Karon Liu is one of those names I hear all the time – and for the longest time I had no idea that I knew exactly who he was and often saw him at all the tastings and foodie events I attended. Recently we helped Hogtown Pub do their big media launch and sure enough Karon popped into my Direct Message twitter inbox asking for some more deets on this cool new gastropub/oyster shack. We set up an exclusive interview for him and when I met up with him, I had one of those “ohhhhhhhh, I know you!” moments.
Since then, I have followed his tweets and writing a lot closer, which is why I picked him as this week’s Friday’s Foodie. Karon is always on the cutting edge of foodie news in Toronto and his articles are interesting, informational and well described. His writing is simple and easy to understand, while also giving you a little chuckle here and there. After reading his answers to our Friday’s Foodie questions, I actually feel like I know him a little better – again due to his writing being very to the point and well explained. Have I whet your appetite to know more about this charming Chinese foodie? Well dig in below and get to know The Grid’s food writer a little better:
1. When and why did you start writing about food?
I started writing about food in early 2009 when I began my internship at Toronto Life. They’d just launched a restaurant blog called The Daily Dish and I wanted to make a good impression on the editors so I pushed to write for it — even though I knew nothing about the city’s restaurants and chefs outside of Restaurant Makeover.
I learned as I went along. Many chefs and restaurateurs were very patient with me when explaining things like dishes and ingredients, the history of Toronto’s food scene, and the logistics of opening a restaurant. I think it helped me as a food writer because I came in from a non-insider perspective so if I didn’t know something, chances are the reader didn’t either so my writing bridged that gap between the chef and the non-food enthusiast. There’s a lot of bad food writing out there: too many cliches, overly precious and flowery language, terrible navel-gazing, so my goal is to try to be a food writer for people who don’t usually like to read about food.
Later I was hired at Eye Weekly in October 2010 to spearhead a new food section. Eye Weekly later became The Grid in May 2012, and it’s a dream job because I get to cover food in ways that no one else is. It’s a lot of fun and I’m very lucky to be part of such a creative team.
2. What do you love most about food?
Every country, culture, ethnicity, and even city has its own distinctive dishes or unique approaches when it comes to cooking. I love trying new and unfamiliar foods when I travel to a new country. In Nepal, it was yak steak. In Norway, it was boiled cod liver and egg sacs. In Cambodia, it was roasted tarantulas and fire ant stir-fry. It’s also a great icebreaker if I don’t speak the local language because the people there always get a kick out of seeing a foreigner try their food. That’s what great about food, it’s a way to make new friends. Except when it comes to vegemite — my Aussie friends did not get brownie points for giving me a spoonful of that stuff.
3. What do you do when you aren’t writing about or eating food?
Since my job is to essentially eat, I have a pretty active lifestyle to balance out all the calories. I started cross-fit classes at Liberty Village in April and now go five times a week in the morning since I’m often out at restaurants in the evening. I’ve been dancing hip-hop for the past three years and did some jazz and contemporary here and there to help with balance and flexibility. On weekends, I love running along the Don River trail up near my home in North York. Trees, ponds, birds, the sound of rushing water under bridges, it’s a great way to escape the city and forget about work.
4. Do you cook? If so, what’s your specialty? If not, why?
You must like cooking and know some basic kitchen skills to be a food writer. Cooking lets you learn first-hand about flavors, food safety, technique, and just how a dish comes together. I grew up in a Chinese household so that’s what I usually make at home. There’s a big focus on dark leafy greens and steamed seafood (particularly fish) punctuated by sharp, green notes of ginger, scallions, and garlic mellowed out by soy sauce. It’s really healthy and simple to make.
On the other end, I recently got into baking cause my family loves breads and pastries. I have my honey-wheat loaf and chocolate chip-walnut cookie recipes nailed down but I’m still working on a Madeline recipe for my one-month-old niece with the same name.
5. What’s your favourite type of food(s) and where do you go to get it?
This is boring but I love checking out farmers’ markets and getting a basket of whatever produce is in season. I live up in the suburbs where there aren’t any farmers’ markets so if I’m downtown, I always make a beeline for any stall I see. Tomatoes are a favourite of mine because they’re so cheap in the summer and I’ll just buy a basket of them to make salads or sandwiches, and when they start to get too ripe I’ll make a nice pasta sauce (the ones at the weekly market at Nathan Phillips Square are particularly nice). Ontario strawberries are also a must-try, especially if you’re used to eating the giant California ones that are white on the inside. The local ones are smaller, but are much sweeter with a more intense strawberry flavor.
6. What’s your favourite hidden gem?
It’s not really a hidden gem but J-Town in Markham is a fantastic resource for Japanese groceries. They have a fishmonger selling sushi-grade fish; a Japanese butcher that offering wagyu, whole Berkshire pigs, and Ontario beef; a bakery where my dad has been buying bread every week for the past few years; and a cheap canteen with great Japanese curry and ramen. It’s also a good place to find obscure Japanese snacks and bottled drinks. I always pick up a few onigiris for a $4 lunch on the go.
7. What’s your go-to restaurant?
You’ll find me eating from Gonoe Sushi more than any other restaurant in the city. It’s close to my house and my family has known the couple that runs the place for more than a decade. Other than that, I don’t get a lot of chances to revisit restaurants I like because my job has me checking out the newer places constantly. That being said, I visit Porchetta and Co. a few times a month as well as Come and Get It and Banh Mi Boys just because they make fantastic grab-and-go food that’s relatively cheap but still restaurant-quality. When I want a sit-down meal, I love The Black Hoof. Chef Brandon Olsen and his crew are amazingly talented and awfully nice.
8. What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
My most memorable meals are always the hole-in-the-wall, rundown places I encounter when travelling just because you can’t experience that in Toronto. There’s this one hawker bar near Tsang Tai Uk, an old village in Hong Kong that had amazing wonton noodles. I sat on this tiny stool that probably would have collapsed if I weighed five more pounds, was surrounded by local residents, and just felt fully immersed in the place my parents and grandparents lived in before they came to Canada.
Two years ago in Nepal, I had a disgusting “pizza” made of mashed potatoes, canned tuna, scrambled eggs and a ton of garlic in a ramshackle tea house while hiking to Mount Everest base camp. More recently in February, I enjoyed a nice steaming bowl of reindeer stew while watching the northern lights in the arctic town of Tromso in Norway. Unforgettable.
9. What’s one restaurant you have to try before you die?
St. John in Smithfield, London. Owner Fergus Henderson popularized offal among big-city dwellers when the restaurant opened in 1994. In fact, people dubbed him the father of nose-to-tail cooking. If you like offal and charcuterie, you should make a reservation here to see where it all started. Don’t worry, it’s surprisingly affordable despite the Michelin star and accolades. Their staple dish at the restaurant is roasted bone marrow with parsley salad and the eccles cake with Lancashire cheese is an incredible way to end the meal.
10. What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve? (Play nice.)
Servers lacking drive or just plain common sense. Keep the water glasses full. If guests at a table are looking around the restaurant, that means they’re trying to get a server’s attention. Don’t ask for their food order if there are no drinks at their table yet. Don’t disappear for 20 minutes after handing me the check. If I asked for the bill, it means I’m ready to pay and leave.
As for diners: call ahead if there is someone in your party with dietary restrictions to see whether the restaurant can accommodate it. Don’t stress out if a restaurant doesn’t take reservations, there are plenty more that do. Also, a server does not equal servant. If you have a complaint about the service or food, tell the staff rather than passive-aggressively tweet about it.
Overall, as long as both parties treat each other with good ol’ fashioned respect and manners, it’s all good.