Part II – Interview with Chef Caroline Ishii

This is part two if an interview I did with Caroline Ishii a vegan Chef at Zenkitchen in Ottawa, ON.  Part I is found here.

In this part, Caroline gives her views on what types of people generally succeed in the business, who tends to burn out and talks about the particular challenges for female chefs.

  • What types of people generally succeed in the business? 

While many would say that strong basic cooking skills and a good palate are crucial for success in the restaurant business, in fact it is really only 10% of the equation.

Beyond a good product, you need to run a good business because the restaurant is first and foremost a business. Therefore, I think the people that generally succeed are those that are good business people and/or have good business people supporting them to help and guide the restaurant as needed. It can go off course quickly for many reasons!

The restaurant is one of the hardest businesses I have ever run for many reasons. We have high labour and food costs and a young transitional work force.  We combine this with high overhead costs and what you end up learning is that the restaurant business has a low rate of return or profit margin, which means a very limited or low salary, about par with the dishwasher.  Although we worked more than any other staff member, six days a week, we couldn’t afford to pay ourselves the first year and a half!

While having lots of money is a bonus of course, in particular so you can afford to have more people help you, this is not a guarantee that you will succeed and/or not burn out. You need to know how to carefully use these funds to maintain and grow the business. I have learned the hard way that burning out has to do more with my personal attitude than the situation(s) I am faced with.

  • Who tends to burn out quickly?

I believe those that burn out quickly are those that try to do everything themselves or take too much on or are perfectionists.  Also, not giving yourself time and space away regularly to rest and rejuvenate is important. I was guilty of all of this and was on the verge of burning out physically and emotionally.

  • When has a curse become a blessing in disguise?

We all think we are invincible don’t we, or at least until we get ill. I had a very painful frozen shoulder for 6 to 8 months, where I couldn’t move my shoulder and arm without extreme pain and thus I couldn’t sleep through the night.  My shoulder is still healing after one year, although 80% better. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise because as it forced to let go more, focus on my wellbeing and getting myself better, and create more personal balance in my life.

  • Are there particular challenges for woman chefs in the industry?

Yes, definitely! It still is for the most part a militaristic (“yes, Chef!”), hierarchical and male-dominated industry with a lot of sexism and related crude joking, rampant. In many kitchens, it is not easy for young women to enter and fit in.

It is still very much a boys’ club, a rough and tough kind, and often the women that fit in best are those that can drink, smoke and hang out with the toughest of the boys. If women do act with more authority and strictness that they do want often this is seen as bitchy or mean.

Though people will agree in theory to wanting a collaborative kitchen, some will see it as a weaker approach, because it isn’t the strict, disciplinarian approach that can verge on abuse, that many male chefs bring to the job.

Therefore, a lot of women are still turning to gentler areas in the kitchen such as pastry and stay longer than they should in junior positions such as garde manager, the cold station, because they get overlooked for promotions and/or lack the confidence to move up.

However, the times are changing in some restaurants, in particular, smaller chef-owned and in particular woman chef-owned restaurants. Though, it has taken a while to build a respectful, collaborative and “Zen” kitchen in my restaurant, we are certainly a good team now.

The last part of this interview will include Caroline’s discussions of her mentors, what she suggests for those trying to get into the business and a peek into what’s next. 

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One thought on “Part II – Interview with Chef Caroline Ishii

  1. I am really enjoying this interview series. I think Zen kitchen is one of the best restaurants in Ottawa (best martinis too!), and it’s interesting to hear from the chef about the business of running a restaurant. Looking forward to #3!

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