Cooking on island time: Q&A with chef Ilona Daniel

The multifaceted life in Prince Edward Island outside the restaurant

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Not all chefs work in restaurant kitchens. Chef Ilona Daniel proves this with everything she does, from teaching at the Culinary Institute of Canada, to travelling the world in search of the best of what the local cuisine has to offer. We sat down with her after the recent PEI Shellfish Festival’s international chowder competition, and here’s what she had to say about the opportunities afforded to her on Prince Edward Island and around the globe.

You came to PEI to attend the Culinary Institute of Canada’s Culinary Operations program before working as founding chef at the Brickhouse. Then, you moved on to become the personal chef for the Lieutenant Governor of PEI. What have you been up to since?

I’ve really been trying to be a chef while doing more than just working in kitchens. I have a consulting business, I teach at the Culinary Institute of Canada, I write, I’m a brand ambassador, I travel. I’ll still have 14-hour days, but with a bunch of different activities. I can be busy on my own terms and block out time for teaching, writing, travelling, and such. It allows me to satisfy all of the creative parts that make me who I am, while empowering and educating people about food.

Where are you travelling to next?

China. A lot of people say they want to go to the Great Wall but they never really think it will be a reality for them. A few years ago, the opportunity came. Standing on the Great Wall was surreal. It was one of those moments that felt like the right place, right time. I’m going back because I love the culture. It’s ancient, and there’s so much food history and anthropology to discover.

What is it about China’s cuisine that draws you in?

This time I’m visiting four different provinces, but I’m most looking forward to Szechuan. Hot pot is life. It’s like fondue but with the volume turned up to 20. In general, Chinese cuisine is so impressive because they can make something incredible out of nothing. Simple ingredients like eggs and spinach can be turned into something magical.

Do you have anything else that is new and exciting in the works?

I’m putting together a cookbook. It’s not your traditional cookbook that is solely recipes, it is more of a journey, with recipes and stories based on my travels.

I know you spend your summers in PEI and in the off-season spend a lot of time travelling elsewhere. What would you say to someone who has never been to PEI to promote the destination? 

Tourism is big here, but I think one of the most important aspects of what we have is that we are still authentic. We are based on agriculture, aquaculture, and hospitality. It is what it is; you either have it or you don’t. We have it. It doesn’t hurt that the island is absolutely gorgeous either. Virtually everything is an Instagram photo waiting to happen. There are a lot of festivals that happen in PEI.

What are the benefits of hosting big events like the International Shellfish Festival?

Events like Shellfish Festival and Fall Flavours are raising the bar for the food scene here. We are constantly learning new ways to incorporate what visiting chefs bring, in terms of their knowledge and experience. PEI is continually growing and organic.

Where do you like to eat when you’re not cooking for yourself here on the island?

Whether it’s breakfast or lunch, the culinary institute’s cafeteria is the best deal. It’s cheap and delicious, not to mention you’re helping students to get a head start on their culinary careers. They also have the Lucy Maud dining room for something more upscale. If you’re exploring the island, Richard’s Fresh Seafood in Cove Head is a seasonal place that makes fish and chips that will blow your mind. Point Prim Chowder House is also one of my favourites for their steamer pot of seafood. It’s made with the freshest seafood, in a bright, clean lemon broth.


A photo posted by Doug Keefe (@dougkeefe) on