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One Chef’s Day: What It Was like to Cater at Jonathan Gold’s Family Farewell

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]lbert Bañuelos got an email and phone call on Monday: the family of Jonathan Gold wanted him to help cater their patriarch's Friday morning funeral. The burial would take place one day before Gold's July 28 birthday; he would have turned 58.

Of the thousand-plus restaurants the legendary Los Angeles Times writer had reviewed in a 30-plus years career — that saw him reinvent the genre and become the first food critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize — Bañuelos' Burritos La Palma would help alongside Kogi BBQ, Guerrilla Tacos, and Mariscos Jalisco to feed the friends and family of Gold.

“I already wanted to do something, but didn't know what,” Bañuelos said just after he parked his lonchera on Nelson Eddy Drive at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, half an hour before Gold's service. “So I was honored. It solidifies how much he believed in us. It really is an honor.”

The first customer was The Simpsons creator Matt Groening.

On the morning of Gold's funeral, Bañuelos left his Orange County home before dawn to pick up a food truck in Irvine. He then went to the Burritos La Palma location in El Monte to start to cook along with two employees. They prepped four types of burritos — a bean and cheese, a birria de res (Jonathan's favorite), chicharrón prensado (his son's favorite), and a con todo. The crew left for Hollywood Forever around 8 a.m.

This was going to be the first funeral they'd ever cater.

Menu for Mr. Gold's funeral.
Menu for Mr. Gold's funeral

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he drive on the 10 to the 101 was “solemn, like a procession,” Bañuelos said. “It was surreal. Anytime we'd done something for Jonathan for one of his events, it was excitement. Today, everyone is a little off. This whole week.”

Bañuelos found out about Gold's death of pancreatic cancer from a worker while the two handled the dinner rush last Saturday. In 2015, Gold named La Palma one of his five favorite burritos in Los Angeles. Gold described their signature Zacatecas-style birria de res burrito as “spicy, captivating in its plainness, and almost wholesome.”

The plug helped to catapult the small shop toward unimaginable heights. It won Tacolandia's Best Traditional Taco in 2015 and Best in Show in 2016. Last year, La Palma opened a location in Santa Ana; this year, they're doing a popup off Fairfax, along with their usual Sunday spot at Smorgasburg LA.

“He was such a huge fan,” Albert said humbly, as his wife Lauren tried to tape a banner on the side of the truck with the La Palma logo. On a table was a menu adorned with a silhouette of Gold, the same one that Lauren had placed at their Santa Ana location along with a vase of sunflowers shortly after the two learned of Gold's passing. “He'd often show up to El Monte to eat, or get a bunch for parties. He wasn't there for show; he was there to-go.”

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]The other food trucks began to line up alongside La Palma. “Good morning, chef,” someone said from a distance. It was Kogi BBQ head Roy Choi, the man who helped mainstream food trucks.

“Jonathan Gold just wouldn't have casseroles,” Lauren said with a gentle laugh as she saw her fellow loncheros set up. “Even though he could cook a mean one.” It was a bright and sunny morning, so the La Palma crew sat in the shade of a family mausoleum far away from the crowd as a rabbi talked about how Gold “advocated for diversity and culture through his palate.”

Albert and Lauren returned to the truck. They set up paper boats, putting two serranos in each. “Ya mero,” Bañuelos muttered to no one in particular. “Ya mero.”

The service ended after about an hour, and necks craned toward the trucks after a Hollywood Forever rep announced the trucks' presence and an invitation by the Gold-Ochoa family to have lunch with them. It was time.

One of Mr. Gold's favorite Southern California burritos: birria de res
Burritos La palma. Photo from the L.A. TACO archives.

The first customer was a tall, bespectacled man with gray hair and a goatee. He beat the crowd by a good two minutes. “Can I get a birria de res?” he asked politely.

“Of course,” Lauren replied. “Name?”

“Matt.” — That was Matt as in The Simpsons creator Matt Groening.

Famished guests swarmed all the trucks, although the crowd was bigger at La Palma because it was the only one that brought a tent for shade. The mood was polite, but ravenous. Legendary Los Angeles chefs patiently waited for their burritos: Nancy Silverton of Mozza, a frequent La Palma customer. Suzanne Tracht of Jar. Neal Fraser of Redbird. Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria, which Gold had named Restaurant of the Year this past April. Evan Kleiman of KCRW's Good Food. Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana. Josef Centeno of many downtown spots. Susan Feniger took a bite and nodded her head in approval as she devoured one.

Gold's family had requested 250 burritos; Albert and Lauren served 300 by around 1:45, two hours after the service had ended. He and Lauren were tired but grateful.

“We did good today,” Albert said afterward. “To witness the gathering of so many people, who's lives were impacted by his love of food and the city of Los Angeles, was truly moving. And to feed them? It really was an honor.”

RELATED: Jonathan Gold, Ambassador of L.A. Cuisines, Has Died

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