I can remember the restaurant world that I started in as a chef. While as warm and exciting as it is today, it was light years away from much of what we know and love about the industry now. The old-guard staunchly defended a ‘boys’ club’ that was very difficult to break into.

Although I had the desire and appetite for it, my first restaurant job after graduation from culinary school wasn’t even in the kitchen; I was at the front of the house, in one of the few restaurants that had a female chef. She was trained and educated in Italy, and had brought her years of experience to Ottawa — where I soon found myself under her tutelage. This was an unusual situation, you see, as women were rarely, if ever, seen in the kitchen at a restaurant. They were to be seen as waitresses or hostesses, but never on the line.

Chef Raffaela (Bella) Milito was my first mentor. She helped lay a strong foundation for me to grow and build on – a foundation that eventually helped me find the courage and confidence to start my own restaurant. Under her guidance and working alongside her, I rose through the ranks and learned how to survive in this tough industry – for many years.

Today’s female restaurant workers are a new breed – strong and brave. But while the door is now open for them to step into a professional kitchen, too many are still encountering outdated attitudes once they get there. This needs to change

Throughout my career I’ve tried to make a difference by mentoring young women in our industry – paying it forward, if you will. The next generation is now raising its voice and using the power of social media to engage our industry. All generations and genders need to be part of this dialogue and, more importantly, part of the change.

This is a beautiful and diverse industry. We need to make sure that those who share our passion for hospitality, and are willing to take on the long hours, fast pace and demanding standards that are part and parcel of this business, do so in an environment of safety and respect.

Speaking of which, if you’re in Ottawa, make sure to stop by Chef Raffaela’s restaurant, Bella’s.

Donna