hot for food’s Lauren Toyota on her career journey, racial identity, and new cookbook

Named one of Canada’s most influential vegans, hot for food’s Lauren Toyota reflects on her career journey, racial identity, and creative thought process behind her new cookbook, hot for food all day.

hot for food’s Lauren Toyota has dipped her toes into almost every part of the lifestyle and entertainment industry both on and off-screen, with over a decade of experience as a TV personality, producer, digital content creator, and vegan cookbook author.

As one of Canada’s most influential vegans and the #2 most watched vegan content creator on YouTube in North America, Toyota’s first book, Vegan Comfort Classics: 101 Recipes to Feed Your Face earned the top spot as USA’s #1 selling cookbook the week of release in 2018.

Now, with the release of her second cookbook, hot for food all day — a compilation of easy vegan recipes based around “levelling up” leftovers — on March 16, Toyota continues to cement herself as a staple in the Canadian lifestyle and food community.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Heins

Cold Tea Collective’s Natasha Jung got the chance to sit down with Toyota to discuss her career journey, racial identity, and the creative and business thought process behind hot for food all day.

To hear the complete interview, check out the full Pearls of Wisdom Podcast episode.

Breaking into the Canadian media space

Toyota started her media career at Razer TV as a host of teen pop culture show 969 without any formal broadcast training, and learned the strings of the TV industry on the fly. From there, she went on to work at CityTV, MuchMusic, and MTV, where her gigs ranged from hosting shows such as the MuchMusic Video Awards and After Degrassi to interviewing celebrities like Justin Bieber, PSY, and even Kermit the Frog.

Toyota described her journey through the broadcast industry as “certainly untraditional” and explained it’s impossible to plan anything when it comes to this kind of field.

“You can’t really force anything to go the way you want, especially in an industry like this where it’s all very fickle,” she said. “It’s based on how you look sometimes [rather than] on talent or skills.”

Looking back, Toyota divulged that part of the reason she thought she landed the gig for 969 was due to her being Asian, rather than white and blonde.

“When I looked at the cast that existed at that show, I went in with a lot of confidence. They’re going to have to hire someone like me because they don’t have a diverse enough cast,” she said.

But, it did not always play out like that in her early career. 

“I think there were some instances where it was to my advantage that I am the background that I am, and in some cases I think it was a disadvantage that I’m not the, I don’t know, pretty blonde girl.”

Re-examining her racial identity

Toyota, whose dad is Japanese and whose mother was born in Canada with Scottish and British roots, spent a lot of her life not wanting to associate with her Japanese heritage. Growing up, she said she was always confused about her racial identity and adopted the idea that her Asian side was “bad” and her white side was “good” — something she feels that biracial folks often feel. Back then, having racial slurs thrown at her or hearing her affluent white friends tell her she “didn’t seem Asian” further complicated her feelings towards her Asian background.

“I really put a lot of effort into assimilating or disguising to whiteness,” she reflected, referring to those times.

In her younger years, Toyota explained that race was “very front of mind” because she was othered. As she got older, though, her goal became to move away from “race identifying anything.” But now, with Black Lives Matter and racial justice movements dominating popular discourse last year, Toyota has begun to re-examine her own racial identity, a process she said she found especially difficult. 

“I was that person, just like a lot of white people, [who thought] talking about race is divisive… because I’ve spent my entire life trying to get away from that,” she said. “What I realized about myself is that I was put into this fragile place during last year, because I felt like ‘Uh oh, I’m opening up this gate that I decided to close a long time ago.'”

Now, Toyota acknowledges her being white-passing affords her certain privileges, but she said it’s been very confusing working through understanding her own privilege recently. She admitted that she hadn’t really taken the time to understand and learn about movements like Black Lives Matter because she had yet to sort through her own racial identity and the trauma of constantly being othered.

“To be honest, I hadn’t put a ton of work into [understanding my own racial identity], because it works to your best advantage to really not work on that. It works to your advantage in this system of white supremacy to just align with whiteness and get through and get by,” she shared. “Like, how can I sneak in through the side door? Which I have a bit of privilege to do because I am half, because I’m lighter-skinned.”

Now, Toyota continues to explore the history of Black and Asian activism and liberation through activists on social media. She believes that Black liberation is liberation for all, and the most oppressed have to be liberated before everyone can be liberated.

“I think it only makes sense that each of us, including white people, have to explore their own internal experiences,” she said. “It isn’t just reading a book of something happening outside of you and trying to emphasize; it’s trying to find how you can bring that internal piece to it,” she said.

Representation in the food world

In the Canadian foodie world— and even more specifically in the vegan community— Toyota said she does see a strong friendly community of Asian and Pacific Islander creators, such as Rose of Cheap Lazy Vegan.

For Toyota, she said her cookbooks are mostly focused on both white American comfort classics and fusion food. She attributes this area of focus to having previously distanced herself from her Asian background growing up.

“I sat and thought about this and I do feel some guilt because I don’t represent my culture at all in my food,” she said. “It’s just not a thing I do predominantly and I think under the right circumstances, I might explore it more.”

When it comes to the topic of recipe development around ethnic cuisine, Toyota sees the topic as understandably tricky.

Oversimplifying or misrepresenting recipes, or not explaining the story behind a dish are some definite ways Toyota says recipe developers can get into offensive territory. But on the whole, she feels that over-policing what people can or can’t cook stifles culinary creativity.

“The best foods come from the creative liberty that chefs have to travel the world, take bits and bobs from different places, and come up with their own ideas,” she said.

Levelling up with hot for food all day

In terms of her own recipe development for hot for food, Toyota shared that there are no clear-cut rules. “It’s so hard to pin down why I make what I make, when I make it. I do really honour whatever I want to eat, or [what] I haven’t accomplished yet that’s on my wishlist of things I want to eat.”

“I think I’ve done a good job at somehow creating a brand without really realizing what I’m doing,” she laughed.

For both her cookbooks, including hot for food all day, Toyota has followed the same process. As she explained to Cold Tea Collective: “You essentially create a framework from which you work backwards.”

First, she creates the table of contents with the chapters and recipes she wants to make. Then, she’ll go through the list one-by-one, and cross off each recipe as she develops, tests, and finalizes it. 

“I might switch a key ingredient that I thought I was going to use for a different key ingredient, but generally the dish’s concept is pretty intact,” said Toyota.

As for what’s in her upcoming cookbook, readers can expect over 100 vegan comfort recipes focused on simplicity and versatility. From the cookbook, Toyota shared three standouts with Cold Tea Collective: Tokyo street fries, all-green fresh rolls, and miso-roasted kabocha squash done three ways.

For the Tokyo street fries, the “levelling up” is all in Toyota’s unique snack mix seasoning, which consists of nori, sesame, nutritional yeast, onion, and sea salt. This seasoning proves to be versatile as well, with Toyota describing it in hot for food all day as great for elevating popcorn, and even fit for rice and noodle bowls.

When describing her all-green fresh roll recipe, which are filled with avocado, cucumber, snap peas, microgreens, fresh herbs, and paired with a creamy green curry dipping sauce, Toyota was quick to give a friendly warning: “You can eat the whole plate of rolls based on the dipping sauce alone.”

In the end, Toyota revealed that she hopes that hot for food all day will help people “transform [their] leftovers and get really creative in the kitchen.”

“I want to inspire people to get creative and really empower them to do what they want to do and not follow the rules, so I think this book is going to give you that motivation.”

Lauren Toyota’s hot for food all day is now available wherever books are sold. You can keep up with Toyota and her latest projects at her YouTube channels, hot for food and Lauren Toyota, as well as her blog. Follow her at @hotforfood and @laurentoyota on Instagram.

To hear the complete interview, check out the full Pearls of Wisdom Podcast episode.

See also: How eating plant-based connected me to extended family

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