Karon Liu is one of my favourite food journalists. For the last five years, Liu has been a staff food writer (and former recipe editor and developer) for the Toronto Star. Like many journalists, Liu didn’t exactly choose Food as his beat. Food journalism—outside of restaurant criticism—wasn’t on his radar. “Here’s the buzziest restaurant where the celebs are going to”: Liu wasn’t interested.
It wasn’t until Liu started writing about it that he discovered the breadth of food and its centrality to our societies: the economics of running a restaurant, the socio-economics around food; who are the diners? That different cultures and ethnicities intertwine in the act of cooking also shows us that food is historiography. Says Liu: Once he started going down that rabbit hole, there was more to food journalism than producing top-ten lists.
Cooking in the historical context of patriarchal systems was seen as being in the domain of “’women’s work’ and it wasn’t respected in institutions such as news outlets primarily run by men.” While things have certainly changed—much to the credit of Liu’s predecessors in food writing—he says: “To this day, when I have to give a talk about what I do to uni students, I ask everyone there, ‘who is interested in food writing?’ I get one hand up.”
Liu thinks we underestimate the power of food writing and he refuses to do that. He doesn’t believe that. He covers it all.
Food is tied to labour: restaurant workers, farmers, migrant workers.
Food is tied to the environment, land rights, water management, soil and air pollution.
Food is economics: the cost of running a restaurant, how a dish is priced, food costs vs. what a customer pays, the old French kitchen brigade model in our establishments.
Food is politics and power. Food is ideas.
Says Liu: “If you think of a topic, I’m sure I can tie it back to food.”
A FOOD WRITER IN THE MAKING
Born in Hong Kong on October 8, 1986, Liu’s family emigrated to Toronto in 1987 when he was a baby. They were part of a mass wave of immigration from Hong Kong to Toronto (mostly Scarborough): “At that time a lot of people were worried about the future of Hong Kong being handed back to China. Hong Kong was under British rule. A lot of people were uncertain [about] what would happen. We moved to North York. I grew up and am still here in North York.”
In school, Liu thought he was going into the arts like his father, who worked in advertising and design. His father would show him print ads and point out the designs and the typography: “I really developed an interest in that.” Liu took art classes: “I was good but there were other people way better than me.” He was good at English so he focused his studies there and this started him on an unlikely path. His career aptitude test said he should be a reporter.
Liu graduated from Ryerson University with a four-year Bachelor of Journalism degree. In 2008, the recession hit and no one was hiring. He didn’t even get rejections, let alone work.
Liu says he felt defeated. He secured an internship at the now-defunct Eye Weekly in Toronto. Then Toronto Life started the Daily Dish blog. “I was desperate for clippings. my portfolio was blank,” says Liu. He began writing for the Daily Dish. “I had no idea about the restaurant industry, I didn’t cook,” he laughs. Slowly but surely, he wrote about dining trends and he got to know more about the restaurant industry. He got to know the big-name chefs.
The time around the recession of 2008 and 2009 was a big moment in the trajectory of food. The recession resulted in fine-dining closures. New places and restaurant models opened: places like The Black Hoof and communal dining were all the rage.
Liu went on to write for Torstar’s alternative weekly, The Grid. He recounts a story about an early meeting with his publisher who told the team their objective was to “make people feel smarter about their city.” The publisher wasn’t interested in lists or reviews, but instead, he wanted to see things as a diner would. He wanted their reporters to ask themselves: “Why are things the way they are at restaurants?” Liu says this became his mandate. It was the impetus to go deeper when he was writing about food.
Liu didn’t want to try to compete with what was already being done really well out there. Instead of covering eight to 10 restaurants a week, Liu would focus on one restaurant and do a thorough job of covering that establishment. Liu wanted to make people feel smarter when they entered a restaurant, he wanted to understand what the chefs and owners were trying to do, how they saw themselves in their neighbourhoods, and within the city. Liu believes this kind of storytelling fills in the gaps—readers-turned-customers bring that knowledge with them when they go to eat there.
It was a “great time for the Toronto restaurant scene, a renaissance,” says Liu, of the transition between the two eras of dining. He believes this was a formative time for him as a journalist.
As publications folded, Liu freelanced for a year or two. His desk with The Grid was located on the second floor of The Toronto Star building. Liu got to know Jennifer Bain, who at the time was working for the Toronto Star. “We got to be friends, I would go up to her test kitchen and annoy her. I got to know other people….The day it was announced The Grid was folding, I went up to the fifth floor, I told Jen, she made me a burger while I was crying.” Liu is funny and quietly irreverent.
Liu says he really looked up to Bain, who did great work profiling restaurants and going in deeper than the standard restaurant listicle. She was a workhorse at the Star; according to Liu, whenever he had to research old articles about restaurants and whatnot, her stuff came up. Liu credits Bain’s work with helping to create an archive of the city’s food scene for many years.
“They took my outstanding freelancing work,” says Liu. In 2015, Jennifer Bain moved to Travel and she pointed Liu to an open position in Food.
And here we are.
I ask Liu to describe some of what he has learned from being immersed in food culture. He says he has been in kitchens enough to know he would never want to work in one. “They’re tight spaces, you’re on your feet for 12 hours, barely making any money, [you] live and die by the whims of customers.”
He further laments that working in a restaurant is not treated like a steady job. When the pandemic hit, Liu says everything went out the door: “Even the successful restaurants; chefs and owners are shaking in their boots.” He pauses.
Liu goes on to say that he’s been watching an incredibly tough industry becoming even tougher. Liu wrote a series years ago called “Got what it takes to open a restaurant in Toronto? It’s harder than you think.” It was an eye-opening experience. He spoke with independent operators (not big chains with tons of resources) about all the stuff: getting funding, finding a place, what is an HVAC system? How do you deal with the LCBO? Hiring an accountant, doing taxes. How are you going to hire servers? What procedures do you need in place? According to Liu, it felt like “a lot of the time a restaurant is a Wild West in terms of business management. It’s a big mess of a world that I’m like, ‘wow, I would do terribly.’”
MODERN FOOD WRITING, LIKE COOKING, IS BOTH ART AND SCIENCE
“Cultural content is always there.” – Karon Liu
Liu is always on the lookout for new and different things. His ongoing quest for food experiences, his exploration of cultural divergences within traditional food categories, his appetite for nuance, in my opinion, is what differentiates Liu from other storytellers. He brings a genuine sense of wonder to the job: “If you’re thinking about [something], chances are your readers are curious about it too,” he suggests.
Liu expects to be informed and schooled by his readers. Because of social media, he says readers are very food-savvy and aware. “Food doesn’t [exist in] a vacuum. And if you miss it, readers will point it out,” says Liu. He focuses on avoiding omissions or the lack of context in his writing, he wants to tell the whole story.
Liu is part of a new generation of food writers who are all doing a deeper dive in their storytelling. Liu points out a couple of his contemporaries: Soleil Ho, the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle; Alicia Kennedy’s Substack From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy; Suresh Doss, a food writer based in Toronto who works for the CBC, and Michael W. Twitty. Liu talks about reading through Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South in a weekend; the book is about American cuisines built on slavery.
Says Liu: “Food is commentary. All millennials who went on a similar journey as me never really saw themselves or their food in major publications.” He explains, it’s just not within his realm of expectation to seek exposure for his writing. Liu aspires to write about topics that people who share a background can relate to, and those who don’t share that background will have their curiosity piqued.
The pandemic is coming up to a year now. Liu asks himself how long restaurant businesses can hold on for. “The future, we’re calling it ‘a big reset,’” says Liu. Even though restaurants have been forced to reconfigure their business models, the conventional restaurant model is set up for failure. This is our most important takeaway as an industry, according to Liu: “How do we rebuild a more sustainable system to withstand if and when another COVID-19 happens?”
And, how can this new system be implemented permanently on a wide scale? Everyone is more cognizant of the well-being of workers, health and safety, how much they’re making (and not making)—the lack of paid sick days has been a huge thing. Now, these issues are at the forefront. Liu reiterates that it took a pandemic for people to care about this stuff.
He’s looking at what leaders in the restaurant industry are prioritizing. Some are pushing for reopening. “Hmm, interesting,” he considers this. Liu wonders how the employees who work the front lines feel and how much they are getting paid, despite the risks they’re being asked to take.
We have also experienced a time of racial reckoning. This has major implications in the foodservice workforce. “Okay, sure you hire sensitivity training and workshops,” says Liu, but “what happens after that?” It’s a question that not enough in leadership positions are asking.
Liu is paying attention to food media and he’s happy that publications are elevating and promoting more diverse personalities. “It’s great and hopefully that gives BIPOC chefs more visibility….Investors will start seeing them and give them the resources they need.” He finishes by suggesting this will also enable modern chefs to cook what they want rather than conforming to old ideas of “fine dining.”
In the meantime, Liu will continue on his daily quest for food, beverages and experiences that reflect the city, and the people that live within its limits.
Read Karon’s Liu’s latest work at the Toronto Star.
Photographs courtesy of Karon Liu.