Local chefs find inspiration from mom inside and outside the kitchen: Jasmine Mangalaseril

When it comes to inspiration, many chefs often name their moms, grandmothers or other female figures as the one who ignited their culinary spark.

A lot of that inspiration often extends to important life lessons outside of the kitchen, too.

From encouraging others to follow their dreams, to the importance of perseverance, to helping others reach their potential, Waterloo region food entrepreneurs have each learned important lessons from influential women in their lives.

"I always had a sense of I could really do anything I want, if I worked hard and put my mind to it," said Dana Shortt, owner of Dana Shortt Gourmet and Gifts in Waterloo.

While some parents might counsel caution if their daughter said she wanted to shift to a culinary career, Shortt's mother, Rosslyn Shortt, understood her daughter's passion for food, and offered unwavering support.

"I think that as I get older and have my own children that I'm guiding and raising, I really appreciate that about her," Shortt said.

Starting out as a personal chef, Shortt became a caterer, and then opened her gourmet food shop, with her then business partner Aunt Susan, about 20 years ago. With every big, hard decision made, her mother, also an entrepreneur, has been her sounding board.

"Whether it be the rebrand, the renovation, or cutting out catering, she was just very, very positive and very supportive," Shortt said. "That's many conversations and many nights and some with tears. I'm very blessed, my whole life, with my mom."

Finding strength through traditions

Irma Donan, owner of Kitchener's Salvadorean cuisine restaurant The Guanaquita, said her mom "would never quit."

"She will always tell me to keep going. That's how you learn," Donan said. "And that's what, even now as an older woman … every time that I think I want to quit, I remember her words, telling me to keep up and keep going."

Donan's grandmother Lauriana Cordeiro made and sold pupusas and pastelitos from her stall in the San Salvador market. When Donan was seven, Cordeiro began to share that cooking knowledge and the life skills needed to get ahead.

Decades later, in 2012, Donan turned to those culinary skills and that strength to open her restaurant. And just like her grandmother's market stall, Donan works with her husband and three of four children in her downtown restaurant.

"She was very patient, but I always remember her as a very strong woman," Donan said.

"My grandmother, she taught me almost everything that I know how to cook. In the restaurant and every recipe that I make is inspired by her."

A grandmother's love

Nadia Dragusanu, owner of Cambridge's Café du Monde Crêperie, remembers the small actions of her grandmother, Clairona Johnson, in St. Lucia.

"My grandmother was such a solid figure in my life. Constantly making sure that we're up in time and we were ready for school with our lunches," she said. "That was a pretty determining factor in my life and who I became."

Nadia Dragusanu, owner of Café du Monde Crêperie, carried lessons from her grandmother when she decided to embark on opening a food business with her mom.
Nadia Dragusanu, owner of Café du Monde Crêperie, carried lessons from her grandmother when she decided to embark on opening a food business with her mom.

Nadia Dragusanu, owner of Café du Monde Crêperie, carried lessons from her grandmother when she decided to embark on opening a food business with her mom. (Submitted by Nadia Dragusanu)

Dragusanu says Johnson demonstrated how to help others reach their potential. Johnson was also an entrepreneur with a tailoring business. With every button sewed and jacket altered, she proved she could support her family using the resources at hand.

Years later, after moving to Canada, those lessons were put to use. After years of hearing people say her mother should open a restaurant, Dragusanu and her mother, Veronica Johnson, launched a food truck, which has since evolved into a café.

Dragusanu said they make a good team, fusing her ideas with her mother's culinary skills.

"I think we all have something to learn from a challenge and I think that family shapes us in one way or the other. It motivates us to become who we are. Having a solid family around you is important. I know it helped me," Dragusanu said.

Words of wisdom

When asked for one piece of advice that could help others, here's what these accomplished mothers and business owners said:

  • "One of my friends ... said this whole work-life balance … it's more about harmony. Sometimes your family gets more of your attention. Sometimes [other] areas of your life may require a bit more of you." — Dana Shortt.

  • "I have a network of female friends. Just by calling each other and talking to each other, we help each other navigate different situations … I find that it's very useful." — Nadia Dragusanu.

  • "You don't go in knowing anything about how to raise your kids. You probably feel you won't be able to do a good job. But if you try your best to teach them the right way, they do grow up to be good kids. I do feel that." — Irma Donan.