Donna Dooher is precisely that — a doer. When there were no head chef jobs for women in the 1980s, she opened Mildred Pierce inside an industrial building on Queen Street West, named after the Joan Crawford movie. Then, when there was a distinct lack of breakfast and brunch spots in Toronto, she decided to tackle that, too.
But let’s rewind a little. “I moved to Toronto with my husband Kevin from Ottawa in 1984,” says Dooher, who sits across from me, her trademark red hair glinting in the sunshine and her chef clogs (with heels, naturally) tucked beneath the table. “I thought I was ready for the big leagues. Long story short… No.” After working as a sous chef with minimal prospects, she launched a catering company, renting out a commercial kitchen in the space that is now The Great Hall. “I think [rent] was $200 a month. I know I got a discount for washing the stairs. And I was four-months pregnant when I started.”
One day, after wandering across the unfenced train tracks, Dooher saw a sign advertising space for rent at 99 Sudbury Street. The then-owners, who were using the space to shoot pornographic movies, gave her the grand tour. “There was a magnificent brand-new kitchen — I’d say almost 1,000 square-feet — built in a 10,000-square foot-warehouse. And I was playing it very cool.”
Dooher took over a small section to run her catering business. Then, when the film industry began to tank, friends asked if she’d let them make over the empty space into a party room where she could cater events. Dooher agreed and the room was transformed into an utterly campy wonderland filled with chandeliers made from spray-painted Kewpie dolls, faux-marble Styrofoam wainscotting and Christmas lights. Shortly after, she and Kevin decided to open as a restaurant — the original Mildred Pierce — on a trial basis.
“That was our whacky and eclectic restaurant hidden in the warehouse in the very extreme west end,” she recalls. “[Back then] there was no Drake Hotel … it was where you went to buy heroin and get pitchers of beer for 50 cents.”
With two young children, a recession and not enough revenue to reliably pay her staff, Dooher considered packing up shop. “The restaurant could potentially be full with 14 people, so that was not a good business model.” But then, Dooher and late husband Kevin Gallagher had a brainwave while fondly remembering Ottawa’s continental breakfasts.
“Toronto was not seeing anything like that,” says Dooher. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we try this? Maybe we could do brunch.’” Even with all hands on deck, including their nine-year-old son Rory making coffee in the back, they were run off their feet. “The demand for brunch was off the charts.” To accommodate, they extended the hours and then days. “I think that’s the big appeal to brunch — it’s cross-sectional and intergenerational. It’s casual and relaxed. People were moving away from that experience around the table in the home and looking to replace it at a restaurant.”
In 2009, the restaurant moved into a larger space in the heart of Liberty Village and reincarnated as Mildred’s Temple Kitchen (“for many reasons”). But it didn’t take long to find their footing in the new space on Hanna Avenue, where they have served pancakes and waffles ever since, many of which are named after characters from the namesake film noir.
Unlike Mildred Pierce, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen has only grown in popularity. Reservations for brunch cannot be made on the weekend, but that doesn’t stop the restaurant’s legions of fans, who routinely line up for hours. Mildred’s’ Pantry, a pandemic invention, continues to be a fix for brunch fans who want to eat pancakes, tarts and compotes from the comfort of their homes.
When asked why the brunch empire has stood the test of time, Dooher credits two things: “People and passion. Everything that comes out of Mildred’s is a result of that.”
The most iconic dishes at Mildred's Temple Kitchen
Mrs. Biederhof’s Wild Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes
“We wanted to do a buttermilk pancake that was thicker and fluffier, and we wanted to put lots of fun things on it, so that’s why we did the wild blueberry compote. The pancakes have evolved over the years — they’ve gotten fluffier and the compote has changed — but the maple syrup is a big part of it.
My husband’s family is from Lanark County, just outside Ottawa, where some of the finest maple syrup comes from. Our syrup is exclusively from the Wheeler family’s Golden Maples Farm.
I think what we do extremely well is that we’ve got this recipe down to such perfection, with all the tweaking and finessing, that we can be so consistent. I call it the holy trinity of our pancakes: It’s three stacks with whipped cream, blueberry compote and our maple syrup. People always start out thinking they’ll share the pancakes… And then they don’t.”
“Different chefs de cuisine come through here, and they bring great dishes — I think the poutine was from chef Michael Leary. Poutine was all the rage, and again, we always like to put our spin on a dish. Instead of French fries, we thought, ‘What about potato gnocchi?’ And instead of just brown gravy, let’s make a rich oxtail. And we put cheese curds on top of it just like you would with poutine.
It’s become incredibly labour intensive and expensive as a result. The oxtail takes days to make: You’ve got to peel the meat off and make all these big fluffy dumplings. So when we run it, we always give a heads up on social media, because some people say, ‘I’m not coming back until you put that Gnocchi Poutine back on the menu!’”
Duck and Waffles
“We’d come across chicken and waffles, a very popular dish in the southern U.S. — they love their biscuits and waffles and that sort of stuff. Everybody was deep frying chicken, but we didn’t want to do a deep-fried chicken and waffles — we didn’t even have a deep fryer at that time.
[Originally], we did a roast breast chicken with a skin on and all the juices — it’s in our original cookbook. It came with our wild blueberry green peppercorn chutney, which was a staple on our catering menu ... We took it off the menu, but then we thought, ‘Why don’t we do duck confit? We’ll do duck and waffles! And we’ll put a duck egg on it instead of a chicken egg.’ And that’s where duck and waffles came from.”
“That is basically eggs benedict with our Mildred’s spin. When we were coming up with the menu, we were like, ‘Should we do a crumpet or a piece of toast? What do we put a poached egg with? Hollandaise?’ Then we thought, ‘What about opening up a croissant and doing smoked salmon and the eggs with a béarnaise sauce, and then we put the top back on — how about that?’ We’ve been getting our croissants from Petite Thuet almost since day one, and it’s one of my favourite dishes.”
Mildred’s Biscuits and Scones
“This has been on the menu since the beginning, and I must give credit to our chef de cuisine at Mildred Pierce, Anne Yarymowich. She just made flavours sing. Anne worked very hard with me on putting the first brunch menu together. She wasn’t cooking [biscuits] originally, but she worked with me to develop them over one or two bottles of wine. ‘Let’s do biscuits!’ ‘What kind?’ ‘Scones!’ ‘Okay.’
What makes our biscuits unique is we use fresh yeast … that’s what gives you that beautiful rise, or as we call it, lacquering — that layering up and up. We serve with apple butter, made in-house, slow roasted in the oven with these sticks of cinnamon. Apples are part of Ontario’s fruit landscape, so we try to stick with what we grow.”