The Vegan Rebel

This free spirit’s healthy, plant-based recipes create foodie communities

At a webinar held on July 3, members of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ) community were able to meet with the Japanese-Canadian celebrity vegan chef, Caroline Ishii.

The webinar was co-organized by the McGill Alumni Association of Japan, and moderated by Joey Wu, chair of the CCCJ Wellness Committee and an alumna of the McGill MBA program. During the event, Ishii spoke about her cultural background, her path to becoming a chef, being the subject of a reality TV show and how she pivoted her business in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In keeping with Ishii’s freewheeling spirit, the webinar was a lively affair, punctuated by ready laughter and fascinating anecdotes. It’s the same style that you can find in her memoir, The Accidental Chef .


As Ishii discussed her background, she raised an interesting point that relates not only to food, but to the cultural experiences of the children of immigrants around the world. Many people whose parents or grandparents come from other countries will often hold even more strongly to certain cultural traditions than their forebears, even though the traditions may have changed back in their countries of origin.

Ishii raised this point with the example of osechi ryori — the dishes that are eaten on the first few days of January in the Japanese home. While many families in Japan will now order much of their osechi from stores, Ishii mentioned that her mother would prepare each of the dishes from scratch, even though it took a long time.


She also noted how the landscape for plant-based foods in Canada has completely changed since she first began as a chef. Within a relatively short time, the concept of vegan food has gone from something that people didn’t even know how to pronounce, to being on the menus at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Tim Hortons.

She pointed out that, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, people are paying more attention to their health-related choices, which is making vegan options more popular. The trend is unlikely to slow down, Ishii said, and Japanese consumers are beginning to be interested in vegan options, too, That said, progress remains to be made here in that regard.

Wu brought up the topic of being able to pivot in the wake of the pandemic, and asked Ishii to discuss how she did this, as in-person dining has been limited since 2020. Her response has been to organize large-scale virtual dinners. Using Canadian ingredients, she prepares five-course Japanese meals, which participants can either have delivered to their homes or can pick up. People then join the dinner virtually, Ishii explains the dishes, and people are able to enjoy a communal dining experience, even at a distance.

The first of her virtual dinners was held in 2020 on World Food Day, October 16. The event was a great success, drawing 100 guests, including Norihiro Okuda, the Japanese ambassador to Canada. She has held other dinners since then, which have attracted up to 150 participants. The popularity of the meals is not just due to people’s love of fine dining and healthy food, Ishii believes, but to a longing for community.

“When you put in the time and dedication, your innate gifts can shine through.” 


Ishii spoke eloquently about the path that took her from a career in marketing to a life lived around food. Key to this, she pointed out, was being willing to make mistakes through the learning process. “When you start something — anything — you’re not going to be that good at it. But that’s okay. As children, we know that intuitively. If we start something, we might suck at it. We might make mistakes.

“As adults, however, we are hell-bent that we must do it perfectly. Especially in Japan, we must do it right the first time. We tell our children that it’s okay to make mistakes, but we don’t tell ourselves that. So I believe it’s really important to explore this and see where it goes. I think at some point, when you put in the time and dedication, your innate gifts can shine through.” 

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