Thursday Q&A with Zen Kitchen’s Caroline Ishii

Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen likes her beer and her food to be locally made.

ZenKitchen chef and co-owner Caroline Ishii has been cooking since she learned traditional Japanese cooking at her mother’s side. Her belief in a holistic approach to wellness, developed with her studies in yoga and meditation and her personal interest in improving health with food led her to the  professional chefs’ training program at the famed Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. She learned from some of the best natural food chefs in New York, San Francisco and Japan.

OCS: Who are your style icons?

CI: Audrey Hepburn has a timeless, classic and simple inner and outer beauty that I’ve always admired. However, what I admire most are women who make their own fashion statement based on their personality and preferences, without necessarily having to spend a fortune or following the latest trends. My friends Beth and Allie come to mind in particular.

OCS: What’s on your bedside table?

CI: Kobo, timer for meditating, Food Arts magazine, and a pottery mug with chamomile tea

OCS: Best home accessory?

CI: Buddha. I have four of them around the home.

OCS: Best recent fashion find?

CI: Necklace from Workshop Studio and Boutique; earrings from Bija Bijoux in Westboro.

OCS: Whom would you invite for dinner if you could choose anyone in the world?

CI: Oprah Winfrey

OCS: You can see the debut of any piece of music in history. What would it be?

CI: Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow, one of my favourite songs of all time

OCS: What’s your earliest memory?

CI: Riding my tricycle in the sunshine and savouring a jelly candy. I still like riding in the sunshine and eating candies, though I’ve moved up from a tricycle.

OCS: Your biggest fashion faux-pas, when, where and how?

CI: Forgetting my “going out after work” clothes and having to wear my chef pants and T-shirt, which happens a lot as I spend a lot of time in my chef clothes, it’s late and I’m running to go out.

OCS: Proudest moments?

CI: Opening ZenKitchen and winning Best New Restaurant of the Year from the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA); winning a silver medal two consecutive years at the Gold Medal Plates competition; launching our TV show The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave on the W Network, Food Network Asia and OWN; graduating from the chef program in NYC; obtaining my executive MBA from the University of Ottawa; being an International Red Cross relief worker and providing humanitarian assistance throughout the Former Soviet Union.

OCS: Favourite piece of furniture?

CI: Old wingback chair

OCS: Qualities you most admire in a person?

CI: Honesty, down-to-earth, compassion and kindness, and a sense of humour

OCS: For whom would you most like to cook?

CI: I would like to cook a meal for celebrities who are vegan such as Ellen DeGeneres, Alanis Morissette, Alec Baldwin, Bryan Adams, Sandra Oh (I’ve cooked for her but would love to again!), Tobey Maguire and Paul McCartney.

OCS: Describe a perfect day off (it can be anywhere in the world).

CI: It’s a sunny hot day on a tropical beach by the water. I’m lying in the sun, reading a great novel, and when I get too hot, I run into the water to cool off and swim. Travelling and discovering new food and ingredients from different cultures and people.

OCS: Favourite visual artist, living or dead?

CI: Henri Matisse, René Magritte, Keith Haring

OCS: Favourite local artist?

CI: There are so many artists I love in Ottawa but in particular I would have to say the following who have exhibited at ZenKitchen and I have their artwork in my home: Sarah Hatton, Andrea Stokes, Timothy Hunt and Patti Normand.

OCS: Best book you read in the past year?

CI: The Four Agreements, The Art of Racing in the Rain

OCS: Favourite food?

CI: Japanese anything,Vietnamese pho

OCS: Most-oft-played song on your iPod or MP3 player?

CI: Red Hot Chili Peppers, perfect for running. For mellow times, local group The Acorn, Josh Ritter, Ron Sexsmith, Van Morrison, Mumford & Sons, Sarah Harmer and a host of other musicians.

OCS: Wine, beer or both?

CI: Both! I love wine particularly in the winter, my favourites lately are from Ontario wineries such as Colaneri, Closson Chase, and Flat Rock Cellars. In fact, for the Winterlude Winemaker’s Dinner on February 10, I am pairing a five-course dinner with the lovely wines of Flat Rock Cellars. In summer, I love a cold beer after a shift in the hot kitchen, and preferably from a local brewery such as Broadhead, Beau’s or Kichesippi.

OCS: Mac or PC?

CI: PC

OCS: Fine dining or plain old diners?

CI: Love both, old diners especially for breakfast and fine dining at night.

OCS: Best restaurant in Ottawa?

CI: I may be a bit biased, but I believe the best restaurants in the city are ones that are locally owned as we need to support their passion, dedication and risk-taking. There is incredible creativity and innovation coming from these chefs, most whom are using produce from local farms so it’s hard to chose one! In particular, I love Atelier, Back Lane Café, Union613.

OCS: Person, place or thing that makes you proudest/happiest that you live in Ottawa?

CI: Love the canal for skating, biking and running. Love cross-country skiing along the parkway or in Gatineau Park. I have the best girlfriends in the world!

OCS: Fave blog or website?

CI: Anne DesBrisay’s Capital Dining

Ron Eade’s Omnivore’s Ottawa 

Don and Jenn’s foodiePrints

OCS: Twitter, Facebook or both?

CI: Both

OCS: What’s your guilty pleasure?

CI: Hand cut French fries with malt vinegar and sea salt

OCS: Favourite place to spend time?

CI: Yoga class at PranaShanti Yoga Centre

CI: Cross-country skiing along the parkway and in Gatineau Park; skating on the canal, swimming in a lake, preferably at a cottage and exploring one my favourite food cities: New York, San Francisco, Tokyo.

OCS: How would you like the world to remember you? What would your eulogist ideally say?

CI: Caroline was a trail blazer who was passionate, determined and never afraid of hard work and taking risks to overcome obstacles and make her dreams reality. A compassionate and generous person, she was energized by creating, people and having fun. What inspired her most was travelling, her yoga and meditation practice, being in nature, and her good friends.

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