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Chef Ilona Daniel continues to push out of her culinary comfort zone

Self-proclaimed food seductress, Culinary Institute of Canada instructor, writer, recipe developer, consultant, social media maven, and champion of PEI’s potatoes, seafood, and all that we grow: Chef Ilona Daniel is the epitome of the expression ‘if you want something done, give it to a busy person’.

Celebrity chefs are seemingly a dime a dozen, but Daniel knows it takes years of hard work to succeed as a chef and to become a recognized face in the culinary world. She didn’t set out to become one of PEI’s best-known culinary faces, but it certainly has happened. In fact, she originally studied law, and it was while studying for her LSATs that she realized that the legal world didn’t have what it took to interest her for a lifetime.

That 180 degree turn wasn’t initially a parent pleaser, “I decided, ‘I think I’m going go cook, I think I want to cook.’ My parents at the outset, were not thrilled at my decision, ‘cause I had gone so far, it was a plan [to be a lawyer].” She enrolled in the Canadian Food and Wine Institute’s Culinary Management Program in Niagara, ON and graduated with President’s Honours in 2006. After heading to Italy for her apprenticeship, she then won a full scholarship to the inaugural launch of the Applied Degree in Culinary Operations here at Holland College’s Culinary Institute of Canada. Her track in the culinary world was set.

Daniel credits her mother, who passed away a few years ago, with inspiring her. “It’s funny, ‘cause she was, I would say, between my mom and my dad, more displeased that I wanted to cook, but she was the one who instilled this love [of cooking].”

Although her scholarship brought her to PEI, her father’s discovery of LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books while he was a boy in Lebanon, and the fact that the romantic hero Gilbert shared his name, ingrained a fascination of PEI within Daniel at an early age. “So when I was little, 10 or 11, my dad wanted me to read the books,…he was like, ‘oh, there’s a boy in the book named Gilbert,’” she laughed. “I was like ‘no way Dad!’…I read the whole thing…that Anne of Green Gables tourism piece is powerful.”

Since her arrival on the Island, Daniel, like Anne, has blazed a path of her own making. From being the founding chef of Daniel Brennan Brickhouse (The Brickhouse), to the Lieutenant Governor’s executive chef, inspiring the start of Burger Love™ with her 100% Island beef burger during a stint at Stanhope Beach Resort, to now guiding young culinary students as an instructor at the Culinary Institute, Daniel’s ambition is clear.

Daniel shows off her Prosciutto Club Sandwich Photo credit: Cordell Wells

She’s a Culinary Ambassador for PEI’s ‘Ask an Islander’ campaign, in 2017 she led a culinary team in Ethiopia for a Canada 150 celebration at the embassy in Addis Ababa, has participated in Northumberland Ferries’ Seaside Experiences since its inception, is a frequent judge at many culinary competitions, and she’s about to find time to go back to school.

Billing herself as a lifelong learner, Daniel plans to start her Master’s in Education at UPEI. “I’m really excited, I think I’ve been in school more than I haven’t been in school, I love learning.”

She’ll squeeze in those studies around her already stuffed schedule, but because she loves it all, it’s not work to her. “I know I do a lot of things, it’s just how I roll. It is kinda nuts,” she joked. “Sometimes I’m like ‘what are you doing Ilona?’. Obviously I love what I do, or I wouldn’t do it.”

A party Roast Beef sandwich created by Daniel    Photo credit: Cordell Wells

One of her upcoming projects is the Indian River Festival’s Lobster Tails and Tunes. “I love when we get to combine the really amazing resources we have on PEI, which is our culture, our food.” Taking place on June 8, it will include two culinary events and an evening concert.

First up will be the interactive Lobster and Learn Garden party, where Daniel and lobster fishers will interact with the guests and teach them about what makes our lobster special, along with some fun facts and practical tips on preparing lobster.

“They have the best stories,” Daniel said, of lobster fishers. “I’ve been on a few fishing expeditions and there’s always great stories on the boats.”

There will be six lobster dishes served ranging from a classic lobster chowder and brandied lobster vol au vent, to Daniel’s spicy lobster sushi, and more. Finishing with a wild blueberry ice cream sundae, this event promises to be two and half hours of culinary delight.

Later that afternoon there will be a classic lobster supper where locals will share their Island experiences and stories and give tips on how to get every delicious morsel of lobster from the shell. An evening performance in the historic church by PEI’s Inn Echo will round out the day.

“We are excited to offer a new culinary experience in the pavilion on the grounds of Historic St Mary’s,” Don Quarles, Executive Director of the Indian River Festival said. “Any opportunity to have fresh PEI lobster and incredible Island music in one place, is an event in itself.”

The combination of mixing food with storytelling resonates with Daniel. “I also am a storyteller, because I want people to feel the passion and excitement that I feel about the things that I experience, and I use food to do that. I wanna tell a story, I want you to see why I get so excited about these things.”

She’s just finished putting some of her stories and recipes into a book and hopes to have it published soon. Her passion for life, for food, and for the Island is clear. She purposely seeks out opportunities to use her reach to promote PEI, and our food. Last year she was the recipient of the inaugural Tourism Trailblazer award from the Tourism Industry Association of PEI. She also sits on the TIAPEI Board of Directors, and is the membership chair.

As a writer, she’s been contributing to The Guardian for over four years, and was recently named the regional feature food writer for the Saltwire network of papers (of which The Guardian and The Journal-Pioneer are part of). She contributes to CBC radio and has a web series in the works as well.

“I’ve cultivated a career that is not a straight line, not a straight path at all, but it’s what brings me fulfillment.”

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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