As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Ilona Daniel for whom Prince Edward Island has proved to be a boundless muse, inspiring passion in her roles as chef, teacher, consultant and writer.
Ilona Daniel knows Prince Edward Island has a lock on potatoes and shellfish.
The Charlottetown-based chef is ever the good islander when she talks about PEI tubers and crustaceans. Words like unparalleled and incredible roll off her tongue in a high tide of praise and adoration that one would expect from someone who’s travelled the world as a culinary ambassador for Canada's smallest province.
Then comes the proverbial curve ball: no place does carrots like PEI. The island is no slouch at parsnip, either. Or anything else that grows below ground but above sea level.
“I like to dive in there and eat a carrot out of the ground. I just brush off the dirt and eat it,” Daniel says. “We always talk PEI potatoes but all of our root vegetables grow exceptionally well.”
The earthiness is more pronounced, she explains. “And there’s a sweetness to them, absolutely. I love to winter my parsnips and harvest them in the spring. The flavour is unbelievable.”
It’s tough to keep up with everything Daniel loves to eat and cook on the island: there are wild chanterelles, sea vegetables, and pork and beef that seem to hold cult status among those who revere a good cut of meat.
It’s even tougher to keep track of everything this kitchen maven has accomplished in her career.
She teaches at the Culinary Institute of Canada (CIC), and consults with restaurants to develop and set menus. Daniel is currently helping upstart Upstreet Craft Brewery to be on top of its food game.
She served as the official chef for the province’s lieutenant-governor, Frank Lewis, for nearly two years between 2012 and 2013. And she’s often called upon to sell the place famous for red earth and Green Gables as a culinary destination in high profile media campaigns. In May, she’ll head to Ethiopia where she’s been invited by the Canadian ambassador there to oversee two dinners celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday.
Daniel espouses maritime menus with a keyboard, too, writing about her adventures in her chef’s whites on her blog.
More surprising than the unsung attributes of the PEI carrot, these are the accomplishments of someone who was once on track to uphold Magna Carta as a lawyer before deciding to lay down the law in a professional kitchen instead.
Daniel has always been bookish. She loved school but realized while attending McMaster University in Hamilton that she hated sitting at a desk. “I woke up one morning and said I want to be a chef,” she recalls. “My family wasn’t thrilled when I told them but they’ve come around because they see how passionate I am.”
It wasn’t much of leap to trade the bar for the pass, though. Food was more than sustenance growing up the daughter of Armenian-Hungarian parents. It was an event, a way of communicating and connecting.
“Birthday dinners, Christmas dinner, even Sunday dinner lasted hours,” Daniel remembers. “There was always lots of food and lots of stories.”
These days, it’s Daniel telling the stories of eating lamb burgers at formative Armenian community picnics in Hamilton, where she grew up. She jokes that she ate hummus “before hummus was passé.”
Cabbage rolls, pilaf dotted with pine nuts, lots of pickles and her mom’s goulash were staples. So were trips to Denninger’s Foods of the World, a local German deli that’s become a Steeltown institution, though at the time it would have been considered exotic in a city not known for its food until recently.
“Trips to Denninger’s were like magic,” Daniel says. “At Christmas, we still go. It’s not Christmas unless you get a couple marzipan pigs.”
Her mother made everything from scratch. When Daniel begged for Lunchables to eat at school like so many of her classmates, her request was met with an unyielding no. Instead, Daniel’s mother cobbled together a homemade version of the pre-fab lunch kits.
She often kept her girl beside her while she worked and it was in those moments of playing sous-chef that Daniel picked up on the “creative aspect of cooking.”
Yet it was the no-frills shore lunches on fishing trips with her grandfather that informed her approach to food, too. They were a hearty hodgepodge of bacon cooked on a stick over an open fire, then folded into a slice of crusty bread with onion and tomato and eaten with her hands. They served up the idea that simple can be better.
“These are meals you never forget. Simplicity, it’s much more difficult to cook with less,” she explains. “Some of the fanciest dinners we don’t remember as vividly. It’s so easy to say, ‘Look what I know. Look what I can do,’ when it should be bare bones. It’s about technique, freshness and quality.”
That philosophy was further affirmed when she made the trip down the QEW highway, in the opposite direction of any Canadian law school, to study culinary arts at Niagara College, and later at the CIC in Charlottetown, where she got a scholarship. Mentors sometimes had to tell her to “dial it down” along the way, she says.
“Just because you can put lichen in a dish doesn’t mean you should. Fundamentally, you want to think of the people you’re cooking for,” Daniel says. “Some of the best meals I’ve ever had, we used our fingers to eat.”
Charlottetown was never part of the plan, though. Daniel dreamed of cooking and finding her niche in New Orleans, but it was 2005 and Hurricane Katrina rerouted her to Canada’s East Coast to study at the CIC. In hindsight, it was meant to be.
Her father, Gilbert, shared a name with Anne Shirley’s foil and love interest in Anne of Green Gables. He introduced his daughter to Lucy Maude Montgomery’s iconic character when she was a child, and Daniel fell in love with the stories of the spirited girl with the red braids.
Daniel took every professional opportunity Charlottetown and the island offered. In the process, she fell in love with a place that proved a boundless muse. And with its slower pace of life, it provided the perfect counter to schedules packed with running kitchens and consulting in them, teaching the next generation of chefs, and educating others through heaps of media appearances, or with her own writing.
There are days when Daniel, quite literally, does it all. She credits impeccable time management skills and that one compelling emotion that started this all, passion.
“I don’t think I could have accomplished what I’ve accomplished if I didn’t love it. I put a lot in my schedule and it can be a grind,” Daniel says. “Some days I say, ‘Have you lost your mind? Why are you doing all this?’ At the same time, I wouldn’t do it any other way. If you want something in life, it’s really important to cultivate a career that empowers you so you can empower others.”
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Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.