Jonathan Gold’s death hurt me more than anything else did in the past few months. And it kills me that no one I know is mourning his death as deeply as I am. If you Google “best food critic,” his name would definitely pop up as first on the list, and yet I don’t feel any empathy from our local foodie community. Rappler made a brief report about his death, but there was hardly anything else. Perhaps I’m just severely uninformed, but as far as I’m concerned, very few of the local food writers or bloggers I follow actually made a tribute to the well-loved food critic.
In case his name doesn’t ring a bell, he was the first and only food critic who received the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. According to the foundation, he earned the distinction for “his zestful, wide-ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater.” But more than that, he was a champion of diversity, bridging the gaps between different cultures and helping the average person understand Asian, African, and Latino cuisine. You see, before people started lining up for taco trucks or eating balut in the US, Jonathan Gold was there, helping Americans be “less afraid of their neighbors.”
For instance, his support of restaurants like Lasa and Sari Sari Store helped the world understand what Filipino cuisine was about. Filipino food is enjoying the worldwide acclaim it’s having now because of critics like Jonathan Gold.
But that’s not the only reason I mourn his passing.
I looked up to him because he showed me what a serious craft food criticism is, and could be. I’ve been writing about food for almost a decade, and up until very recently, I only considered it a ridiculously expensive hobby (in some aspects, it still is). It wasn’t until I came across his body of work that I truly understood that writing about food is an art in itself. In its most basic form, food criticism is an elegant way of heralding people into new and exciting experiences. And Jonathan Gold was the best at that. He was not just an eater; he was a poet–and some of the lines he wrote are still etched deep in my mind, word-per-word:
“I have stopped by Sari Sari Store five times in the last three days, and I’m not sure if I should be admitting this to you or to a therapist.”
Before reading Jonathan Gold’s work, I was satisfied with reading the thousands of restaurant features written by food journalists who were lucky enough to be invited by restaurateurs to media events. Then something in me told me that there was more to food journalism; there was more to read and enjoy.
That was when I sought to read the work of writers from the US. Jonathan Gold became one of my favorites, along with Pete Wells, the renowned New York Times critic. I was surprised at how deeply they understood the food in the restaurants they were writing about.
I thought, what the hell? Nobody in my country writes like this!
I later learned that they would often eat at a certain restaurant about 3-5 times before writing. This, paired with countless hours of research, allowed them to produce pieces that shook the culinary world.
There have been multiple debates as to why I haven’t encountered a Filipino food critic who writes quite like true food critics do. JJ Yulo explained it best in his 2017 opinion column:
Usually writers are sent to a place ONCE, and more often than not to write a feature, not a review, upon invitation of the restaurant. If a scribe is sent to do a review, they are sent with a modest budget that can probably get some gourmet donuts. What are the chances a salaried writer will pay for a meal out of their own pocket to write about it? For that matter, how many employers are willing to send someone to an establishment three times and pay for it?
It’s true–food criticism is not in our culture. And it’s not too late to change that. In fact, it’s time to change that. But first, we must learn how to do it. Without any local writers who are skilled in the same craft–and I emphasize here that feature writers and food historians do not count because their practices are entirely different–we can educate ourselves by looking at the work of Jonathan Gold.
When the day comes that our local critics finally learn to write lines like these about Filipino cuisine, I would know that Gold’s legacy lives on.
So there is a plate of kinilaw, more or less the Filipino version of ceviche, in this case a fat snapper filet briefly marinated in sugar cane vinegar and prettily arranged with cucumber and thin, vivid slices of black plum. Drops of puréed Fresno chiles dot the plate, like a hotter, tarter version of Sriracha. The taste of the mild vinegar is almost subliminal. And if you’re not quite used to it, the flavor of truly fresh raw fish may come across as something strange and wild — not aged into mellowness like sashimi or blasted with citrus like ceviche, but a deep marine pong that suggests nothing but the sea.