The restaurant industry is beginning to find its footing again after months of upheaval, but should we be celebrating a return to normal? Corey Mintz doesn’t think so.
The Toronto-born food reporter has penned a new book on the pitfalls of the business for those who sell, make, pick, deliver and eat food. The Next Supper: The End of Restaurants as We Knew Them, and What Comes After is the culmination of all the unsavoury things Mintz has learned while working in and writing about restaurants.
"I kind of got to a level of conspiracy theory where the inside of your head… looks like there’s a bunch of red strings and you’re constantly telling people, ‘All these things are related, man, they’re all connected," Mintz says while sitting in the living room of his Wolseley bungalow. "I felt like, there’s all these things wrong in the restaurant industry and I can’t do it piecemeal — I kind of want to talk about the whole thing, all at once."
The author moved from Toronto to Winnipeg last summer with his wife and young daughter. It was a long simmering decision spurred on by the realities of pandemic life in a big city.
"What are we sticking around for?" he says. "We’re not gonna be able to see our friends or family or enjoy any part of what we like about this city."
So far, Winnipeg has provided several novel experiences. For one, the graduation to a main-floor office (while writing The Next Supper, Mintz worked in an unfinished attic, a freezing cold basement and a gazebo); and two, life with a car. The latter has allowed him to find familiar comforts in a new place — namely, where the city’s Chinese and Korean markets are located.
"It’s amazing that we have a playground a block and a half away," he says. "But when you’re me, having the place to buy doubanjiang or kimchi, that’s what you need to feel like this is home."
Mintz went to culinary school and cooked in a variety of kitchens — everything from catering companies to high-end dinner theatre — for about six years. When the 12-hour days and paltry pay got old, he decided to try something new.
"I Googled ‘food writer Toronto,’" he says, "and I found a blog that was prominent in those days and they were looking for contributors."
The pay was exactly zero dollars, but the opportunity led to a new career path. Soon, he was writing reviews for a local alt-weekly and a year later he was hired as the Toronto Star’s restaurant critic. His work has since appeared in The New York Times, Globe and Mail, The Walrus and elsewhere.
During his formative years, Mintz wrote a lot of standard food media fare: chef profiles, restaurant openings and best-of lists. His perspective changed with Fed, a long-running Star column for which Mintz hosted dinner parties with politicians, criminals, artists and refugees.
"It was writing school, it was politics school, it was economics school, it was learning about the world outside of food," he says. "It was the first pull on the loose string of a sweater that I couldn’t stop pulling."
Now, he approaches food as news, rather than entertainment. And, today, the most newsworthy topic on his radar is how the restaurant industry is going to succeed or fail at becoming a more equitable place for employees, owners, suppliers and diners.
Mintz started working on The Next Supper in 2019, months before a global pandemic upended the very industry he intended to write about. The book scrutinizes eight different restaurant models and delves into their impacts on worker well-being, modern diets and the environment. Originally, the plan was to start each chapter with a personal dining experience, but the option to travel out-of-province, let alone out-of-apartment, quickly faded as the health crisis surged. The narrative structure had to change, but the topics became all the more pressing.
"Part of my job is reaching both of those groups, workers and diners, and saying, ‘You all have more power than you think.’" – Corey Mintz
"I could start to see that this is going to help the general public see all the problems that I have been Chicken Little-ing about," Mintz says. "It turned out to be true, the public became aware of the predatory nature of third-party delivery companies, of tipping culture and income disparity and the abusive chef narrative really flipped on its ears."
As consciousness about what goes on beyond the dining rooms and drive-thrus of successful restaurants becomes more mainstream, Mintz hopes his book offers readers some concrete ways to be a better diner. Already, he’s seeing promising shifts in the rise of worker empowerment and consumer awareness.
"Those two things haven’t reshaped the industry yet," he says. "But I think there’s tremendous potential and reason for hope. And part of my job is reaching both of those groups, workers and diners, and saying, ‘You all have more power than you think.’"
The Next Supper, published by PublicAffairs, is out on Nov. 16.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.