finally fashioned. What finally prompted him to turn in his copy was when I explained that if he dallied any longer, the copy editors may have to stay late to work on his essay. He seemed to care about that sort of thing.

That’s the kind of guy he was.

I can tell you that one week when he was visiting Manhattan and had his meals choreographed as tightly and creatively as a Baryshnikov ballet, he delayed his dinner reservation at the hippest and trendiest table in the Meatpacking District because I was on deadline and couldn’t slip away long enough for a proper dinner. Instead of dining in opulence with friends, he sat with me in a cheap vinyl booth at a dive bar in mundane midtown across the street from my office and we drank. We drank hard. Rather than regale me with tales of his celebrity life, he told stories about ordinary things. And he asked about my life. And he laughed each chance he got. He made certain I laughed, too. Never during any interaction with the man did I witness him display an ego. As The Economist wrote, “Jonathan Gold’s mobile phone had few selfies, but plenty of pictures of tacos.”

That’s the kind of guy he was.

I can tell you that even though he disliked eggs, he dedicated a lifetime to perfecting his technique for coaxing eggs sunnyside up to that elusive status of yolks “limpid and bright yellow” and whites “perfectly set.” Because that’s the way the woman he loved prefers them.

That’s the kind of guy he was.

Despite the fiasco of that initial writing assignment, I asked him to write again for Martha Stewart Living and again for Leite’s Culinaria. I may have even occasionally nudged him for cooking advice. Because how could I not? It was his way with words that initially drew me in. But it was his way of seeing the world, his way of being, that impressed me.

Jonathan took an alternate approach than that of any other writer. In that tardy essay he wrote about (what else?) eggs, he mused about dozens of incarnations and held them all to be equal. The lofty and the low-key. The sophisticated and the simple. That’s what I think Jonathan was trying to share with us. He saw and experienced life in all its shades of technicolor. And he wanted others to experience that, too.

May his writing continue to satiate us. May his life continue to inspire us.

Back to In Memoriam: Jonathan Gold on Leite's Culinaria