Monday, December 10, 2007
Ever since I started writing food reviews, I have been haunted by Jonathan Gold. I would be researching pho for a post, and come across one of his articles, "Cinnamon, anise and the funk of simmering beef, the soup's unmistakable signature, perfumed the air." Sometimes Jonathan Gold just makes me want to stick a fork in my head.
I used to play "Restaurant Roulette" on Ventura Boulevard, where I would just stop at random eateries. One day I decided to start at one end and eat my way down Ventura, restaurant by restaurant. A month into my project, Bob and Lindsay were discussing the fact that "the next street Jonathan Gold is going to eat his way down is in North Hollywood." What? Gold already did it? He ate his way down Pico when he was 20? No!
Last night when the Society for Professional Journalism invited Gold to their mixer, the opportunity was just too good to pass up.
When we arrived at the event, the Redwood Bar and Grill's nautical interior made me feel like I was in the Krusty Crab. The weird little downtown bar was packed and they had a fantastic assortment of beers. We headed towards the back, where a tiny, packed room full of fans was was listening, rapt, to Gold's advice. There were only about 40 people crammed in there, so it was not as overwhelming as I had anticipated. Gold was fielding questions from the crowd, which were very hard to hear over the Journey cranking out of the bar. So if I misquote anything, blame it on Steve Perry.
Gold said some of the things that restaurant reviewers do that bother him is to use the first person in a self-important manner and to impart information in a condescending fashion. It is one thing to simply answer the question, "Is the restaurant good or not?" But it is important to remember that we are entertainers as well. It is easy to write about food; it is hard to write about eating.
That was exactly what I needed to hear. I may never wax poetic about Suzanne Goin teasing out the flavor from a tomato with the precision of a sushi master, but at the very least I have my own perspective, and that alone validates my writing. I may not be grammatically perfect, pithy and mellifluously flowing with Tom Robbins-esque metaphors. But I have observational skills bordering on OCD, a freakishly sensitive palate, and I think I'm fucking hilarious sometimes. I seem to attract trouble and my stories of being run over by rats and chased out of restaurants by crazed chefs have their place within this genre.
Someone asked Gold whether or not he takes notes. He said he seemed to have some kind of mental illness that prevents him from remembering a name he heard 15 minutes ago, but allows him to remember a dish he ate 10 years ago and whether they had used parsley or chervil. Then he spoke at length about the responsibility of critiquing. A bad review can close a mom-and-pop place down. It is different than movie reviews, where they have the backing of large corporations. I had not planned on participating, but it was such a perfect segue. So I asked, "Like the pizzle incident?"
He laughed, "Oh, you remember that?"
"Yes, and whether it had parsley or chervil."
People around me asked, "What is pizzle?"
I said, "Penis." Then I continued addressing Gold, "And by the way, I think I may have eaten pizzle in France, and thanks to you I knew the word for it. So I will be forever grateful to you for that. So did that incident change the way you wrote? Has it made you hold back sometimes?"
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't you get a restaurant closed down by reporting that they served pizzle? Or is that an urban legend?"
He replied, "Well, not because of that. Oh no. It's legal to sell pizzle. You can go to the Ranch market and buy one. It's like a big bullwhip."
This information filled my head with so many ideas all at once that it almost burst.
Then there were a few more questions from the audience that I have forgotten, because I was thinking up the various ways to serve pizzle. Would you have to devein it like a shrimp? (I'm sorry, am I making you boys uncomfortable?)
When they ended the Q&A, everyone descended upon the cornered writer. I debated holding back until the first wave had passed, but I decided I'd better get my photo in case the chance didn't present itself again. He said I could take his photo only if it wouldn't be posted on the internet. So I took it with no flash so it would be more flattering and he agreed (Very pale redheads must use these tricks. Meanwhile, Kevin was on the job in the background and got an even more attractive picture). Then I introduced myself, and without a moment's hesitation, he said, "You wrote the thing on the Masque." Wow. He does have a good memory.
I wandered around chatting with a few other people, then it seemed like the room had cleared out. Gold was speaking with two other people, so I thought I would just go eavesdrop. As usual, my vow to keep my mouth shut was almost immediately broken. I asked Gold why he had switched from writing about music to food. He said he had always written about both. But a pivotal moment occured late at night in a rock band's hotel room. The band was comprised of prep school kids who had dropped out to become musicians. All he could think was, "Your poor parents."
At the bar, people were recommending their favorite out-of-the-way places to him all night long, which must happen to him incessantly. It must be a nightmare. I added to someone's shocked query,"You mean you haven't been to every single restaurant in LA yet?" He responded, overwhelmed, "There are over 30,000 licensed restaurants in LA." First of all, it is very impressive that he knew that statistic off-the-cuff. Secondly, I just made the quoted statistic up because I can't remember the number he really said.
I realized that people must constantly challenge him, like a prizefighter. It must be weird to be the fresh meat in town. The tables have turned; interviewer has become interviewee. I may feel like I have to live up to Jonathan Gold, but he's got to live up to that Pulitzer.
I asked one last question before we hit the road, "Is there anything you won't eat?"
The crowd murmured in disbelief.
"I have the same aversion to them that I have to peanut butter sandwiches. I remember very clearly the moment I told my mother (and here he switches into British pukka) "Mother, this is the very last time I shall ever eat an egg."
One of the group cleverly remarked, "Back when you were an 18th century English schoolboy?"