As we enter yet another pandemic spring, fellow food writer Suresh Doss and I had a chat on some of the food trends from the last two years.
Rather than dwell on the flash-in-the-pan ones that people have moved on from, we focused on the ones that stuck. Some for the better, others a sign that the city’s food scene still has ways to go.
Karon: I feel like pandemic food trends have really tapered off in the last months, right? Remember at the beginning it was all about sourdough and dalgona? We really don’t have a prevailing pandemic food trend.
Suresh: Except fried chicken. We’ve seen a lot of things during the pandemic but one of the lingering things is the fried chicken.
Karon: That’s one thing that I think really flew under the radar. We’ve seen so many more places do fried chicken these last two years from restaurants doing their pandemic takeout pivots to more chains opening.
I mean, the Chantecler space in Parkdale is turning into a Mary Brown’s and a Popeyes is coming to my local mall even though there’s already a Popeyes a five-minute drive away.
Suresh: The city loves fried chicken. I also think its because a cross-cultural thing. Think about how popular City Fried Chicken on the Danforth is. It’s a legendary place.
Karon: You said you order fried chicken at least once a week?
Suresh: It’s hard to avoid. You see it everywhere and you want to try it. From beer-battered chicken at a brewery to Nashville hot chicken to a halal place in Scarborough doing spiced chicken.
It’s easy to execute. You ask any chef and they’d have their own fried chicken recipe. You can still use your creative muscle with batters and get large quantities out the door pretty fast, and it’s a way to keep your staff employed and creatively interested.
Karon: Yeah, I remember early into the pandemic everyone was craving comfort food, and fried chicken fits the bill. Like you said, fried chicken already exists in so many different cuisines that it avoids the novelty trap or the trap of reminding people of the pandemic’s early days.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t partake in the dalgona resurgence when “Squid Game” gave it a second wind: it reminded me too much of 2020 when I was whipping dalgona at home.
At least the booze-to-go thing was made permanent and not a fleeting trend.
Suresh: When the province loosened liquor laws to allow cocktails-to-go, I rejoiced.
In the past decade, we’ve seen the cocktail scene in Toronto flourish with so much creativity, I’m glad we were able to find a way to allow bartenders and mixologists to offer this during lockdown.
I’m never excited about making cocktails at home, so this has been a wonderful addition.
I’ll frequently grab the negroni or amaro cocktails to go from Terroni Sud Forno Produzione e Spaccio. Like CafeTO, this was implemented to help restaurants.
Karon: It was cool to see restaurants that wouldn’t normally do outdoor dining to get into it, even if they were only doing it to keep the lights on.
I doubt they’d do it again if indoor dining is here to stay because of the costs and logistics of running a patio. But if any Hong Kong cafés are able to go al fresco for another year and bring some of that dai pai dong atmosphere to the GTA, I’ll be super happy.
Suresh: CafeTO brought some of the best aspects of European dining culture to Toronto.
It encouraged people to be outside, explore their neighbourhoods. It animated whole streets and brought a lot of joy during uncertain times.
I hope we improve on it for 2022 and use it as a way to beautify streets and neighbourhoods for good.
Karon: So does that mean this coming spring you’ll be eating out? Or will you still buying meals off Instagram and Facebook?
That’s definitely something that popped off in the last two years that you turned me on to: lots of people starting at-home food businesses to a point where the province began allowing people to sell baked goods and confections from their home kitchens.
I’ve seen barbecue, burgers, mac and cheese, and I once ordered a kamayan dinner that was delivered to me in a pizza box from single mother who quit her job because she didn’t feel safe at work during the pandemic.
It was stuff you didn’t see at the brick-and-mortar restaurants because it was being sold by home cooks who didn’t have the money or weren’t able to find investors.
The trouble is we both know a lot of the stuff being sold isn’t adhering to current public health laws.
Suresh: I mean, this is a case of how our public health guidelines are simply outdated.
It is not an equitable system and like you said, marginalized communities are ones that get affected the most, which is why you’re seeing thousands (yes thousands) of homecooks take to (Facebook) Marketplace and Instagram.
This was a trend before the pandemic, and the pandemic only accelerated it.
My selfish take here is that these homecooks give me a perspective into a type of cooking that I can’t find in a restaurant. So yes, you’ll find me poring over these food listings because I am curious and interested.
If we’re to consider that Toronto is the best food city in the world, it is in part to this collective of homecooks.
Karon: So what are we going to see year three into the pandemic?
Suresh: I think there will be the return of the neighbourhood restaurant.
A smaller menu, maybe not as adventurous, but it’s comforting, nostalgic fare that brings back familiar flavours.
I think in a city like Toronto with so many neighbourhoods, it’s primed to see more places like Batifole, The Wood Owl, Bar Vendetta.
Karon: Funny enough, these are the places I’ve been eating at most often during the pandemic: the food courts, the family-run places, the spots where the staff have been there for years. To me, that’s a sign that it’s a good place to work, which I think diners are increasingly factoring in when choosing where to eat.
That’s another good thing — increased awareness of labour issues.
Suresh: The last two years have taught us what we really missed and value.
Before the pandemic, we may have taken dining options for granted. There were plenty of opportunities to indulge in opulence.
I think the clarity now is that we missed the memorable moments in small, intimate restaurants.
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