Suresh Doss is a household name and an OG in terms of the food scene in Toronto. He's about to launch a food section for a national newspaper, has a segment called “CBC Food Guide” in CBC Radio’s Metro Morning and he has helped pioneer the street food movement in Ontario for close to 20 years.
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You worked in the IT industry for 16 years before you started really focusing on your food passion. How did you make that transition from working full-time for someone else to working full-time on monetizing your passion for food?
I had an interest in food at a young age because of the influence my mother and grandmother had on me. They were very well respected cooks (non-professional) in the community, and babysitting almost always was in the kitchen or adjacent to it. As a result, I had a lot of food memories and cooking was engrained in me at an early age. This naturally evolved when we moved to Canada and being exposed to many different cultures, most for the very first time. My early career in IT allowed me the privilege to travel, which incubated this idea to learn more about food and document it. I would find myself travelling alone, without a smart phone, but with a camera and an appetite. Eventually though the appetite won over, while my IT career was very rewarding, I wasn’t happy. Consequently, I started a website to document my eating and I was in a unique position to be able to have the tech skillset to do everything myself, from coding to design to running a site. After a few years of moonlighting as a food writer, I decided to leave IT altogether to focus on this new passion of mine.
You now work for the government again (indirectly) as a Content Editor at LCBO. What attracted you to this opportunity?
My mother first introduced me to the magazine about 20 years ago. I think we were in the LCBO to buy wine for a family and I noticed that my mom was browsing through it. Years later after I started writing about food, I started to regularly pick up the magazine as a source of inspiration. Food and Drink has a large and incredibly diverse following, I felt that it would be a challenge as a writer to contribute to a print publication that has the ability to shape cooking culture in a province.
I remember first hearing about you as the guy who pioneered the street food movement in Ontario, launching the “Food Truck Eats” movement to support this. Tell us what prompted you to do this and the impact of your work.
10 years ago, I was cementing a reputation as a food writer that didn’t always focus on the “new and shiny” aspects of dining culture. I would tell stories about neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core, and small food places that barely got any attention. Shortly after the recession, there was a rift in the food scene, and there was a moment in time where it seemded like anything was possible outside of white table cloth dining. Chefs and cooks were ditching fine dining establishments and opening small restaurants with low overhead while still offering interesting/progressive menus. A byproduct of this movement was the food truck. Even less overhead depending on how you look at it, and the ability to take your concept or brand on the road. We’ve had food trucks in Toronto for decades before, but the food was pedestrian at best. What I saw 10 years ago was a breed of food trucks with talented chefs in the kitchen. The rules with menus and plating were different, there seemed to be more freedom in the way chefs expressed themselves. That was exciting at first. But also simply, I think its fair to say that all great food cities have great street food. I wanted Toronto to play in that league. So I got involved as a festival planner, a lobbyist and organizer.
How did the opportunity to have your own segment called “CBC Food Guide” on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning come about?
Matt Galloway, the former host of Metro Morning, was always a fan of my work. He would always comment on my work (on Twitter), and we shared a few meals together. His producers reached out to me and we started a conversation about what a weekly segment would look like.
Even though being a content creator is considered more “cool” now, back when you started this wasn’t the case. How did friends & family view your decision to focus on food and content creating when you first started?
They weren’t supportive at first because being a writer, especially a food writer, as this was a very foreign concept. Maybe its more fair to say that they didn’t understand it. There were a rough few years at first, and then when my parents saw my face in a mainstream paper, it all changed as my work was externally validated.
I believe in the power of networking (authentically) and I imagine in the space you are in, the opportunities you come across are more about “who you know”. Was this the case and if so, how do you approach networking?
It took me many years to get to where I am today because of the barriers that were in place in media and lack of diversity. I didn’t know enough about the industry to know that I needed to network so I just did my own thing. However, I would not be where I am today professionally, if it weren’t for the people that vouched for my ability and my voice. Still, I’m not really a person that networks unless I have a specific project that I know fits a specific platform. I let my work speak on my behalf. I’m sure this can be seen as a weakness but it works for me.
COVID-19 obviously negatively hammered the hospitality industry including restaurants which had to pivot very quickly to take-out only and using delivery platforms (which many may have detested before). How did it impact you since your career revolved around restaurants which includes the ability to dine in and take in the experience/ambiance of restaurants? How have you adapted?
Aside from not being able to dine in restaurants or be in the kitchen to photograph/video, my work was not affected much. I found that I worked harder. I have a platform, privilege and power, so I tried to amplify whatever I could to help an industry that I dearly love. I know what my platforms can do to positively affect restaurants, so I have just tried to exercise that muscle whenever possible.
Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years?
Leaving food writing and spending more time creating and producing visual work.
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What do you like to do for fun outside of work?
I cook quite a bit and I have a rather large collection of new and ancient cookbooks. I am still a gamer, so once in a while I’ll turn on the console.
What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years that you’ve learned the most from?
Trying to please everyone. It negatively impacts and is detrimental to the craft.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I think I would want to be remembered as someone who made them laugh, wasn’t afraid to be open and honest, and fed them well.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Suresh looking back?
Don’t leave IT. Continue moonlighting as a food writer.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
Social Foundations of Thought and Action by Albert Bandura. One of the best known psychologists, I think safe to say a pioneer in social learning.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
I have been working from home for over a decade, so most of my discipline revolves around getting out of bed early ever morning, and having some sort of routine. Be as productive as you can before lunch hour.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I would find people and groups in Canada that are working with racialized groups, those suffering from systemic inequities and inequalities.
How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and professionally?
We have the best representation of Tamil culture and food here, outside of Sri Lanka and India. I think selfishly it has spoiled me convenient access to that, a reminder of life back home.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Rice and curry, because it changes from day to night, from address to address.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
I don’t have one.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Being resilient and triumphant in the face of adversity. Tamil people from Sri Lanka have suffered incredibly and despite that, we have built an incredible community here in a short amount of time.
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