ILona Daniel, a high-octane dynamo on the Prince Edward Island food scene, wears many hats. As a full-time, culinary instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, she teaches theory, supervises practical work with her students who serve more than 250 lunches a day to the public. She produces a food-and-lifestyle segment for CBC every other week. She is the food editor for Harrowsmith, a quarterly magazine, where she is responsible for recipe development, the accompanying text, and the food photography. She is a feature writer for SaltWire, where she does a monthly feature about Atlantic Canada’s food scene. Recently, she helped to develop a concept for Potikki’s restaurant in Halifax. The menu features flavours of India with Canadian comfort-food sensibilities. If that isn’t a plate-full, Daniel has just wrapped up filming 10 episodes of “Get In the Kitchen”, which launched nationwide this year.
With so much on her plate, Vacay.ca wanted to know when she slept.
ILona Daniel: People ask me that all the time. I work quickly. When you put that much into your schedule, procrastination doesn’t get to play a role. There’s no time for it.
Vacay.ca: Describe your typical day.
ID: On a typical weekday, I’m up at 5-ish and at school between 6 and 6:30 to organize the day’s activities. Usually my CBC segment is on Wednesday or Thursday. It takes a little bit of time to post a recipe to my website and make it approachable to listeners. The focus here is how to make comfort foods in a different way. Then I find time for the other commitments. For Harrowsmith, it’s more a fresh-from-the-land approach because their readers often grow their own vegetables. These are simpler, more approachable ways of cooking than teaching culinary students who want to deep dive.
Vacay.ca: Of these many roles you, which one do you like best?
ID: It’s hard to say. Teaching keeps me humble. It keeps me strident. You must stay on top of what’s new and what’s happening in the industry, because you have to give that information to your students. The classics are important but it’s equally important to be able to translate that into what today’s diners are looking for. That’s always fun. And I really do love food photography.
Vacay.ca: Did you study photography?
ID: No. I’m self-taught. It’s been a process.
Vacay.ca: Did you attend culinary school?
ID: I grew up in the Niagara region and went to the Niagara Culinary Institute for two years. Then I won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of Canada here in Charlottetown. I am a big Anne of Green Gables fan and I have always wanted to come to PEI. This is home now.
Vacay.ca: You started out studying to be a lawyer. Why did you make that quantum leap from courtroom to kitchen?
ID: My first job was at an old-fashioned malt shop. And I haven’t looked back. I’ve always worked in food. One day, something clicked and I just didn’t want to do the law school thing and all the paperwork it involves. I loved cooking and decided to go to culinary school. And that was it.
Vacay.ca: Who inspired you?
ID: My mom. Always my mom. She was a good cook. She let me sit on the kitchen counter as she worked. She loved cooking and sharing an everyday meal with the people we cared about. Sadly, she is no longer with us. But cooking is one of the ways I honour her. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without those early days at her kitchen counter. As for professional inspiration, Nigella Lawson has shown me the importance of staying true to who I am and my beliefs as a chef.
Vacay.ca: You are famous in PEI for your potato donuts. Tell us about them.
ID: They are a cake-style donut, made with mashed potatoes. The dough is like a biscuit dough and it comes together quickly. The final flavour is old-fashioned nutmeg. Then they are rolled in sugar or covered with a cream glaze. I like to steep the cream with chai tea and mix with icing sugar for a special glaze.
Vacay.ca: What do you love most to cook?
ID: That’s such a hard question. I really like making salads. While I love to cook a steak, there are only so many temperatures to cook it at and there are only so many outcomes you can get. But vegetables provide a direct way to highlight your personality, your whimsy, and the seasonality incorporating the textures and the colours. I love vibrant dishes. It’s almost an artist’s medium of expression.
Vacay.ca: Do you have a favourite food?
ID: I like all foods. Fennel especially. I enjoy it raw or cooked, on its own. I love its versatility. Its licorice flavour can be dominant or it can be tender, with delicate nuances of anise. I add it to coleslaw or pasta salad. I like it with seafood, pork, and poultry.
Vacay.ca: What’s so special about PEI?
ID: It’s a place where there are so many things you can do. You can be as busy as you want. Wherever you are, you are minutes away from a beautiful landscape or the ocean which has the power to ground you. You can easily know who is growing your food or who is making your beer. It is such an artistic community that attracts creative types.
Vacay.ca: What do you like to do when you are not cooking?
ID: I like to paint. I’m not planning to sell my art or look for a critique or judgments. I paint with very rudimentary things like toothpicks, my fingers, and sponges. It’s like letting your inner child out to play. Our world would be better if we created more just to feel fulfilled. Sometimes we deny ourselves of creative and artistic expression. We need more of that. I also love to connect with nature. I hike at nearby Strathgartney Provincial Park, which feels like I am a million miles from civilization when home is only 20 minutes away.
Vacay.ca: Do you like to travel?
ID: I love travel. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, I haven’t done a lot. Driving around the island, I always book end the tourism season with long weekends at a cottage, just to relax and enjoy the coastal scenes. The sunsets on PEI are spectacular. I used to travel tons, where I was able to go into kitchens and work with chefs around the world. And I will again.
Vacay.ca: What’s your favourite food destination?
ID: Korea. Understanding the cultural significance of a food as basic as a cucumber fascinates me. And then there is France. Always delicious.
Vacay.ca: What do you shop for when you travel abroad?
ID: I return with spices and condiments.
Vacay.ca: What’s your five-year goal?
ID: That’s a tough question because there are so many things. Having the courage to follow my heart and my intuition. I want to do a second season of “Get In the Kitchen”. More speaking engagements and getting more visibility for women in the industry. It’s important to show young women that there is a spot for them at the table, that their vision is important and their stories deserve to be heard. And relaxing simply.
Vacay.ca: What advice do you wish you had given your 25-year-old self?
ID: Trust your instinct. Don’t punish yourself so much. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.
MORE ABOUT THE CULINARY INSTITUTE OF CANADA
Location: 4 Sydney Street, Charlottetown, PEI (see map below)
Dining: Lunch is prepared by students, under the supervision of faculty members. The menu varies daily. The price is around $15; no reservations needed. Visit the CIC’s website for more details.