On a cold weekend in March 2020, I had just wrapped up another birthday dinner surrounded by two dozen friends in the private room of one of my favourite Thai restaurants in Toronto. There was a little COVID-related tension then, with a few less hugs than usual and a few awkward elbow-to-elbow bumps. Other than that, it was a perfectly “normal” event. The food was plentiful and served family-style. Drinks were generously poured and unique cocktails were even passed around and shared (shared!) between closer friends and partners. The chef (Sasi Meechai) had also created a special “Thai market” side table for us, complete with fried shrimp chips, green papaya salad, tenderly-wrapped spring rolls and sweet and spicy communal sauces. We ate through at least ten courses of curries and stir-fried noodles, trying surprise dish after surprise dish with flavours of coconut, mango, kaffir lime and fragrant rice, gleefully paying little attention to how much we had actually consumed.
One day later, I was in an entirely different situation. I was boarding a plane with two of my team members en route to Ottawa, wiping down every surface with the last bottle of Lysol wipes that we had managed to find under the sink at our office. Only a handful of people were wearing masks at that point while the rest of us wore tight-lipped nervous expressions. We were on our way to run a national trial advocacy competition which welcomed law students from across the country. The competition, which included a reception at the Supreme Court of Canada, courthouse mock trials, multiple meals and a banquet, had been running like clockwork for many years. Our primary role had been to ensure that things continue to go as well as they had in the past. The most exciting part of the food events was usually deciding between two equally-nice salads and checking for nut and gluten allergies. Fast forward a year later and we were on the phone every few minutes with each venue, trying to decide together, how to configure a dining room to keep everyone together (but also very far apart), and the best way to serve a muffin (without any hands ever to touch it).
The stark contrast of those events during that that single March weekend is still squarely on my mind.
Once I returned to Toronto, I found myself aimlessly wandering around my little condo kitchen, wondering what to do with myself. I distinctly remember one of my first lunches consisting of a carrot, a hard-boiled egg and a chopstick full of kimchi, followed by a protein bar and a banana. I ate my way through the packages of instant ramen I had at home and acquainted myself with all of the food delivery apps in the city.
But after about two weeks of puttering around, I decided to do something different. I channelled my restless creative energy into creating and checking things off a Quarantine Bingo. It seems quite quaint to look back on now, but I cannot underscore just how important it was for me then to have something concrete to focus on. In between my silly little outdoor walks, I made silly little sourdough starter pancakes and silly little Dalgona coffees. I organized my pantry like my life depended on it, and could recite all of the sauces and jars on my fridge shelf like it was the English alphabet.
I eventually stopped making the trendy food but kept the habit of creating mundane “food missions”. Whether it was a specific stew I had wanted to make for years, or mastering a French omelette, I dedicated chunks of days (usually three or four) to a single dish, planning for it, getting excited about it, making it, adjusting it, and then enjoying it over the next few days. Knowing that I had nothing else to do and nowhere to be other than on Zoom for work alleviated a lot of the previous concerns I had with making too much or not having enough time to make or enjoy my creation. I became razor-focused during grocery shopping trips and no longer bought anything I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with. Snack purchases also became more intentional and I stopped eating filler foods like dry bread rolls and leftover Halloween candy simply because they were “there”.
When I wanted a special treat, I would also dedicate the entire day to that mission and make sure I was buying from a business I wanted to support. Whether it was counting down the hours before they opened on Friday afternoons to grab an iconic Earl Grey Soft Serve from Roselle, or hopping on my bike to pick up jokbal and makegeolli from Kimchi Korea House, I treated these trips with the same enthusiasm as I used to have for going to the movies. Going back to in-person dining was even more exciting (real cutlery and napkins!) and I try not to forget the overwhelming gratitude I felt digging into those first few meals.
Through this process, I also realized (but was not shocked) that much of the stress I had been carrying around was not at all related to the Pandemic. I’ve always enjoyed a “big city life” and over the last decade in Toronto, I’ve been lucky enough to have exciting jobs (both in law and in food) that have given me access to exceptional restaurants, galas, events and experiences on a weekly basis. Like the apologue of the frog slowly boiling in a pot of water, I had slowly but surely become a person who went out to eat at least four or five times a week, was drinking alcohol with most meals (and I cannot process alcohol well), and was slowly stressing out my body with each passing day. If I go back to photos of myself in 2018 and 2019, it is shocking to see just how mildly inflamed and tired I was all the time.
It’s not hard to imagine how it happened. I said I wasn’t going to go to another media dinner that week. But the entire PR team worked so hard, and they’ve been so nice! I said I wasn’t going to drink any wine with dinner after the prosecco I already had with the canapés. But the sommelier was flown in from Italy and brought with her a special bottle to pair with every dish! I said wasn’t going to eat the foie gras. But the chef raised the goose himself on his a small French family farm! 5000 calories and a bit of a headache later, I am on my way home in an Uber feeling satiated but with barely enough energy to appreciate all that I had eaten.
If part one of this journey was about re-learning to focus, we might say part two was about figuring out what to focus on. In the absence of many opportunities for international travel over these last two years, my culinary cultural inspiration has primarily come from the subpar but acceptable substitute known as my Netflix account. I found myself on a particularly fun and unexpected journey exploring the Korean and Italian food that the characters ate in the K-drama Vincenzo. I eventually embraced Instagram Reels to document my journey of teaching myself how to make dishes like yangnyeom tongdak (Korean Fried Chicken) and tteokbokki (saucy rice cakes), which led to many hours spent at my now-favourite H Mart in Toronto and poking my head into random mom and pop restaurants in Koreatown to test out dishes I had never tried. I also sat in three different parks and ate my way through three Neapolitan-style Margherita pizzas for three days in a row to compare their quality and authenticity. Against a backdrop of growing awareness of cultural appropriation in the culinary world, I found the approach of going on an educational journey rooted in concrete inspiration and research allowed me to delve deeper into culinary culture in a comfortable and enriching way.
Exactly one year later after that aforementioned birthday party, I decided to call Mengrai Thai again, but this time just to order a little humble meal for myself to enjoy in front of the Zoom screen while my friends and family members dialed in. I asked owner Allan Lim to ask Chef Sasi to create whatever she wanted and had on hand. The next thing I knew, I was getting a call from Allan to come downstairs, where he was waiting with one of his staff and four giant food delivery bags, filled with food that was plated in the exact same way that it would be at the restaurant so that I could “feel as if I was there”. In the bags were a platter of sliced beef salad with tiny springs of mint placed carefully in the middle, seafood Pad Thai, Tamarind Chicken arranged on a perfectly round dome of rice with little broccoli florets all around it, and the pièce de résistance, a peach and lamb curry served in a brass cauldron, with which they made sure to include a stand with a little tealight candle to keep it warm. I enjoyed that March 2020 meal thoroughly, but the appreciation I had for my March 2021 meal was far beyond.
I started writing this article in December on a note of cautious optimism that we may soon be out of the worst of the Pandemic. Sadly, that does not seem to be at all the case. I have no doubts that I will continue to struggle to find that elusive ideal balance when it comes to food. However, I have picked up and honed habits over the last two years that have brought me more joy and inspiration than I could have anticipated. By consequence, I also gained health, and feel so much better and stronger than I have in a long time. I have no idea what the next year will bring, but I am grateful for all that I have learned, and hope that these little habits will guide me through the worst and best days that are yet to come.