Given that eating is as essential as getting out of bed in the morning, foodie entertainment would seem to have universal appeal. But cuisine-centric television aside — partly fed by the nation’s obsession with cooking as competition — films with culinary or epicurean themes rarely break through to a mainstream audience.
That’s why director Laura Gabbert, whose “City of Gold” revolves around Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, doesn’t consider her documentary a movie just about food or even Gold himself.
“My interest in Jonathan was always his ideas about the city and the way he explored it and the way he wrote about it,” she says. “It was his writing about the different cultures here that I was attracted to.”
Despite Gold’s affiliation with the Los Angeles Times, Gabbert sees the film, to be released March 11 in L.A. and New York before going wide, as having appeal beyond just audiences on the coasts.
“It’s about discovering your city, so Jonathan’s motive of exploration can apply to any city,” she says.
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Although she had been a fan of Gold’s for some years after moving to the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the Gabbert/Gold connection didn’t happen until she ended up bidding on a dinner with him during a silent fundraising auction at her kid’s school in Pasadena. She then “hounded him” for a while about the idea of filming a documentary with him as the central character.
“She talked about the idea at dinner,” recalls Gold. “My kid ended up going to the same school as her kids the next year. Suddenly it wasn’t abstract, it was someone you saw.”
Gabbert says Gold had “very strict ground rules about making the movie,” including any filming of him while he was in the process of evaluating a restaurant’s menu. “You can’t review a restaurant with camera crews,” says Gold. “It just doesn’t work.”
Unlike his predecessor at the L.A. Times, S. Irene Virbila — whose high-end exclusivity contrasted dramatically with Gold’s everyman sensibility — Gold has long ago given up on the idea that he can be anonymous.
“I had at least plausible deniability up until the moment I won the Pulitzer,” says Gold. “Restaurateurs know what critics look like. Going back to way early in my career, it’s very rare that in the three, four, five visits you need to critique a restaurant that they don’t know who you are. There’s a way that critics order that’s different from the way that other people order.”
Gabbert kept costs low on the film, made for less than $1 million, by keeping the crew to a minimum. Often it was just her and a camera person when quarters were tight, such as in the small kitchen of an ethnic, mom-and-pop joint — the kind of unfussy dining spots for which Gold is best known — or cramped in a food truck, or even in Gold’s own gas-guzzler pickup, in which he’s seen navigating the sprawling city’s highways and byways.
“Sometimes we’d have more than one camera, but very rarely,” says Gabbert, who shot mostly with a Canon C300. “Even when we were in (Downtown L.A.’s) Grand Central Market, my d.p., Jerry Henry, was on a Ronan rig (essentially a miniature steadicam). Even then, it was him, a P.A., a sound person — still really minimal. We would light for interviews, but rarely for restaurant.”
The result is a documentary that doesn’t have the food-porn polish of a Food Network cooking show, or the high-end sheen of, say, the recent theatrical feature “Burnt.”
“We were going for the opposite of ‘Chef’s Table,’ ” says Gabbert about the precious Netflix documentary series about world-renowned chefs. “To me, that’s not Jonathan Gold. We didn’t light food, we just plopped it down and grabbed a shot of it. We went back to some of these restaurants and did b-roll in the kitchens to get better cooking shots. We really wanted it to be told from (Gold’s) perspective, like you were in Jonathan’s world.”
Given Gold’s pioneering role in the democratization of food appreciation, that world often involves a hole-in-the-wall taco joint in Boyle Heights, or a no-frills dining space in Little Ethiopia (Gabbert calls them “quintessential Jonathan Gold restaurants.”)
“When I started writing about this stuff I basically had the San Gabriel Valley to myself,” says Gold. “Now if a restaurant from an obscure province of China opens with an untranslated menu in the back of a mini mall behind a rent-a-car place, there’s going to 12 Yelp reviews and four blog posts and a ChatNow thread about it in its first week.”
If Gold can effectively make or break a restaurant, he’s not necessarily known for the kind of scabrous take downs associated with the New York Times’ Pete Wells, who has eviscerated both the sacred (Thomas Keller) and profane (Guy Fieri) in his reviews. In this regard, the talking heads in Gabbert’s film are essentially preaching to the choir, mostly singing Gold’s praises, which doesn’t exactly fuel dramatic conflict.
“I did more of that stuff in the first days I was reviewing,” says Gold about “gotcha” pans. “I put more than my share of restaurants out of business. I could do the cheap shot thing as easily as anyone else, and I have.”
Instead of a divisive figure, Gabbert viewed Gold as “our Virgil,” someone who was going “to guide us through the city and see Los Angeles differently.” Gold’s all-too-human qualities are also on display, such as his easily distracted nature, the periodic writer’s block and the tendency to push deadlines to the limit, much to the dismay of his editor.
Gabbert’s purist aesthetic meant essentially financing the film herself to prevent too much interference, then taking the finished product to Sundance, where Variety called it “an ebullient documentary, which could fit the menu plans for distributors in various formats.”
“We had four companies bidding on it right after the premiere,” Gabbert recalls. “IFC (with partner Sundance Selects) was the best offer, and they had a really solid idea of how they were going to market the film. I recouped my investment, actually, which doesn’t happen very often with documentaries. I’m not going to get rich. Documentaries are like zero profit. If you make documentaries, you have to have other ways of making money. It’s really a labor of love.”