City Of Gold

You’ve tasted Korean, Thai and Mexican food. You may have tasted Burmese, Ethiopian and Iranian food. You may know that Los Angeles is a city with a diverse population. In City of Gold, you learn that Jonathan Gold often begins his reviews with writing in the second person. Hence, my opening paragraph.

Food critic Jonathan Gold wraps his arms around Los Angeles and its diversity. He loves L.A., his hometown. City of Gold explores the food of Los Angeles and the people who cook and serve it. The film also provides insight into Gold the person and his writing.

Gold says, “You’re not going to find food like this anywhere but L.A.” I’d suggest that many cities in the U.S., including St. Louis, offer a wide range of ethnic cuisines prepared with skill and passion.

But this film is about Los Angeles. The sheer enormity of the L.A. metro area and its population from across the world make it possible for Gold to experience meal after excellent meal at favorite dining spots. Gold revels in the smaller establishments, often in the less celebrated corners of town. (He once wrote a series of articles about what’s on every block on Pico Boulevard, which runs from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica.)

Among the spots I like best in the film are taco stand King Taco, which also has a taco truck permanently parked outside, and downtown’s Grand Central Market.

City of Gold has appearances from noted food personalities Andrew Zimmern, David Chang, Ruth Reichl and Calvin Trillin talking about or with Gold. (He and Reichl commiserate over fried grasshoppers.) Gold’s wife Laura Ochoa, who, like Gold, works for the Los Angeles Times, adds her takes about her husband and his work.

Gold, the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize (2007), writes colorfully. Of a spicy dish, he compares it to “a mysteriously pleasurable punch in the mouth.” In an Op-Ed regarding preservation of over-harvested seafood animals, he writes of the “bitter taste of extinction.”

Jonathan Gold the man is a cello player who grew up listening to classical music but later wrote about Gangsta rap. He doesn’t seem like he’d be a truck guy, but he proudly drives a Dodge pickup.

Laura Gabbert directed City of Gold. Her shots of Los Angeles at the end of the day give the city an appealing look that contrast with the gritty look of much of her street level filming.

City of Gold provides a glimpse of the many food choices L.A. brings to the table. Gold is a man who loves his work as much as he loves his city. His passion is obvious. You will enjoy meeting him and, especially, checking out the food he eats.

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A Place at the Table

It’s not that people are dying of starvation. But many Americans don’t have the food choices that you and I do.

The reasons are many and varied as A Place at the Table points out. The documentary goes to Collbran, CO; Jonestown, MS and Philadephia, PA to show real people and their difficulties obtaining a nutritious diet.

The two school-age girls in Mississippi and Colorado and the young single mom in Philly are the central characters in the film. Their problems, as depicted, are heartbreaking. The single mom, for instance, finally gets a job, but her pay, which disqualifies her for food stamps she had been receiving, is not high enough to feed her two kids and pay for daycare.

A Place at the Table features celebrities. Actor Jeff Bridges offers his thoughts about the nation’s food problems and mentions Hidden in America, a TV movie from 1996 that starred his brother Beau as a member of the “working poor.”

Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio appears to talk about his efforts as a hunger activist. His wife, Lori Silverbush, is co-director of APATT with Kristi Jacobson.

As do many advocacy films, A Place at the Table offers certain statistics and declarations without sufficient attribution. And, ironically, some of the people described as victims of hunger are, in fact, obese.

While the film encourages a variety of government actions to correct shortcomings, it is not an overly political film. Yes, Michelle Obama has a cameo, but APATT does not engage in bashing of any particular party or administration.

The film does takes aim at the US Department of Agriculture’s price supports, which APATT claims are inordinately high for commodity crops (corn, soybeans, etc.) but low for growers of more nutritious fruits and vegetables. The result is healthy fruits and veggies are too costly and limited funds (and food stamps) go toward less healthy foods that provide more calories for the buck.

The film’s highlights include many upbeat moments: a Colorado church offering a free hot meal each week to any and all, a group of Mississippi school kids learning to prefer honeydew melon as a snack over junk food, the Philadelphia mom sharing her pride in her accomplishments.

A Place at the Table brings attention to vital concerns and offers suggestions for improving conditions in America. But will it reach those persons who can affect change?

In addition to its theatrical run, the movie will be available starting March 1 for download on iTunes. By the way, APATT features cool music from The Civil Wars and T-Bone Burnett.

Step Up To The Plate

The French documentary “Step Up to the Plate” is more about family and generations than about food and restaurants.

Yes, SUTTP does present wonderful shots of beautiful food presentations. But the focus is more on a father, his son and their extended family. The father, Michel Bras, knows it’s time to hand over control of his three-star Michelin restaurant to his son, Sebastien, who has known from an early age that his destiny was to follow in his father’s footsteps.

As Sebastien works to assemble flavors to create new dishes, his father stands nearby with constructive criticism. Dad points out that he is a tougher critic than diners might be. It becomes clear that, while his son will take over, Michel will be nearby.

A quick montage shows print coverage of the restaurant over the years: first one star, then two, then three. The restaurant, in France near the town of Laguiole, has relocated in recent years to a modern structure in an isolated area away from town.

“Step Up To The Plate” does a nice job of telling the story of the people involved in this restaurant as well as its food and its operation. By showing Michel’s elderly parents as well as Sebastien’s young children, the filmmaker gives a good overview of family tradition through its generations, including an affinity for bread spread with blackberry jelly and topped with a slice of the local cheese.

One sequence, in which Sebastien takes a nostalgic visit to his grandparents’ barn, might explain why he uses milk in so many of his dishes: he recalls that, as a child, he would drink raw milk in the barn, moments after it had been taken from the cows.

In just under an hour and a half, we enjoy a visit to the scenic French countryside (with a side trip to Japan), we meet a likeable family and we get an inside look at their restaurant and its leadership transition. Unlike most of the food shows we see on American TV with their quick cuts and short sound bites, SUTTP’s pace is slow and relaxed—the way most of us prefer a fine dining meal to be presented. Savor it.

“Step Up To The Plate” is in French, with subtitles.