From closing one restaurant to opening another, Donna Dooher isn’t slowing down anytime soon
Donna Dooher fed her flock of hungry parishioners for almost 20 years in Toronto at Mildred Pierce Restaurant, and the tradition continues with her newest baby, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen. It’s easy to spot the secret to her success. Sitting down for tea and good conversation with the gracious host on a balmy winter morning, is as comfortable as sitting at home. Fresh-faced and casually dressed, surprisingly this wife, mother, chef, entrepreneur, author, former TV personality and architectural technologist didn’t always dream of a life in the kitchen.
“What cinched it for me was a part-time summer job I had working as a lifeguard at the new Holiday Inn in downtown Ottawa. I was introduced to a whole industry that I barely knew existed — the hospitality industry. I was completely smitten,” she recalls with a smile.
Cut to culinary school and the Ritz on Elgin Street in Ottawa where the budding chef began her two-and-half-year climb to the top. Next Dooher moved to Toronto with her husband (and business partner), Kevin Gallagher, who was relocated to manage a new restaurant. “[The city] was just getting ready to explode,” she says. “Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy were cooking at Scaramouche and Mark McEwan was putting himself on the map.”
It turns out the toque was ready to make a name for herself, too. The path began with Avant-goût Catering, which gave rise to Mildred Pierce restaurant. The popular spot continued to receive rave reviews as Dooher’s Cookworks cooking studio, with hands-on classes, took off — eventually spawning the so-titled 13-part TV series. But things changed when the duo decided to close Mildred Pierce to make way for a new venture. “Mildred Pierce…had plateaued,” Dooher explains. “Restaurants are like Broadway shows; they all run their course.”
The end may have been a surprise to the culinary community, but the warehouse that housed the resto — complete with crumbling infrastructure — was only ever intended to accommodate the catering company. “It was really nothing more than a couple bottles of red wine: that was the business plan for Mildred Pierce,” Dooher confesses with a laugh. “Part of building this new brand is building an exit strategy, which we never did with Mildred Pierce.”
At Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, Dooher’s philosophy of “quality food at approachable prices” remains, though the new menu respects the dining community’s evolving palate. Classic profiteroles ($9) from Pierce are still a staple, while new chef Tyler Cunningham’s short-rib pot roast ($28) is a hit. But aside from the food, there are many changes, including the decor and a greener footprint. “Coming from a facility that was an energy hog…we really wanted to make sure this new project made significant inroads,” says Dooher. The new restaurant features in-house filtered water, induction cooking, hand-activated bathroom sinks and a trendy cardboard coffee table in the lounge.
As the conversation draws to a close, it’s clear this 55-year-old doesn’t intend to stop hosting guests anytime soon. She wants to return to TV and open another concept. “People are stressed, they’re lonely, they miss that experience at the table and that’s what we do in this business: that’s our job.”
Photography by Margaret Mulligan