Books·How I Wrote It

How pastry chef Jackie Kai Ellis came to know her own powers through writing

The entrepreneur discusses the catharsis of writing her memoir, The Measure of My Powers.
Jackie Kai Ellis is the founder of Vancouver’s Beaucoup Bakery and author of the memoir The Measure of My Powers. (Penguin Random House Canada/Samantha Lauren)

Jackie Kai Ellis was a designer in Vancouver when she decided to close her firm and go to Paris to study pastry making. Upon her return, she opened Beaucoup Bakery. That's the story those around her knew, but few were aware of her struggles with depression, an eating disorder and within her marriage.

In her memoir, The Measure of My Powers, Ellis writes candidly about her journey to self-acceptance and personal growth and documents her travels through France, Italy and Congo, while also weaving in recipes that each represent an important moment in her life.

In her own words, Ellis tells CBC Books about the healing that came with writing The Measure of My Powers.

Embracing vulnerability

"I think that I instinctively knew that if I was going to write it, I would have to write with as much vulnerability and honesty as I could possibly have. There was this whole story that nobody even understood, they just knew the pretty parts. I also knew that it would just be self-indulgent and not worth reading if I only wrote about the pretty parts. [But] I wasn't ready to have myself be out there in such a vulnerable way.

"I was scared of other people judging me, that I wasn't good enough, that these more shameful parts of me. What caused me to want to do it was the realization that I didn't want to judge myself anymore for things that happened in my past. Fearing something was not a good enough reason not to do it."

Writing through the block

"I knew that I wouldn't be able to finish the manuscript if I didn't put myself in a secluded environment. I went to rural central Oregon. There's an energy there that is unreal, it's so clear and so bright. Every single day, I just pushed myself to write, even when it was difficult. Every time I would block myself from knowing what the next words were, I would go for a hike and the words would come. After a month, the first draft was done.

"There was a part in the story I couldn't write because it felt overwhelming, like there was a huge mass inside of my chest. Nothing would come out. So I went for a walk. When I came back, I crouched down and cried. I realized that I couldn't write it because I hadn't forgiven myself. I remember apologizing for not protecting myself more in those moments where I was so hurt that I second guessed myself. Until I did that, I couldn't write the story with freedom and love. That had a lot to do with the place because the fresh air connects you to whatever's around it."

Cherished recipes

"I didn't want to write a traditional cookbook because I didn't feel like it would make me a better person. I had written a lot of recipes for publications and felt that it wouldn't challenge me in any way, but I couldn't deny that food is a huge part of my story and who I am. There's no separating me and food. It was through food that I started to understand what it meant to re-engage with life and re-engage with my history and what it meant to love people through food and to be loved through food.

"There's a meaning behind each recipe in the book. They aren't just there to share something yummy you can make really quickly on a Tuesday night. For me, food is the thread that binds every single person and experience together. I remember moments through food. We mourn through food. We celebrate with food. We punish ourselves with food. We reward ourselves with food. It is integral to everything that I do. It was the impetus for the biggest life change that I ever made."

Jackie Kai Ellis's comments have been edited and condensed.