How to critique creative work: Lessons from a master of the craft

A master at work.
A master at work.
Image: Still from the documentary "City of Gold"
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The Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who died July 21 at the age of 57, once described his work as “trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors.” The only restaurant writer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Gold celebrated the inhabitants of his sprawling, eclectic city by writing about the food they ate. He sought and celebrated delicious fare everywhere from white-tablecloth restaurants to food trucks to strip mall bars, finding poetry in nearly all of them.

“There is a rhythm to an izakaya meal that is unlike any other,” he wrote in 2006 after visiting a now-shuttered pub in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. “Glasses of cold sake and big bottles of beer appear at regular intervals, then bits of raw fish and grilled meat and savory custard are served individually or all at once. It’s a waltz-time snack-sip-chat, snack-sip-chat dynamic that can go on for the length of a Mahler symphony . . . animal-vegetable-mineral, warm-hot-cold, sweet-salt-funk . . . until, before you know it, the restaurant is empty, the lights have been turned high, and the waitress is suggesting that you might want to start finding your way home.”

Chefs and critics don’t always admire one another. Yet news of Gold’s death just weeks after his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer prompted an outpouring of condolences from chefs whose said Gold’s work prompted them to produce better work of their own. Gold’s legacy offers touching and fascinating insights into how thoughtful criticism can be a catalyst that encourages creativity to thrive.

In the world of people who like to read about food, Gold was a celebrity. In the even more specific world of L.A. foodies, he was a king. After a 30-plus-year career spent primarily at the LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times newspapers, Gold had reached a level of influence such that people him on the streets of L.A. clutching tattered copies of “Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants,” the annual ranking the Times published in booklet form.

A glowing review could make a chef’s career, because readers trusted Gold’s taste, his honesty, and his instinct for identifying the restaurants and dishes worth a reader’s time, money, and stomach space. A negative career could shutter a restaurant and unemploy its workers virtually overnight, for all the same reasons.

In the first years of his criticism, Gold noticed how pleasurably intoxicating this power could be.

“In the early part of my career I was like, “Yesss.” You know? It’s probably how a hunter feels when he brings down a buffalo or something,” Gold told the writer Ann Friedman in a 2016 interview, the full transcript of which Friedman published on Medium after Gold’s death.

“And then, it started to really bother me,” he continued. “In a way, if somebody writes a bad review of The Avengers movie, Marvel will probably exist on Monday. But if I write a negative review of a restaurant, I’m at the point where it may well close. And I’d put 40 people or whatever out of work because I have an aesthetic opinion.”

A disingenuous review sugarcoated to spare a chef’s feelings has no value. As a critic with integrity, Gold had no choice but to be honest. But the choices he made about how to deploy his observations had the effect of encouraging the city’s most promising chefs to keep at it, even when their attempts fell short.

“The regular soft- and hard-shelled tacos are just awful. But Arturo’s basically functions as a delivery system for the puffy tacos,” he wrote in 2008 of Arturo’s Puffy Taco, a cash-only joint located in the parking lot of a Whittier U-Haul rental facility. “If you sluice the taco with green chile sauce and manage to eat it in the 45 seconds before it collapses into a sodden mess, the puffy taco is a transcendent creation, spicy and oily, cool and burning hot, filling yet somehow ethereal. I’m not sure how I managed to live in Los Angeles this long without even knowing that these puffy tacos existed.”

Gold told Friedman, “If there’s a restaurant that does one thing well, I may actually concentrate on the one thing they do well, and I’ll list the many, many things they don’t do well. This sounds bullshit, but it’s constructive criticism.” He went on:

I will always err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt, especially to a young chef who’s trying something. Because I think it’s important to encourage people at that age to be creative, to try things out, to not be skewered because they’re being ambitious in a way that doesn’t quite work.

And I think that’s important for basically any scene: [to] have a critic who will tell you where you went wrong and praise you when you’re trying something, and give you the benefit of the doubt in a way that lets everybody know that this is somebody worth watching, rather than [just] thumbs up or thumbs down.

Gold indulged in the occasional negative review of a restaurant he knew had the celebrity clout to withstand bad press. He was not a fan of Gordon Ramsey or the Olive Garden.

But he tended not to write about local restaurants he didn’t like: If a restaurant wasn’t worthy of a reader’s time and attention, a review wasn’t either. When it was, he made sure people knew it.

“He would use easier words, or delicate words, when it would be something that was a problem, but then he would use really powerful words when it would be something that he approved of,” chef Ori Menashe of the restaurants Bestia and Bavel recalled to the Times. “He was just a good human being. It was never about him, it was always about the restaurant and the chefs and about food in L.A. . . . He made me a better chef.”

Others agreed. “We just always felt there was a great deal of compassion toward the people and places he was writing about,” chef Karen Hatfield at Odys + Penelope told the Times. “He chose his words carefully.… He never hit below the belt. It felt like one artist reviewing another. But whether he liked something or not, there was always a respect there. And that was powerful.”

A critic less secure in their own ability might be tempted to substitute boldly worded judgments for authority, or to pay more attention to their own influence as a critic than the work they’re meant to be criticizing. Gold showed that compassion does not have to be at odds with authority. He proved that it’s possible to offer constructive criticism with respect, without stifling creativity or sacrificing his own integrity. While he won virtually every prize the food writing world could bestow, he also won the deep respect of colleagues who felt he’d made their medium a better, tastier place.