Culture Reporter, Toronto Star
Interview by Stefanie Phillips (RSJ ’18)
Karon Liu, RSJ’08, is a Culture Reporter for the Toronto Star. This interview was done when he was a Food Writer at the Star.
How did you get into food writing?
Mostly by default. I did a six-week internship with The National Post as part of my program because I was specializing in the newspaper stream. I hated it. I wasn’t very good at it. I did the crime and court reporting and it was really emotionally draining, you know? Talking to families of murder victims, going around crime scenes, sneaking into buildings of murder crimes, trying to talk to neighbours who were still visibly shaking. It wasn’t something I was very good at. After that I took up an internship at Toronto Life magazine and the first week that I was there they started an online food blog. They needed content and as an intern desperate to get clippings of any sort I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll do it.’ So slowly, slowly over the years I gained knowledge about food and then that made me want to pick up a knife and try out some of the dishes and ingredients that the chefs were talking about. It made me want to try new restaurants. That is what got me into food writing and made me want to pursue it as a full-time career.
What has your career path looked like since graduating?
I graduated from Ryerson in 2008. I interned at Eye Weekly for about three months in the same year, then I did a four-month internship at Toronto Life. Then I was a freelancer. Then I got hired back at Eye Weekly which turned into The Grid and I did that for five years. The Grid shut down; I got laid off. I did six months at Now Magazine. Then I did three months at Vice and then I left. I did some more freelancing. Then a friend sent me an email about the food position opening at the Toronto Star. I applied for it and got it. That was two years ago.
When you realized that being a general assignment reporter or a breaking news reporter wasn’t for you, how did you cope with that realization?
I kind of bottled it up, basically. I didn’t know who to talk to because I think when I was at school I was under the impression that you have to be a general assignment reporter before you can do anything else. To be a general assignment reporter is where you kind of learn a lot of your interview skills, learn your tenacity, learn how to have a good bullshit detector, and talk to people and find stories. I thought that you would have to do one or two years of that before you can move on and specialize in something else. So I kind of just stuck with it and there were times where I thought maybe I just wasn’t cut out for journalism. That’s what prompted me to apply to Eye Weekly for an internship because they were an alternative weekly so they were closer to being a magazine. So I thought, maybe at a magazine I wouldn’t be put through the [daily] deadlines.
Was there a roadblock in your career that made it difficult to get to where you are now?
I myself have never worked in a restaurant before. I get asked this question a lot from student journalists; I’ve never worked in a restaurant before, can I still be a food reporter? I always say, it obviously helps if you’ve worked in a kitchen or if you have a culinary background or if you’ve been to culinary school. It never hurts to have that additional layer of knowledge. It never hurts to know more in general. For me, I just asked a lot of questions. If I didn’t know something I was sure as hell to ask someone or to look it up rather than to assume and just work my way through because you know, people have really good bullshit detectors. The worst thing as a journalist is to get something wrong. There wasn’t a time when a chef was like, what do you mean you don’t know? They didn’t look down on me for that because chefs — or any interview source — they don’t want you to get it wrong. So they are more than okay with taking five or ten seconds to explain something because they know you’re writing about them. So never feel hesitant to ask a question. As soon as you say, I just want to make sure this is correct before it goes to publication, they will sit down and break it down. In my 10 years of food writing I have never encountered someone who was like: you should know this.
In your work you often go beyond the recipes and the restaurants to report other stories. Why is it important to go beyond the recipes and restaurants in food writing?
Being able to branch out and tell these bigger stories for one really gives me a bit of respite. Also, food writing is more than just restaurants and top 10 lists or restaurant openings. It’s tied to things like culture and demographics and politics and cultural identities. It’s all tied together, history, religion, family traditions — everything. So I think that when you’re a food writer you have to cover those aspects too, you can’t just ignore them.
If you could look back and send a letter to yourself in the first year of journalism school, what advice would you give yourself?
I would say, don’t peg yourself or pigeon hole yourself into one career path. When you’re in class I think the first year, everyone thought they were going to be a general assignment reporter. I certainly didn’t think that I would be a food writer. Even in my fourth year of my program I would never have thought that. Keep your options open. Don’t restrict yourself to one type of reporting. Keep an open mind and just accept that sometimes things don’t work out the way that you planned.
Is there anything you would like to add about your experience at the journalism school and how it helped you get to where you are today?
I would say for all the j-school people, take every opportunity that comes along. When you’re there write for The Eyeopener, write for the Ryersonian. Every time a guest speaker comes in, take the five or ten minutes after the presentation to pick their brains. Ask them for any advice. Ask them what pitches they’re looking for, tell them you would really love to write about a specific subject. I know a lot of people in my year that just went to class and did the assignments and that’s it. They didn’t volunteer for anything, they didn’t write for anyone and I don’t know where they are right now. But the people that wrote for The Eyeopener, pitched to the Ryersonian, were the people who stuck around after class and asked a lot of questions, they’re the ones in the newsroom. Don’t expect to just show up to class and just be handed this job at the end of your four years, I think that Ryerson gives you the opportunities and it’s really your job to take it and make the best of it.