Interview with Chef Caroline Ishii – Part I

(c) April Anne Hewens

Here is part one of a three part interview with two time Gold Plates Silver award-winning Chef Caroline Ishii who is the Chef and co-owner of ZenKitchen, a vegan restaurant, in Ottawa, Ontario.  

Chef Ishii has been running her own restaurant for three years and generously took the time to answer some questions on how she got started, what obstacles she has faced, as well as what’s next.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been friends with Caroline and her partner Dave Loan for many years. 

Part I – How did Caroline land in the restaurant business?, What does a great day look like? and What does a not so great day look like?

What path took you to being a chef owning your own successful restaurant?

The path was a not a direct one. I had been struggling for a long time to find another career path, one with passion, but didn’t know how to do this and what I would do. I took several classes, in particular one with Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way”.  From this course, I learned about overcoming obstacles, mostly within us and our beliefs, taking baby steps, started writing every morning and taking weekly one hour artist retreats.

Through this reflection, I remembered a dream I had long ago in my twenties to open my own restaurant but never had the money to do it so I put it on the back burner.  When I thought about this dream again, I wanted to integrate the work I had done on myself with health and wellness and I wanted to serve food that was healthy and good for people and the environment.

I remembered a school in New York City I had heard about called the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts that teaches food from the perspective of its connection with health and environment.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with this training and how to start, so I thought I would start doing a number of things to see what I liked doing and worked for me. One of these things was a monthly pop up dinner concept where there were communal tables and a tasting menu.

The first one started in a coffee shop and eventually I had a semi-permanent space in the former Chelsea club (in Ottawa). The dinners grew in numbers and popularity as the word spread, mostly from people that were not vegan or vegetarian but who loved the concept and food. I started a web site and blog.

After the Chelsea Club was forced to close its doors, I had nowhere to go so I decided it was time to go big or go home.  I looked for a restaurant space and some of the funding came from a community supported restaurant concept, where people would pay for gift certificates in advance to help with the help with desperately needed start up capital.  We had a gathering of diners from our monthly dinners to show them the space and our plans, and we raised $20,000 in one day! At the gathering, I also asked diners for their favourites from the monthly dinners and based my starting menu on this.

What does a fantastic day look like?

When I have the chance in the morning to have time to balance myself before I get in to the restaurant. This includes a healthy breakfast, meditation, writing, and time to be outside in nature for exercise like swimming, running or skiing. I love the outdoors and nature. Then I do some administrative work in my home office before I get in. I go in to the restaurant and everything is under control with the help of my Chef de Cuisine. I may test out some new items and/or tweak existing items, and sample some food. Everything is well prepared, we are in good shape going into service and everyone is in good spirits. It is a busy night and I help when and where necessary. I am able to go out often to the dining room to check on customers and speak with them. I love connecting with customers to find out how they liked the food, how they found out about us, and their backgrounds.

What’s a “Why I am doing this?” day look like? 

We are awoken too early in the morning by a phone call, after working late. It is an urgent issue that the morning prep cook has found out about when arriving at work. It could be the furnace not working, causing a pipe to burst on the second floor and water flooding the second floor and pouring into the dining room. True story. Or, it could be a fridge that has stopped working on the day that we were closed and everything in the fridge has to be thrown out. True story.

It can also be a day when I get a text late in the afternoon to say that the dishwasher cannot make it in and it’s too late to get someone else so we will all have to pitch in to do the dishes, including me.

I may also arrive at the restaurant to find out there are some urgent things missing for prep so have to go out to the stores and find these items. We are rushing to get ready for service and are still prepping when the first tables get in. It is a stressful and exhausting service. I have no time to go out to see customers and I end the day physically and emotionally drained.

Stay tuned for Part II of this interview where Caroline talks about her suggestions on how to be someone who succeeds in this business versus someone who burns out and talks about the particular challenges for women chefs.

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