Then food saved me.

I remember the day that COVID-19 got real for me. It was March 12, 2020, and I was with my team at the International Restaurant and Foodservice Show in New York City–the day that DeBlasio would declare a state of emergency. I told everyone to pack up and checkout within thirty minutes of returning to the hotel–we were getting on the next available flight back to Toronto.

The author, Yvonne Tsui, selfie.

In the following months, governments would announce a series of lockdown measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Our marketing teams were frantically revising strategies to move towards an era of digital-first. But I was in charge of overseeing tradeshows and a grassroots industry series that had me flying to a different city in the US every month. Could we do things as a podcast? A webinar? The ultimate answer would be no. In May, I would be part of the one-third of employees that would be placed on temporary furlough—just a clever way for the government to delay businesses from having to pay severance and no doubt delay the tsunami of EI claims that would ensue.

Luckily there was CERB.

For the first time in my life, I was unemployed. The feelings—of guilt, that I would disappoint, that I was a failure—were already starting to creep up on me. Growing up in my family, if you didn’t get a white-collar job, then you were basically a failure. Verbal expressions and displays of affection were irregular and on the odd occasion when we expressed them, they were awkward. Affection was often demonstrated in the form of pride.

It’s a big thing in the Chinese culture. If your parents were proud of you, that’s how you earned their love. As the oldest daughter, there weren’t pats on the back for a job well done, only a sense of responsibility and leading by example. I grew up always questioning whether I was good enough because sometimes it felt like no matter how high I jumped, the bar kept moving. Losing my job felt like I had totally missed the bar.

Unlike the many times, I was scolded as a child, even when it was my sister who was being naughty, this time I could blame something else. This time, it was the pandemic. For the first time in my life, I could embrace freedom from responsibility and I turned to a familiar source for comfort—food. I asked my mom to teach me how to cook some of Grandma’s dishes, the ones that could not be found in a cookbook.

‘Po Po and me.” The author and her maternal grandmother. Photo from Yvonne Tsui.

My grandmother acquired her cooking skills in times of hardship and every recipe has a story. Her life could fill a novel, a sort of rags-to-riches-to-rags story. She emigrated from China to Vietnam with her family at the age of two, married up at 16, was pregnant at 18 and had 10 children along the way (my mother being the youngest, two babies did not live past infancy).

My grandfather was a hotelier/restaurateur but he would later lose his wealth to crooked business partners and that failure ultimately killed him, or so my grandma would say. In actuality it was tuberculosis. My grandma learned from the cooks she’d oversee in my grandpa’s restaurant and later those skills would be invaluable when she’d be widowed in her 40s with eight children to provide for. She was a feminist, ahead of her time, a tough nut. She was street smart but also had a heart of gold. She was my hero.

I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with food. It was both a source of comfort and a coping mechanism. When I was young, our extended family gatherings numbered in the thirties, with my grandmother at the helm in the kitchen. We had epic, epic meals. At five-feet tall, she would tower over my poor aunts like a drill sergeant inspecting troops; mulling over every dumpling for aesthetic perfection and ladling into the fish maw soup to ensure it was up to her standards. I would later learn that those boisterous family dinners were a mere facade, my grandmother’s way of presenting a cohesive family unit to our family friends because the facade was everything. When she died, the family dinners did too.

Soy braised pork belly made by the author. Photo from Yvonne Tsui.

Back to 2020, I was cooking and coping through lockdowns and uncertainty. As the months went on and I started to run out of things to cook, I started flailing. One day just bled into the next and I felt I’d lost my way. In school, you always knew what the next step was: graduation, prerequisite courses to get into college, the GPA that you had to have to get in. This time there was no map, no guide.

I was adrift.

I knew that the worst was far from over. I developed a knee-jerk reaction assuming the worst possible conclusion as a defence mechanism. There was now an invisible axe hanging over my head. It was never a question of if, but when. In October 2020, the axe finally fell. I was permanently laid off. Events and tradeshows were not coming back anytime soon and neither was my job.

Shrimp and pork pot stickers cooked by the author. Photo from Yvonne Tsui.

A multimillion-dollar corporation could not save me. So, who could?

Ironically, it would be the industry that was the hardest hit by the pandemic—restaurants.  COVID-19 claimed ten thousand restaurants across Canada that now lie in a graveyard of vacant storefronts and for-lease signs. Restaurants were given very little warning to properly plan for the shift from in-room dining to take-out and delivery only. Those who endured scrambled to create new systems, revamp menu offerings against the empty promises of government solutions that were dragged out. if I had an axe hanging over my head, restaurants were the targets of poison darts shot into their backs—their fates cruelly prolonged as the poison slowly took over. It was their resilience, courage, and will to survive that inspired me to march forward.

When clients and restaurant friends heard that I had lost my job, the outpouring of support was touching. I started getting referrals to help write e-blasts, do PR work and eventually, one of my clients took me on as their marketing person and put me on the payroll. My side hustle as a branding and communications consultant for restaurants had overnight become my bread and butter. It wasn’t Bay Street money, but it was a life preserver to keep me from drowning, financially and emotionally. I had a reason to get out of bed again.  I had work.

Karina Iglesias of NIU kitchen in Miami, Yvonne Tsui, with co-leader Ivy Knight, as a server holds up a large pizza during an “Industry Sessions” event in Miami in 2019.

So, the next time you think about supporting a local restaurant, you can feel good knowing that you aren’t just helping put money in the bank or pay the rent. You’re keeping someone’s daughter employed, you’re helping someone out of a seemingly unending emotional darkness —you’re literally saving lives.

I suppose it is somewhat poetic that in my darkest moments, food saved my life. Sure, I put on a few pounds, but it kept me out of therapy. I don’t think that it was a coincidence that I ended up in an industry that was struggling and hurting as much as I was on the inside. They saved me, financially and otherwise. Someday, hopefully, sooner rather than later, we will heal together as well. No, we’ll do better than that. We’ll come back—trumpets blaring.