Saturday, October 18, 2008

AFJ with Jonathan Gold

Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold tried to write like Calvin Trillin and noted that the great thing about being a journalist was being able to call anyone up and tie them up for part of a day. He notes that you should be well read because you can't write well if you don't read well. He once had an editor who wold read copy aloud and you would anything to please him after hearing your prose fired back at you.

For readers the consumer part is the most interesting, but as a writer it's the least interesting part. For different audiences you have to explain different references. You don't explain bechamel to Gourmet readers; you don't explain Fat Boy Slim to readers of the LA Weekly.

The more you get paid, the more you get people denuding your prose style. At some of the slicks, a piece goes through 12 or 14 editors and you have to be strong to survive that process.

How does Gold find his spots? When he started in the 80s, LA was a food hot center, exporting chefs and trends. The ethnic immigration brought populations to LA that gave rise to more cuisine. It's odd to follow international geopolitics through the restaurants in your neighbhorhood.

You have to eat a lot of mediocre meals to find ones that stand out. He reads ethnic newspapers to skim the restaurant ads even if he doesn't read the language.

He tries to read as much as he can in English about a particular cuisine. He recommended The Complete Guide to Asian Food published in Australia (didn't catch the author's name).

He has a lot different Indian cookbooks> Personal favorite: Tasty Dishes from Waste Items, which includes multiple recipes for banana peels.

He doesn't think you need a lot of space for restaurant reviews. At Gourmet he wanted to do for restaurant writing what Pauline Kael did for film writing. For the first year, it's was good. For a writer, thinking about a restaurant for a month is a maddening intellectual exercise most restaurant can't stand up to.

For a restaurant review, if you talk about more than 8 or 10 dishes, you lose the readers, so dig deep into two or three.

Moderator Dallas Morning News critic Bill Addison asked how to keep it fresh after 25 years? Gold said if he thought about keeping it fresh, he'd be mad in a corner talking to himself. Keep reading. Cited an example of chemist who writes perfume reviews. Read it and 27 ways of describing something pop into your mind. As long as you keep what you're thinking fresh, your writing will be fresh.

First places with Shangdong cuisine were fascinating. The 14th one has to be really freaking good in order to merit attention.

A huge fad in LA and Houston in Cantonese community of Cajun food cooked by Vietnamese. Many of these will be gone in two year. There's a dynamic of faddishness in all restaurant cultures.

Gold writes 800-1,000 CounterIntelligence column, an advice column called Ask Mr. Gold and 600-word First Bites, which is three a week. Some restaurants are as good as they're going to get when they first open. However, Gold thinks some places settle into their groove in six weeks to 2 months after opening.

Most people who want to break into writing are doing a blog, and they will get better with adult supervision, Gold says. The Weekly advertised for someone to cover restaurant gossip, and was inundated with resumes. They will end probably going with the person who is already blogging about it.

The Pulitzer has meant Gold gets phone calls returned quicker. He's not getting calls as much for some freelance work, because people think he's too busy. He's not.

Gold says he often doesn't remember faces but can remember soup eaten 15 years ago and whether it's garnished with parsley or chevril.

He looks for a throughline of narrative in a dish. Not many chefs can do that. Sometimes he's not sure what he thinks until he finishes the piece. He's more descriptive than thumbs up or thumbs down.

Gold has gone to some restaurants at many as 17 times. Taiwanese cuisine is different with stinky tofu that smells like a dumpster, plus bitter melon that's bitter like cancer medicine and soups that taste like someone put out a cigar in them. People were enjoying the dishes and he didn't bring the cultural values to the cuisine. He kept going back, never loved it but could explain it.

He likes to lead stories with the food, but it depends. He works for a weekly owned by misers but likes value cuisines so his expenses don't compare with being at Gourmet with a $10,000 budget.

As for anonymity, most chefs know who you are. Gold doesn't do television, but has been photographed. He has chefs he's friends with and his wife is former food editor. He is willing to lose friends to write the review he has to write, and he has. Back in the days where he thought no one knew who he was, but would run into chefs who could tell him chapter and verse when he had been in.

He writes longer pieces in spurts, but jams out shorter pieces. Gold quoted Annie Lamott in saying the secret of good writing is a shitty first draft. He knows his own work well enough to find some of his own weaknesses. You also have to earn the first person. Don't be too fancy. It would be nice if there were more words for salty.

You are always better served by looking at your copy afterwards and striking out two of three adverbs. If they'renot too fruity, analogies are your friends.

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