Admission to a national honor society is just the cherry on top of the cake of a storied career for one Niagara-on-the-Lake-based pastry chef.
After 44 years in the industry, Catherine O’Donnell was one of five chefs inducted into the Canadian Culinary Federation Honor Society last month at the federation’s national conference in Saskatoon. Joining four men, she was the only female chef to be honored.
“There I was with four guys, and that was the coolest feeling — that I was the only female,” said O’Donnell. “What we do isn’t easy, and we do a lot of sacrificing and it is stressful, but the rewards at the end surpass it all.”
O’Donnell is best known in the community for her Mary Street patisserie, Willow Cakes and Pastries. For more than a decade, the little corner shop has made a big impact with an annual giant cake that O’Donnell designs and creates for the Niagara-on-the-Lake Cake Parade on Canada Day. People line Queen Street each summer to see what she has dreamed up.
When she’s not at Willow, O’Donnell is in front of a class at Niagara College’s Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a role she had never imagined for herself when she first started out, but now seven years since stepping on campus, she enjoys the way it challenges her to keep learning.
“Our industry just keeps evolving, and so by teaching, I actually get to evolve with it,” she said.
The Canadian Culinary Federation works to unite chefs and cooks across the country in a common dedication to professional excellence. Each year, a handful of chefs are inducted into the Honor Society. Inclusion is only granted to those who have made significant contributions to the profession and shown a lifetime passion for their craft.
“Catherine was chosen because of her many years of involvement with culinary teams, branch involvement, community involvement (and) her dedication to her students at the college,” said Ryan Marquis, Canadian Culinary Federation national president. “I can tell you (that) professionally and personally, Catherine fits that criteria, and it was our honor for her to induct her into our Culinary Federation Honor Society.”
I have noted that inductees are nominated by their peers in the region, and their name is then put forth to be voted on by regional presidents, and from there, the national selection committee makes a decision. Living in Niagara-on-the-Lake, O’Donnell is a member of the Oakville branch.
She’s not the only Niagara College faculty member in the society. Canadian Food and Wine Institute dean Craig Youdale was inducted in 2019.
“Catherine has dedicated her life to the culinary profession as a pastry chef and (through) her work with young people launching their career,” Youdale said. “It’s great to see and we are all proud of her accomplishment.”
O’Donnell got her start in the industry at the age of 15, when she started working in a bakery. A visit to the King Edward Hotel in Toronto for afternoon tea with her grandmother de ella set her in pursuit of a goal.
“I said, ‘By the time I’m 30, I want to work here,’ and I got in when I was 29 and a half,” O’Donnell said. “My goal was to be a pastry chef by the time I was 30 and work at the King Eddie and make their afternoon tea.”
She went on to work at several hotels before opening Willow Cakes and Pastries. In 2016, she was part of the coaching crew with the Junior Culinary Team Canada, which captured a gold and silver medal at the Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. She also coached the senior team.
O’Donnell went from coaching to judging, earning the title of certified international judge from the World Association of Chef’s Societies.
Not one to rest on her laurels, O’Donnell’s already looking to accomplish her next goal: become a published author. She’s currently writing her first book by her.