What It’s Like to Be a Food Scout for My Journalism Padrino Jonathan Gold

Like any other life-changing event in a person’s life, I’ll never forget the time and place when I got the email about it. It was a Friday evening, on April 19th to be exact (and no, not just because it was the day before “4/20,” dawg). I was at a local craft beer bar, drinking a locally-brewed black IPA sitting by the roaring fire in the bar’s patio when I read, “we’re trying a new experiment on the Los Angeles Times Daily Dish blog and you were recommended to us by Jonathan Gold. We are hoping you’ll be willing to take part,” on my dated iPhone’s scratched up screen.

The proposal was basically this: hey, Jonathan can only eat and write so much, want to be his restaurant scout since he kinda trusts your palate and opinion?

The feelings that overcame me after reading this were overwhelming, a mixture of happiness but also a hell of a lot of pressure. Did this mean that I’ve officially “made it” in the food writing world? When the only food critic in the world that has ever won a Pulitzer award vouches for your work? Okay, that may have been the high alcohol content in the bitter beer talking.

Jonathan Gold
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Let me preface my relationship with the guy in a nutshell. I first found out about Jonathan Gold in 2006, when I was 16 years old. While skimming the concert announcement pages at LA Weekly for any punk rock shows, I got bored waiting for my bus to arrive and started reading the other pages in the free newspaper – specifically, Gold’s “Counter Intelligence” column. By that point, I had already started my food blog “Teenage Glutster” (I created the term one day, taking the root word of gluttony) and had somehow gathered momentum because of a little shout out in the LA Times. I guess people did care about my raw, ghetto-ass, punk-rooted thoughts on restaurants. I landed my first paid article in a print magazine when I was 16 too. Eventually, I reached out to him and asked, “Hey, I want to be like you when I grow up, how do I do that?”. Gold went on to be my journalism padrino of sorts (don’t worry Gustavo Arellano, you’re my padrino too!), coaching me along the long and erratic road to become a professional food writer and even writing my letter of recommendation for school later on.

Cabral aka The Glutster. Photo: E.Z. Wrightson
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Fast forward to 2015 and I’m going to be featured in his full-length documentary, City of Gold, which just premiered at Sundance, trip out! (Though, this will not be the first time that I get national exposure because of him, I took up almost a full page of his 2009 New Yorker profile because of – you guessed it – his impact on my life’s decisions).

Now what is it like to carry his legacy on my fork (or chopsticks) every single time that I eat out? It’s not as easy as you might imagine man. It is not a simply a matter of opening your Yelp app and browsing what’s nearby. You have to really ask yourself and deeply reflect, “What Would Jonathan Do?”. Some of my scouting tactics include going on long walks with my trusty dog in random neighborhoods and collecting take-out menus to study at home. At one point, I had collected enough menus to fill up an entire drawer in my dresser.

In-Chan. Photo via LA Weekly
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But actually, all this job really requires is a voracious curiosity, or pestering people with simple questions. One time I was in East L.A. and I was craving Thai. I didn’t have a car so I went to the local spot, which is pretty awful. I ordered take-out, and while I was waiting I asked the Thai server where he goes to personally eat at. He told me about this place in the SF Valley called In-Chan that then had a secret Northern Thai menu if you asked for it. It had just opened and was run by the chef from the highly respected Thai BBQ on Santa Monica. I went, stuffed my face with their meaty green jackfruit stir-fry and homemade sour sausages, took lots of photos and immediately sped back home to write about it; it was a blessing in disguise because there weren’t that many Thai restaurants that had Northern food back then.

When it comes down to it, you really have to be selective and cutthroat with restaurants. There are a ton of good places–which is cool–but just being good does not cut it to stamp something Gold-worthy. I have set up an almost unrealistic standard that must be met before before I write a scouting form. This standard is made up of a combination of factors like the restaurant’s overall food quality, the ambiance and their service. But then there’s the intangible criteria that has a lot to do with the food, which I’ve developed on my own after reading and analyzing Gold’s writing for about a decade of my life now.

Because after all, like my padrino once told me in an email after I asked him what the dark side of being a food writer was in 2007, “for every good meal, you’re going to eat at least 10 bad ones.”