First off, tell us how your career as a food writer and an event planner unfolded.
My love for all things food started very early. My mom and grandma were big pillars in the food community in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Our kitchen was always a very busy place, operating almost like the ones you see in small restaurants, with different individuals handling various tasks from grinding beans to making rice and curries. I was always around both food and family, and that had a great influence. That interest in food exponentially grew after we moved and were exposed to the culinary mosaic of Toronto. During my high school years I had the opportunity to explore both food and photography with a diverse group of friends. We ate at so many different places every week and that opened my eyes up to global palate. One thing led to another and I started to write and photograph these experiences, sharing them online. As for the event planning, it came naturally from attending and covering food events —I’ve probably attended more food events (in Ontario) than anyone else I know. Through all that experience I saw the good and the bad, and realized that there is room for something finely curated and well programmed.
Tell us a bit about the work you’ve done with Branding and Buzzing.
B&B has always been a big supporter of our events. They’re also big fans of our approach to food when it comes to curating the events. We’ve worked together on Curryfest, the country’s only regionally-themed curry festival. We also worked together on our Spanish Pintxos and Tapas Journey festivals. Marian, Sean and team have a keen understanding of the city’s culinary scene, something you don’t often find.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you had to overcome as a food writer/event planner?
To say that Toronto’s market is saturated with events and festivals is an understatement. It’s a crowded environment of event options. It has become harder to reach guests and convince them that what you’re trying to do is something different. The biggest problem is a lot of what’s happening is mediocre at best, and the consumer experience is overlooked. Guests wait too long in lines, and their choice is derivative of a Buzzfeed top 10 list of what’s supposedly hot and trendy. The result is that many events don’t reflect the depth, diversity, range and talent we have Toronto. When we host events, we try to include the best possible talent and challenge them to cook something unique you can’t necessarily find on the regular menu. It’s about pushing the culinary scene forward and contributing to the conversation by providing something you can’t easily find walking down the street.
What writers or chefs have been your biggest inspirations?
LA Times critic Jonathan Gold is a huge inspiration. He’s the type of food writer that leads the conversation by stepping away from the ‘hot and new’ and seeking out international cuisine and hidden gems in every neighborhood corridor. We should all eat like Jonathan. Locally it is Chris Nuttall-Smith of the Globe and Mail. I’ve enjoyed many meals with Chris and his sense of adventure and world food knowledge is inspiring. I’ve eaten with many critics in my life, few put in time and effort like Chris. He’s authentic, and genuinely cares about the food and the people behind it.
Where around the world has food writing taken you?
This is a dream job and has opened up many opportunities. I’ve been blessed to have the chance to extensively explore the United States going to places as diverse as Bourbon country to Oregon’s wine regions, to all the amazing Cuban restaurants in Miami. Further afield I’ve been lucky enough to eat through Sri Lanka and parts of South East Asia, all over Europe. I recently spent a few days in the Maldives, which was a dream come true. Before the year ends I’ll be exploring Colombia and Mexico and making a return visit to Asia.
What do you think makes food writing in Toronto different?
With the proliferation of new media and various tools from Twitter to Instagram, there’s a venue for everyone to share their thoughts on food. That’s both good and bad. There’s a lot of content out there from quick and pithy 140 characters social media posts to beautiful deep dives into subjects via 1400 word spreads in print. It means consumers have an abundance of content in various forms to choose from and plenty of voices which have their own specialty whether they like to admit it or not. If you want to learn about the best noodle houses in north Toronto or the best new craft beer, there’s someone that covers so you just have to read widely and hone in on the voices that speak to you.
What advice would you give to aspiring food writers?
Focus on the craft and the appropriate medium. Content is great, but quality content is king. If Instagram is your thing, it’s great that you found the right medium for your voice, but you won’t be the only one on there. Look at how you can set yourself apart from everyone else on it. It gets really boring when you look at a feed and all the photos start to look the same: shots of the CN Tower, street cars, latte art, plates of tacos. That’s the Toronto feed most days.
If you want to review restaurants starting a blog is an easy and good way to get into it. But before you do you really need to think long and hard about ethics and impact because your words can affect people’s livelihoods. If you’re a natural story teller and like chatting food with friends, consider starting a podcast. But make sure you have something unique to contribute to the larger conversation. Whatever medium you choose, fine tune your focus, don’t do something because it’s trendy. Above all else, try to be different. There’s always room for a unique and insightful voice that moves the conversation forward.
What upcoming trends do you predict for Toronto’s food and drink scene?
The inevitable implosion. When the food scene started to lift off in 2008 it was great. We started to see so many indie shops with talented chefs and restaurateurs with a vision opening up like the Black Hoof, Libretto, Harbord Room. A few years later things expanded outside four walls and we began seeing some interesting street food options. Then we saw the food scene evolve with exciting things happening from chefs exploring the nuances and moving from a global inspiration to regional cuisines. Of course there was also enough ramen to drown the city and lots and lots of tacos (Trust me, I do love tacos though).
These days we have a steady wave of 5-10 new restaurants opening every week. The problem is, lately they’re all quite boring, derivative and often a bit gimmicky. Snack bars and expensive cocktails to compensate for terrible margins on food aren’t something that betters the food scene. We seem to be in a bit of a lull creatively when it comes to food in the downtown core with restaurants often playing it safe and imitating successful concepts. For every new restaurant that is striving to do something interesting and unique there are five others that are trying to cash in on trends, which only adds to the noise and doesn’t contribute anything significant to the local culinary culture. The problem is we don’t have a big enough food audience to support all these new places. It’s not sustainable and the incredibly high operating costs will catch up to many who don’t have the benefit of experience. Once the new factor wears off what you have left is your food and hospitality to bring people back and it’s the restaurants that strive to push the food scene and get customers excited that will survive.
What’s one thing everyone should know about you?
If I see someone on the street with an open map I will stop to say hello and offer suggestions on what to do and where to go and eat—I love sharing our culinary scene with people. I love introducing people to mom n’ pop shops outside of the city. If you’re a Toronto chef, foodie, food enthusiast, you need to get out of the core and go eat. Go north, east, west. You don’t know good noodles, I’ll show you good noodles.
What do you do when you aren’t writing or planning food events?
Other than eating out (a lot), I spend a lot of time cooking and going through my cookbook collection. I’m still a video game addict (I used to play in the professional circuit many…many years ago). I love exploring the city and the outskirts. I have a hard time driving by a plaza without the urge to stop and have a look.
Originally published on: Jul 4, 2016
Follow Suresh Doss: