How Taking After Jonathan Gold Could Help Us Be More Creative
The news of the passing of LA food critic Jonathan Gold this week had me finally catching up with the 2015 film about his life, City of Gold. Food documentaries are one of my go-to genres. They bring my love of food together with a way to peek behind the curtain of a cuisine or a chef cinematically. There's an anthropologic aspect to them. The thing that makes us human is that we cook. It's a creative and transformative process. Telling the stories behind cooking gives us a way to start to understand a culture; something Gold wrote about often in his food reviews. Plus, I love to eat. Movies and food, it's like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, two great tastes that go great together.
There's an infographic early on in the film that shows the growth of neighborhoods in LA. They talk about how in most of the other major metropolitan areas like New York or Chicago, the city grew up from the central core and then expanded out. But Los Angeles, having experienced it's significant growth much later than either of those two, had multiple population centers that sprang up all over the LA area and then each individually grew and spread out. The visual looked in a lot of ways like one of those maps from a horror movie that shows how a virus is spreading. Gold talks specifically about how that ended up allowing cultures to kind of bang into each other. Communities would grow up, and they would end up overlapping. It's through that that you end up with things like Korean tacos.
I was relatively anti-LA for a long time. Mostly, I think, this came about because I didn't want to move there. Sometimes it's easier just to be anti-something than to have to embrace it and deal with it. I had things that I loved about Los Angeles, (bands, Disneyland, the movie industry). But I was in the midwest, and people were always talking about flyover country, so why couldn't I tell them to take a similar flying leap? When we moved to Austin, we were trying to decide between Austin and Los Angeles. We were very close to making the call for California but didn't want to live in such a large city. The unknown unknowns and a higher cost of living tipped the scales in favor of Austin.
As soon as I started visiting Los Angeles, I finally started to understand the allure. My wife's dad, at the time, was living near Marina Del Ray. We went out for a visit, and I found myself driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to a McMansion™ in the hills, driving down Sunset Boulevard with friends, and visiting a kids museum near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was different than what I expected. Each time I've gone back, I've investigated a different Los Angeles.
One year, on Valentine's Day, I was with an online friend who I'd just met for the first time in person. We'd hailed a Lyft, and there was a scared college girl already in the car when we got in. She didn't know what to make of us and didn't understand why the driver was playing Dane Cook records and driving 85mph down Santa Monica Boulevard. We ended up at a 24 hour steakhouse for bankers that's in a train car. The restaurant smelled of beef tallow and old people and we were seemingly the only people in it. New friends, having a fairly intimate late night dinner on Valentines Day. Later on we were joined by a group of drunk college kids in animal onesies. It was an adventure that we still joke about.
The next year, in downtown Los Angeles, I had an interaction with a homeless dude high on bath salts... he was licking the sidewalk as if he were a dog. As I passed him, I realized he wasn't the type of person I should necessarily be in front of. I looked back and he looked up and growled at me. This was shortly after I'd accidentally toked on a vape pen for the first time. So many stories.
Like Gold, who was a champion of places you would have otherwise never discovered, it's become my favorite thing to seek out the (mostly) non-touristy places. I try to spend my time in LA like someone living there and not necessarily as someone who's there as a tourist. I don't know that I'm successful, but it's made for visits that are fulfilling. It's a such a big city that I'll never run out of opportunities.
This week at the motion design chat that I host once a month (#mochat on twitter if you want to take a look), we were discussing keeping things fresh. There were many suggestions, but travel kept coming up. Tim King (@_timothyking) talked about how he traveled through Soweto in South Africa:
"@flabbyironman I traveled through Soweto in South Africa. Instead of avoiding certain areas I went straight to the places that made me feel a little uncomfortable and walked away with a new view of the world. I don’t think you need travel so far to do the same though #mochat."
Gold did that in LA. There's a scene in the documentary where someone talks about their first experience visiting a "Gold restaurant." The person pulled up to a minimall in a decrepit suburb and was a little shocked until she went inside. "Oh, this is actually quite normal."
Tim mentioned in his tweet that you don't need to travel far to do the same thing, and it could potentially be as easy as taking a different way home from work. The idea of freshness or novel approaches only means that the brain is getting exercise. Finding a different route home from work so that your mind isn't seeing the pattern that it's expecting might be all you need, but being in a completely different locale can make the process stronger. When I visit LA, I can't help but be immersed in novelty. I'm not there on a regular basis, so I don't know the roads. I don't know how that building on the corner has only been there for five years. Everything's new, and as a result of that, my brain is trying to find new patterns to be able to put into context my experience. For more on the idea behind taking a different route home, look into hedonic adaptation.
One of the things I've been fascinated by is neuroplasticity, our brain's capacity for change. In an Atlantic article (For a More Creative Brain, Travel. Mar 13, 2015), Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky discussed what aspect of travel affects neuroplasticity “The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.”
All of Gold's traveling was predominantly in Los Angeles, but he interacted with a wide variety of cultures through his restaurant reviews. I wonder if there's something that we could apply in the same way. If we focused on visiting restaurants outside of our ethnic comfort zone and engaged with the people who own and work at the restaurant, could we induce that same neuroplastic effect? I don't know that there's an answer, but can there be that much of a downside? On the upside, you'll expose yourself to all sorts of food you may not have ever encountered, and you'll meet interesting people.
I'm the first to have to admit that I need to do a better job of this seeking out of unique restaurants. I love finding new places, but too often, they're places that are trendy hipster trailers. It's new, but it's culturally safe. So, I guess I'm going to give myself a challenge. I'm going to visit a restaurant this weekend that makes me a little nervous. Maybe that's because of the part of town it's in (not that there are really ANY super unsafe places in Austin) or maybe there's a language barrier. Who knows what will happen, but the chances for it to be good well outweigh the bad. Take the challenge with me?
BTW, This might be my favorite fusion food/music hybrid. A Japanese band singing about their love of tacos. It's tasty.