City Bites

City Bites Insider: Former ZenKitchen’s Caroline Ishii launches part cookbook, part memoir

Part memoir, part cookbook, The Accidental Chef ($21.95) is a beautifully crafted chronicle of Chef Caroline Ishii’s life journey from rebellious Japanese-Canadian schoolgirl to celebrated vegan chef. Each chapter relates a pivotal moment in that voyage and ends with a recipe — a “taste memory” that serves as a touchstone Ishii identifies with a key mentor or major event from her past.

Fans of ZenKitchen will remember Ishii’s Chinatown restaurant (2009-2014) as pioneering, an institution that kickstarted Ottawa’s acceptance of vegan cuisine as a fine-dining option. In one chapter, the author focuses on kokoro, a Japanese word used to describe something that comes from the heart. The Accidental Chef embodies kokoru. It’s a generous guide and recipe journal offered with love. City Bites Insider caught up with Ishii just ahead of the book launch (June 22).


How long have you been thinking about writing your memoirs?

A long time! Since ZenKitchen began in 2009. I have always written, but I hid it because it was personal. I have always kept journals. I kept thinking I should write a book and customers of the restaurant would tell me I should from time to time, but with what time? After I left the restaurant, I travelled and did some soul-searching. That’s when it struck me — I’m going to write that book! It took a while, but when I finally sat down and got right to it, the writing only took about two weeks.

That’s amazingly quick!

Once I felt ready, I was compelled. The words came through me. I actually had three times as much, but my editor cut me back.

What did she cut?

Well, she took my ramblings and really worked with them. She got my style right away. She told me that the memoir didn’t have to be totally chronological, which really made it more open. I think much of the book has a playful, light tone — we took out some of the “darker” sections.

Was it therapeutic?

All writing is therapeutic. That’s why a lot of healers use writing as a tool. A journal is what’s in your heart. Even as a kid, I would pick up my journal and write things down when I had hard moments. Especially when I was going through hard times, I would write from the heart. I still write three pages in my journal every morning.

At the restaurant — and on the set of The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave. Photo courtesy of Mountain Road Productions

How did you choose the recipes? Did the story or the recipe come first?

The stories definitely came first. This was never meant to be a cookbook. The book is about my life — stories told from the heart — and then there is a recipe for the dish that ties into that period of my life or that experience that affected me deeply.

So don’t call it a cookbook.

Exactly. It’s a taste memoir. There are only about 30 recipes. I mean, I’d love it if readers made the recipes, but that’s not really central. And there are no pictures of the dishes — just photos from my extended family’s albums.

But do you have a cookbook in you as well?

I do. I can imagine writing a cookbook in the future, but that’s a huge endeavour.

Many local readers will relish the chapters that talk about your ZenKitchen years. Were those harder to write given that the experiences are fresher?

Yes, these chapters do feel different to me. It’s still very fresh. I haven’t had as much time to pause and reflect on those years. I know if I wrote this book again in 10 years, I would write about ZenKitchen so differently.

A young Caroline Ishii

A lot of the chapters deal with the lives of your parents and grandparents — the often-tough immigrant experience. Why did so many of their stories resonate so deeply with you?

My parents — and many immigrant parents — were very strict. They had high standards because they wanted me to succeed. But when you’re a child and a teen, you’re not interested in their lives and the struggles they have endured to raise you. I had no idea until years later about the Japanese internment camps in World War II and how they had affected my father. So many Japanese-Canadians just let it go — they felt embarrassed and ashamed by what had happened.

They do say youth is wasted on the young.

You’re just so self-absorbed when you’re young. You don’t think about your parents. You don’t want to know more about them. But you’re part of them. Unfortunately it’s often not until we’re much older that we start to question where we came from and our links to the past.

Ishii’s father, George, as a young man. He held many jobs, including cooking, gardening, and factory work

Did you feel compelled to tell certain stories?

For sure. The chapter “Cookies For You” was definitely embedded in me. [In this chapter, Ishii, then five, goes shopping with her mother to an East European deli in Toronto. On this day, a small crowd is gathered around a plate of cookies that the manager had put out to encourage tasters. When her mother goes to try one, the manager says loudly, “Not for you!”] As a child, I didn’t know why my mother was hurt and embarrassed, but as an adult I get it. I didn’t realize what had happened that day until decades later, but I always remembered the incident. It has affected me so much. Inclusion and tolerance are so important to me — in every aspect of life.

The “cucumber salad” story is another one I knew I would tell. [Here, Ishii tells the funny story about desperately wanting to help her mother make her famous sunomono salad.] Whenever she let me help her, I never did things quite right. Really, the chapter is all about expectations — first-generation parents have so many expectations for their children. For years, I would have my mother’s voice in my head when I made this salad!

How do you feel now that the book has been completed?

Relieved! I’m very excited to get it out there and have people read it. I thought I would write this book as soon as I left ZenKitchen in early 2013, but I needed time and distance before I began to write. I needed perspective — especially about the ZenKitchen experience. It was too fresh to write about then.

So what have you been up to these past three years?

I’ve done a lot of travelling — I needed to get back my sense of adventure. I thought I wouldn’t want to cook again, but of course I ended up tasting my way around markets as soon as I began travelling — and dreaming up recipes. I was making truffles for a while, doing some personal cheffing and consulting on vegan and vegetarian menus. I have been splitting my time between Toronto and Ottawa —I’m having fun again doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

The author with her mother
The author with her mother

And going forward?

I’d love to do more teaching. Definitely another book. I’d like to pursue writing more seriously.

Where can people buy the book?

It’s available at the downtown Chapters at 47 Rideau St. [Ishii will be hosting a book signing there on Saturday, July 23, from 1-3pm], Octopus Books (251 Bank St.), Perfect Books (258 Elgin St.), Thyme & Again, (1255 Wellington St. W.), Upward Dog Yoga Centre (251 Dalhousie St.), and Arlington Five coffee shop (5 Arlington St.) You can also buy it online through Amazon and Indigo.