Caroline Ishii graduated NGI in 2007. In 2009 she and her partner David Loan opened ZenKitchen, a vegan fine dining establishment in Ottawa, Ontario, the first of its kind not only in Ottawa but possibly in Canada. We welcomed the chance to ask her how this daring adventure is shaping up . . .
You’ve been open a year and a half. Clearly, Ottawa and Canada were ready and willing to welcome a good vegan restaurant. Have you seen your business inspire others?
I think our business has inspired others to follow some of our philosophy in their new businesses, whether in aspects of sustainable, organic, seasonal, local, or made-from-scratch food. Also, we see restaurants and food service operations now starting to provide more vegetarian and vegan options in their offerings. Equally important, I believe it has allowed the vegan/vegetarian community to finally “come out of the closet” and be proud of who they are. It has also created a common hub of like-minded businesses that provide support to one another and exchange ideas.
We suspect ZenKitchen is having a profound impact on Ottawa’s community. Do you think you’ve changed Ottawa? In what way?
We won “Best New Restaurant of the Year,” among all the terrific restaurants in the city. One of the reasons they said we won is that we’ve had an incredible impact on the city in such a short time. I like to think that we’ve changed the city in some ways, in particular by putting vegetarian and vegan food at the level of the finest dining of the city (not just related to the cafeteria weigh-your-own style) and bringing vegan cuisine to a mainstream audience.
More important, we’re influencing the minds of diners that good food is good food, and we don’t need to put labels on people’s food preferences and habits as good or bad. Most of our diners, I would say around 80%, are omnivores or die-hard carnivores, but come to ZenKitchen because they love the food, ambiance and service.
You took a Silver Medal in Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates Competition. Tell us about that competition and, most importantly, what you made to compete with dishes created from the traditional arsenal of ingredients the other chefs used.
Gold Medal Plates celebrates Canadian excellence in cuisine and wine. It occurs annually in eight Canadian cities. The top ten chefs in each city are invited to participate in this prestigious event, which involves serving around 500 plates to guests and presenting the dish and a selected wine pairing for judging by a panel of food and wine experts, all in a strictly timed 1 ½ hours. The top winning chefs and plates are awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal by the judges. I was one of the first female chefs invited to participate in the Ottawa competition and the first vegan/vegetarian chef in the history of the competition in Canada.
The inspiration for my dish was a Zen garden with several elements that are simple but at the same time complex. Start with a little kale, sautéed and seasoned with a plum-kombu vinaigrette. On top of that sits a polenta cake, crispy outside and creamy inside. The polenta is topped with a thin disk of red pepper aspic. Add a teaspoon of fermented nut cheese, bruléed with a torch, and then place a “cigar” of more nut cheese wrapped in fried and smoked yuba (the skin that forms when cooking soya milk). A chile-mushroom sauce is swirled from the base of the polenta across the plate, and sautéed exotic local mushrooms are added to it. Three dots of spicy pasilla chile sauce finish the plate.
Is sourcing locally and organically while designing vegan and gluten-free menus a challenge in terms of logistics and creativity?
I love creating vegan and gluten-free menus, as I come up with inspirations and ideas all the time. And because we start from scratch for all the dishes we create, we can usually easily make substitutions to make something gluten-free. The hard part is putting these ideas into operation and keeping the dishes consistent day after day. Sometimes dishes work well in service and others do not.
Creating our menu from whole and organic foods is a challenge in that I need to get my food from a number of different suppliers as we don’t have a big supermarket or warehouse with whole foods. Also, the cost is much higher than using regular products, and it is difficult to pass all these costs along – together with higher labor costs for making everything from scratch – to the consumer.
You need to have a real passion for wanting to buy locally. It is certainly not the easy way, but the only way for me. Our growing season is short here, maybe June to September in a good year, so I have to work hard to get the best produce in from a number of farmers, each having specific items they grow.
Also the growing season is unpredictable with severe temperature fluxes. I may or may not get in what I order, which forces me to constantly change what I was going to do, or find a new way to do something with an abundance of a certain produce that a farmer has.
Another challenge is that the larger farmers and producers almost always only sell to the larger buyers like the bigger restaurants and hotels. It’s hard for a smaller restaurant like mine to find the right size farmer to establish a relationship with. We preserve as much produce as we can through canning, fermenting, dehydrating, and freezing, but it’s hard to make enough product to keep up with the quantity you need on a daily basis and to find the time during an already busy period.
Are you a vegan? What is your personal take on why veganism is important?
I am not a vegan, however I am a vegan at the restaurant, where I work six days a week, and at home.
I believe veganism is important because vegan food is the most environmentally and health conscious way of cooking and eating, and it helps to make us more mindful about what we are eating and where it is coming from. It provides a basic foundation where many common allergies and intolerances are avoided, such as dairy and seafood. When I speak to guests in the dining room, I am delighted to see couples, families and groups eat together and all be satisfied and happy with their meals despite their different dietary preferences and restrictions, and especially the vegans and vegetarians.
What is/are the dish(es) on your menu that people can’t get enough of?
I love mushrooms. People love to try our different preparations of mushrooms, whether it’s a creamy truffled mushroom soup, exotic mushrooms flash-fried, or a chanterelle or morel special in season. People also love our house-made seitan that we use in different applications.
But I think what people love most is the surprise four-course chef’s tasting menu, with wine pairing available, on our dinner menu that I change every few weeks. I initially thought people would come in only once in a while for dinner, but they are coming in on a regular basis to find out what new and interesting things I have created, and are part of the driving force to keep me improving and innovating.
I have been very fortunate and the stars have been aligned for me on this journey. I have pinned on my office bulletin board the Goethe poem that I received from the Natural Gourmet at my graduation about believing in yourself and taking the risk of the first step. After I took the first step, I took another and another, and kept on going and here I am.
The driving force behind each step was my passion and enthusiasm. I think this has helped a lot and is contagious to others. Also, it’s been important to stay positive, despite all the challenges, while looking for a way to connect with new opportunities and people. I always said that if I’m not meant to do this, then I will get the signs and move on, but I’ve been getting signs au contraire so I just forged on.
It also helps that my co-owner and partner Dave and I come from marketing and communications backgrounds, which means we can see quickly opportunities that we need to jump on to promote our business. I believe we have a unique offering and interesting story to tell in the marketplace, and we are trying to live our story while continuously trying to do what’s best for the customer.
If a graduate of Natural Gourmet commits to opening a vegan restaurant (or a restaurant of any kind), do you have any sage advice to make their journey less arduous?
The restaurant business is a very tough business, and one of the hardest businesses I have ever been in for a number of reasons: the incredible overhead expenses you incur to open while continuing to have with low profit margins; the transitory nature of restaurant staff; the daily problems that come at you, whether it is something breaking down like plumbing or electrical, perishable stock or the unpredictability of diners coming in or not; the need for lots of cash flow and then more; physically demanding work from morning to night; and the lack of a life as you knew it.
You won’t be cooking much as the chef-owner of a restaurant. Besides trying to come up with new menus and recipes, and getting staff to follow them consistently, which is not an easy task, your time will be spent with an incredible amount of administration like finding suppliers, ordering, inventory, shopping, pricing, staffing, scheduling, repairs and tune-ups of kitchen equipment, meetings with representatives, providing financial information to the bookkeeper and accountant, emails, customer requests, requests for proposals for special events inside and outside the restaurant, and filling in wherever you’re needed when staff are away or sick.
If you have lots of money, you may be able to hire someone to help you, but this is not usually the case, at least at first. In any case, you’ll need to get a good handle of how things are run, and the way you would like them to run, before you hand over the reins blindly to someone else. Who cares more about your business than you?
You will not have a life for the first year or so. You have to think about the life that you want, really. You will be working most days and nights and during your time off, some of it will be spent doing administration and other work related to the restaurant. You will not be available when most of your friends are available to go out, or will be too exhausted to do so. It will be hard to take time off, and go on holiday.
You need loads of cash and lines of credit, not just to open but to keep you going, more than you ever imagined, especially for all those unexpected things that break down and you urgently have to repair before service or to carry you through down times when your sales are lower than expected.
It’s good to have a dream but not be dreamy. The restaurant industry is tough and requires you to be a jack of all trades, and it boils downs to very hard work and passion that keeps you going. I recommend that people get good experience in small and large restaurants to see what it’s really like before they make the final leap or perhaps they will make adjustments to their plans based on their experience.
If it feels right in your heart and you have the passion and enthusiasm, why not take the first step and see where it leads you? However, make sure you have a positive community of people around you to provide support and cheer you on through the most challenging of days.
Does Canada need something like a Natural Gourmet Institute?
Definitely! I teach whole foods vegan cooking at various places in the city and there has been a lot of interest in my courses. My experience and contacts developed through the Natural Gourmet have been invaluable. I would love to have Natural Gourmet students interning with us. Please have them contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.