When I last visited ZenKitchen, I attended a launch party for co-owners Chef Caroline Ishii and Sommelier Dave Loan's reality show, The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline & Dave. Unfortunately, Jenn and I have been negligent in returning, but we jumped at the opportunity to interview these two dynamic personalities for Gold Medal Plates Ottawa. Chef Ishii was invited to compete, her team being the first vegan/vegetarian to be invited nationally. She is also one of two first ever female chefs to be invited to the Ottawa competition. The other, Chef Charlotte Langley of The Whalesbone Oyster House.
Co-Owners Chef Ishii and Sommelier Loan
Interviewing Chef Ishii means interviewing both she and her husband Loan. They inspire each other. Both, deeply invested in the success that is Ottawa's first fine food vegan restaurant. ZenKitchen was recently mentioned by Michael Kaminer in the Washington Post as one of the restaurants contributing to Ottawa's buzzing food scene. According to him, a number of them demonstrate "locavore-fueled creativity" that compare well with restaurants in San Francisco or Chicago. The restaurant recently received a prestigious 2010 Gold Restaurant Award of Excellence from Wines of Ontario for their wine list. Their 13 episode reality show has been picked up by the Asian Food Channel (in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Thailand). The premier will air on October 25. Because of enormous demand, ZenKitchen has been serving Sunday brunch since July 18, but more on that later.
First, ZenKitchen's interior is an innovative use of salmon reds, mustard yellows, stained wood finishes and local art.
Everything makes the restaurant warm and inviting. Both Chef Ishii and Loan proudly told us the designer is an Ottawa local, Heidi Helm of Urbanomic Interiors.
Thanks to Ian Capstick, whose communications firm MediaStyle organized the launch of The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline & Dave, we were able to contact ZenKitchen for our "Meet a Gold Medal Plates Ottawa Chef" series. As we wrote before, Chef Ishii and Loan have vibrant personalities that reflect significant life experience. She, a former communications and marketing professional with an Executive MBA. He, a former political strategist. Both, a lovely couple. They will make very interesting competitors at Gold Medal Plates. They were very interesting to interview.
What's your philosophy when it comes to food and your restaurant?
"First of all, it's good food. It's gourmet, beautiful, delicious and nutritious", said Chef Ishii.
"It's also about sustainability", she added. Like other fine food establishments in the city, ZenKitchen has established a community of local suppliers that include Ottawa-area farms. The restaurant is Savour Ottawa accredited.
Then, she and Loan elaborated they want their restaurant to be a "great workplace for good people." They invest in their staff, encouraging creativities with once-a-month sessions to invent new dishes and try new techniques. Traditional culinary school does not readily equip graduates with experience in vegan cuisine. Many, rely heavily on cream or butter. At ZenKitchen, new graduates are offered the opportunity to work with whole foods. There are no refined products in the kitchen. They learn new techniques to produce textures and flavours with sometimes unorthodox ingredients. The kitchen is even equipped with a smoker.
Chef Ishii and Loan also want ZenKitchen to be more than "just a restaurant." They want it to be a part of the community. Interactions with customers, "keep them going." The chef herself can often be found in the front of house talking to patrons. Both she and Loan are receptive of criticism and actively seek their patrons' thoughts.
ZenKitchen is a place people come to celebrate their birthdays. It has seen a number of wedding proposals. In fact, Loan often consults, regarding which wineries to approach to source vegan and/or organic wines. He maintains a wine blog.
Recently, Chef Ishii and Loan started hosting "ZenKitchen Afterhours", turning the restaurant into a venue for local singers and musicians to share their music. The very first Afterhours showcased ZenKitchen's own staff. Though, Chef Ishii and Loan only sing in the kitchen.
This month, the walls of the restaurant are adorned with art work from painter Jess Weatherhead, the assistant farm manager of Roots and Shoots Farm in Manotick. According to ZenKitchen's September newsletter
Her paintings are vivid portrayals of farm life, and [they are] excited to show the work of someone who grows the produce we serve.
What inspires you? How do you come up with ideas for the dishes that you create?
"Anything and everything inspires me", said Chef Ishii, smiling. This includes forms, pictures, colours, nature, and her Japanese heritage.
"Dave and I trade ideas", she added. "[dishes] needs to be good and interesting."
At the same time, Chef Ishii and Loan told us they work to lower the barriers to trying new foods. One of their approaches is to take comfort foods people feel safe eating and make interpretations taking them "further" or adding a twist.
In fact, 90% of ZenKitchen's clientèle are not even vegetarian. Some are lactose intolerant. Some, wheat intolerant. Most, foodies. Many first-timers eat at the restaurant blissfully unaware their dishes are vegan.
I know your menu changes often. What's your favourite dish from your menus and why?
Chef Ishii and Loan like all their dishes. Particular favourites are the "Tapas Plates" ($7-$18) on the dinner menu. Currently, the plates include salad rolls, Halls' apple butter-mise dengaku tofu skewers, and sauteed edamame with togarashi.
Like ZenKtichen's top seller (the "Four Course Chef's Tasting Menu" ($48 without wine pairing)) the tapas plates expose a breadth of vegan foods to patrons. On the tasting menu is often kale chips or seitan risotto. Sometimes, squash risotto.
"Surprise and delight are really important in cuisine", said Chef Ishii and Loan.
Loan's favourite tapas plate is the sesame-crusted exotic mushrooms sourced from Le Coprin. "Mushrooms. I love mushrooms", he exclaimed.
It should be noted, tasting menus are what launched ZenKitchen. Originally, Chef Ishii and Loan operated a supper-club style business, holding monthly dinner events out of the former Chelsea Pub. They were always sold out, attracting 40-80 people at any time.
What's the ingredient you can't live without? (other than basics)
Chef Ishii listed sea salt after some thought. Then, she added, "Miso, I use it a lot." Miso figures prominently in her kitchen as it adds umami to dishes.
Is there anything you won't eat?
Chef Ishii gave us a knowing look and said "I can't say. I'll try anything. I'm a curious person. If I eat meat or fish, I try to eat [sustainable]." She is very well traveled. Like us, she grew up with Asian cultural influences. She will try just about anything, a sentiment Jenn and I know well.
Loan is a vegetarian. He won't eat "anything with a face." Later he added, "or anything with a mother."
Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
Chef Ishii and Loan can't keep potato chips in the house. She likes chips and fries, preferring savoury over sweet. He is the same.
What was your most memorable meal and why?
"I have two", said Chef Ishii.
The first one is Atelier Restaurant (540 Rochester Street). "It's surprising; out of the box. It's creative, [and] it's fun", she described.
The other is Millennium Restaurant (580 Geary Street, San Francisco). Accordingly, "It's one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the world. It's in San Fransisco [and] it's where I trained."
In addition, Loan also mentioned the Millenium cookbooks feature contemporary vegetarian cuisine. The second one, The Artful Vegan was co-authored by local chef, Bruce Enloe, who operates the The Branch Restaurant (15 Clothier Street E., Kemptville).
Chef Ishii warned, the Millenium cookbooks are "challenging", something an event chef would have in his/her library.
What would your last meal be?
Chef Ishii said "It would definitely have rice with it." Perhaps with some natto (fermented soy beans) and a pickle. She finds okaisan (a rice gruel that is similar to congee) with pickled preserved plumb comforting when under the weather.
Almost predicting the next interview question, she added "I would [also] go to Tokyo to have a bowl of ramen noodles."
Loan responded "'a hole in the wall' Mexican [restaurant] in Santa Barbara." It is somewhere they visited on their travels. It served fresh, hand pressed tortillas, with fillings made from local and seasonal ingredients.
If you could travel to just one place in the world for food, where would you go and why?
For Chef Ishii, there are still many parts of Asia she would like to visit, including several in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. But, she highly recommends a kaiseki meal in Japan. A kaiseki meal is a traditional multi-course meal that features dishes that borrow from temple foods. Many are vegetarian.
For Loan, he would go to Nee York. According to him, "There is so much happening there. In vegetarian cuisine alone, they are 10 years ahead of Ottawa." He particularly recommends the HanGawi Restaurant (12 E 32nd Street,
New York), mentioning its pumpkin porridge. "It is a beautiful location", he said.
Describe your perfect Sunday.
This one, we'll recount word for word.
Together: "Sleep in!" (Laughs)
Loan: "Go for a nice easy brunch at Rochester Pub." (502 Rochester Street)
Chef Ishii: [Then] run, ski, bike. I love being in nature.
Together: Nap in the afternoon!
Loan: "Movie and then dinner."
Then they explained tongue in cheek, they would "talk shop" throughout their day together.
What are your expectations for the Gold Medal Plates event?
Chef Ishii expects the event to be high pressure as "chefs are hardest on themselves" and every invitee will need to "present the best possible image of their restaurants." Though, she also thinks it will be "a lot of fun."
She and her staff will try to "stretch the boundaries of what can be plated." As always, she will focus on creative and unique dishes she hopes will surprise and delight.
Regarding expectations, Chef Ishii said, "Take away bison, elk, duck, butter, and cream...And, people are likely wondering what are we going to do for Gold Medal Plates. It's a great challenge for us. I think we were invited because we're different."
It will be business as usual she explained. Chef Ishii and her kitchen enjoy the challenge of "not just doing vegan, but doing vegan well." They have recently innovated a vegan whipped cream for instance.
How do you prepare for a competition like Gold Medal Plates?
ZenKitchen has a menu "process." Chef Ishii and Loan often "bounce ideas off of each other."
They talk with patrons. At the same time, Chef Ishii's cooks and chefs collaborate on developing tasting menus during their one day per month cooking sessions.
During recent sessions, they have been working on Gold Medal Plates dishes. To date, they have nothing solid yet.
But, their recent participation in Feast of Fields was a proof of concept event that helped them develop the required line and prep to serve the number of expected attendees at Gold Medal Plates.
According to Loan, "We did a rehearsal at Feast of Fields in terms of serving a lot of people."
As an example of ZenKitchen working to expand people's thinking through their palates, here are dishes Jenn and I had for Sunday brunch prior to the interview.
Scone with Local Strawberry Jam
They were warm, slightly dense, but delicious. Topped with local strawberry and wild blueberry jam, each bite of scone provided the expected rich flavour and textural counterpart.
Jenn ordered the buckwheat pancakes ($14). They came with maple syrup, house sausage, and fresh fruit (wild and regular blueberries, blackberries, green apples, black plum, peaches in blueberry juice, grand marnier, and maple syrup).
The pancakes were fluffy and satisfying. The fresh fruit we would later learn came straight from the Ottawa Farmer's Market that morning.
I ordered the ZenBurger platter ($14) with that day's roasted tomato soup. The burger patty is made with smoked shiitake mushrooms and walnuts. The bun is likewise vegan, baked by FNG Italian Bakery.
Roasted Tomato Soup
The burger was a little loose in texture, but its flavour more than compensated, exploding with savoury and smoke. My tomato soup was earthy sweet, every bite a taste of autumn. The soup came with pumpkin seeds, which provided a lovely nutty crunch.
My order was accompanied by a cup of "I Deal Coffee" coffee ($3) and something for my burger.
Soy Creamer and House Chili Ketchup
Chef Ishii and Loan had us try the house kimchi.
We found it tasted more like a spiced sauerkraut, very clean and very refreshing.
While we declined dessert, Loan insisted we finish our brunch with their black rice pudding with fruit compote.
ZenKitchen's rice pudding was the best we've ever had. Every rice granule still retained some chew. It was comforting, enriched with coconut milk. The fruit compote with cranberries was a refreshing change to the usual sultana raisins. It was sweet, but not overly so.
If this is the fare ZenKitchen serves for Sunday brunch, we are more than interested in trying their tasting menu for dinner.
Many thanks to Chef Ishii and Loan for their time. Good luck this November at Gold Medal Plates.
Facebook Page: Gold Medal Plates Ottawa
To purchase tickets for Gold Medal Plates, contact Sue Holloway (contact information below) or click here.
634 Somerset Street W., Ottawa
Gold Medal Plates Ottawa
Tuesday, November 16, 2010 6:00 pm
National Arts Centre
53 Elgin Street
818 Nesbitt Place