Karon Liu is the next guest to join our Speaking to Media series. Karon is currently Toronto Star’s culture reporter and was previously its food writer and recipe taster. He began his career at Toronto Life Magazine, before becoming a part of The Daily Dish Blog where he found his fuel for cuisine reporting. Self-proclaimed home chef, Karon now has the privilege of using his personal and career experience to shape his everyday work in a passionate and informative manner.
As food lovers and having experience with lifestyle & culture clients at Matte PR, we were excited to chat with Karon about the stories he’s interested in covering, his go-to hidden gems around the city and the most effective way to get his attention with pitches.
As Toronto Star’s culture reporter, what’s your personal mandate you’re trying to accomplish through your stories?
Laas Turnbull, the former publisher of The Grid, an alt weekly I used to work for almost a decade ago, told his staff that when it comes to writing about the city, it’s about making people smarter about the city they live in. In my case, it’s making readers understand the dining and food culture in Toronto, why things are the way they are, people doing interesting things from a culinary perspective, and how the multicultural makeup of the city is (or is not) reflected in restaurants and food media. It’s something I’ve always remembered at the back of my mind and what I try to keep up at The Star.
Tell us about your career journey that got you to this role.
I graduated from Ryerson University’s Bachelor of Journalism program in 2008, in the midst of the recession (us millennials are very used to recessions by now). Food writing wasn’t much of an option given to us aside from being a restaurant critic, which are essentially lifetime roles that are out of reach unless the critic retires. I could either be a general assignment reporter, or specialize in beats such as entertainment, sports, politics or be a foreign correspondent. I sucked at all of them, and eventually I became an intern at Toronto Life magazine. They started a food and restaurant blog called The Daily Dish the week I started and I volunteered to write for them. That’s how I got into food writing.
Through your reporting, what are your top five hidden gem food spots in Toronto?
Let’s say, hidden for people who have no idea what’s in the suburbs of Toronto, ha.
Johnny’s Charbroiled Hamburgers at Sheppard and Victoria Park. It’s an old-school Greek-owned burger and souvlaki spot that’s been there forever and everyone in Scarborough and North York has fond high school memories of it.
Buddhist Vegetarian Kitchen at Scarboro Village Mall at Finch and Midland has been open for as long as I can remember and hands-down, does the best Chinese vegetarian cooking and does amazing mock meat. Their seitan and bean curd sheets are amazing, and always sells out by the afternoon. It’s really telling about the lack of diversity in North American media because even though this type of cooking has existed for thousands of years, I could only think of two outlets (one being the Star) that wrote about this genre of cooking during all the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger hype.
Across from Buddhist Vegetarian Kitchen in the same plaza is Marathon Donuts and Coffee, a Hong Kong-style cafe that does afternoon tea staples like “bo lo yao”, which is a pineapple bun with a slab of butter in the middle. They also do very good milk tea and my favourite, a ying-yang, which is a mixture of milk tea and coffee. You can get it hot or cold, but nothing’s better than ice cold ying-yang in the summer.
Chris Jerk in Scarborough (seeing a trend here?) is an always busy Jamaican spot that does this very unique thing called a jerk shawarma poutine. You pretty much have to go there when they open to get it because it sells out almost immediately. I ordered dinner delivery from them a week ago, and sure enough even during a pandemic the poutine was sold out.
I love Bulk Barn, but I also have a soft spot for Johnvince Foods in North York. It’s a giant bulk food store (it’s also where Planters Peanuts does their roasting for the Canadian market) that has an unbelievable assortment of everything. It’s in the middle of an office park, but once in a while I make a trip across town to get there.
What types of pitches or event invites pique your interest the most? What about PR packages?
Honestly, I very rarely go to events nowadays. It was fun at the beginning of my career because I was young and the idea of getting wine-d and dine-d for free was intoxicating. But now, I’ll only go if I think I’ll get a story out of it. Even then, a media event is really hard to gauge how a restaurant will be because it’s not an accurate reflection of what regular dinner service is like. Service is more attentive, plating is more meticulous, and the people dining were picked to be there and not representative of the people who actually pay to eat there.
If I’m interested in a place, I’d usually come on my own time during regular service to get a more accurate idea of what the place is like. The Star also has a policy against accepting free meals (I expense meals if I’m writing about a place), so a media dinner invite is wasted on me anyway.
There’s a place for pieces that “introduce” or give you a “first look” of a place, cause it’s a way to let diners know about a new place that’s open and I get to see all the pretty food and the space. But it’s not something that I cover because I’d rather wait a while till the restaurant settles down, the chef knows which dishes are working and which aren’t, and has a bit more to say about how the restaurant is doing and if it reflects the vision they originally had for the space.
As for packages, a lot of it honestly goes into the garbage or the freebie table (or if it’s a big package, I auction it off for the Star’s charity because staffers are not allowed to keep extravagant gifts). It always bums me out to think of all the waste in packaging, the printed press releases, the random Dollarama or Ikea items with a sticker of the company slapped on to it. I know it’s not as flashy as an email pitch, but it’s frankly annoying to get a box full of waste. Please just send me an email pitch instead. Simple, short, gets to the point of what you’re trying to promote. Also, I truly despise cloying emails asking me to keep an eye out for something to come later. Reporters truly do not have time to play cat-and-mouse (or listen to phone pitches).
What are a few food trends you actually incorporate into your own diet? What are a few food trends that make your blood boil?
Food writers as a whole stick to a pretty plain diet. I cook fairly healthy with a lot of Chinese ingredients cause that’s my background. For me, there will always be white rice, a lot of vegetables and a piece of chicken, tofu or fish. I’ll use more global ingredients such as gochujang, mirin and tahini, which I learned through years of food reporting, but I wouldn’t call them a trend. Note to all: do not call ingredients or foods that have existed for centuries in other cultures a trend simply because you’ve never seen it before.
I think eating simple foods is a respite from the wacky, zany and trendy things we sometimes have to write about. A good food writer will know that no food trends exist in a vacuum, and are often riffs on techniques and dishes that have long existed before that. Writing about food also requires a bit of scientific knowledge, especially when you’re covering health food fads. It’s a good money saver, honestly, knowing that most of the wellness stuff out there, be it juices or vitamins, don’t work and you’re better off just eating a salad.
Especially now with the pandemic, to see outlets and writers publish stories about what to eat to “boost” one’s immunity is really annoying, and frankly misleading and dangerous. A person’s immune system cannot simply be boosted through food, and even then having an overactive immune system is not a good thing. As reporters we have a responsibility to inform readers of facts, and unfortunately a lot of that often gets lost when writing about health food trends. A lot of food writers don’t have backgrounds in health and food science, and also I think, in part, the idea of food writing still being written off as “fluff” and not being taken seriously by readers and the journalism industry as a whole doesn’t give a lot of room for nuance and scrutiny when it comes to food trends.
We work with the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario, so we have to ask, is there an Italian regional cuisine you’re hoping to learn more about?
I’ve actually never been to Italy, and dream of spending a month in Tuscany to learn more about hearty northern Italian cooking. But yeah, my coverage is mostly restricted to the Toronto area, so I’m always thinking how any of this would relate back to the readers.
You bring a lot of important stories to life relating to family traditions and cultural identities. What story is the most memorable or meaningful to you? Why?
It’s a cop-out, but its hard to choose just one because that’s great about Toronto is that it’s so diverse with so many different stories. I guess since becoming a food writer, it made me really reflect on my cultural and family traditions, things I’ve either misunderstood or shunned as a kid, or are finding other people who went through the same things as me. It’s a cheesy and self-centered to say, but writing about others have taught me a lot about myself.
What’s your advice for PR professionals trying to get your attention and get their clients in the Toronto Star?
I think what I cover as a food writer is very different from what the general perception of a food writer is. I don’t write shopping or gift guides, I’m not a restaurant critic and I always try to write about the restaurants that are the underdogs, don’t always have the resources to get their name out there, or much of a platform to tell their story. I always try to write about a diverse set of people to reflect the city I’m living in, so I’m always looking out for people of colour, people from marginalized communities, people who haven’t seen themselves represented in the food scene or in media.
There are a few PR professionals that I’ve worked with for years, and they’ve gotten really good at knowing why type of stories I’m looking for or have given me a heads up about a new client/project that I might be interested in. They don’t always send me the full press release and sometimes it’s just three or four sentences about why they think I’d be interested. Honestly, I like those emails more.
You know how in a previous question I was asked about hidden gems? Those are the places I’m interested in, not a place that has already been written in other publications (What is it with PR pitches that list other outlets that have already written about their client, by the way? I’m not going to spend energy and time on a place that has already been covered elsewhere). I think you can write the most beautiful and crafted pitch, but at the end of the day, the food or product has to be good and captivating for the readers, whether they live in downtown Toronto, Scarborough, Vaughan, Port Credit or Kitchener.