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A meal to remember
Journalism grad Karon Liu finds new direction in food writing



For Karon Liu, food can be about culture, history, the environment, even politics. Above is an Instagram collection of his culinary creations from the Toronto Star kitchen.



I INITIALLY became a food writer because, frankly, I sucked at being a general assignment reporter. Hell, I’m still amazed I haven’t been sued for accidentally violating a publication ban or misinterpreting the law while doing court reporting at my first newspaper internship.

I later interned at a local city magazine in 2009 just when Toronto had its dining renaissance. The recession killed off many fine-dining restaurants, resulting in unemployed cooks opening their own little 30-seat restaurants where they cooked what they wanted to cook. My job (and subsequent career) was to eat at as many of them as possible, letting readers know where the buzziest spots were, who were the coolest chefs and, most importantly, to be the first to eat ramen at the newly opened Momofuku – and treating it as if it was more important than breaking the newest scandal from Ottawa.

The job was fun at first – the glamour of getting paid to eat out – but after four or so years the writing became formulaic (how many ways are there to describe a new coffee shop?). Chefs were annoyed at my incessant texts and voicemails about when their new restaurant is opening, and I wondered if everything I wrote was just a glorified press release.

It was time for a new approach and an editor at another publication put things in perspective. “Use food as an entryway,” she said. “Everyone loves food but they don’t realize it’s intertwined with everything. Food says so much about a culture, the history of a place, the environment, it can even be political. Use food to talk about the bigger picture.”

I took that advice and that’s how I approach a food story now that I’m at the Toronto Star. A local Somali-Canadian TV host takes me around her favourite Somali restaurants in Rexdale to learn about the cuisine as she talks about wanting to create an outlet for young Somali journalists.

Syrian refugees working at a new catering venture discuss the importance of keeping their recipes alive to preserve centuries of Syrian history. Their work is important in that it provides employment and also a connection for newcomers in Canada.

A son takes over his parents’ 20-year-old Chinatown restaurant. The contemporary world takes a toll on the business as he can’t find a young cook to replace his aging father in the kitchen due to changing immigration patterns, language barriers and the lingering “cheap eats” reputation of “ethnic cuisine.”

Food writing is often seen as frivolous click bait. Some of it is (and I’ve been guilty of it), but there’s a tremendous opportunity to use food to help readers understand the world around them.

What we eat, where we eat, why we eat – a food story can be much like a meal itself: it can forgettable and still leave you hungry, or meaty with a satisfying last bite.

32 Ryerson University Magazine / Summer 2017