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Willow Cakes’ patissier to serve as judge in Chocolate Masters contest
Catherine O'Donnell will be headed to Montreal in May to judge the North American section of the Chocolate Masters competition. Supplied
Catherine ODonnell guides baking and pastry arts students in chocolate flower-making. Supplied

Catherine O’Donnell counts herself among the millions of people in the world who love chocolate.

This May, however, she’ll have the opportunity to sample and judge some of the best sweet treats in the continent at the World Chocolate Masters competition in Montreal.

For O’Donnell, owner of Willow Cakes and Pastries on Niagara Stone Road and co-ordinator of Niagara College’s baking and pastry arts program, her selection as a jury member for this annual competition was a genuine surprise.

“It’s a dream come true,” said O’Donnell, who enjoys both eating and working with chocolate.

“I watch the World Chocolate Masters every year but, when I decided to become a judge, I didn’t think that was even in the equation for someone like me.”

O’Donnell will be headed to the Chocolate Academy in La Metropole to participate as a juror in the North American preselection for the World Chocolate Masters.

The jury for North America’s selection consists of leaders in the industry. These experts will review, taste and assess all creations.

She was chosen as one of five jurors – and the only woman – on the panel. 

“Catherine O’Donnell’s selection as a judge signifies our commitment to diversity and excellence in the culinary world. As the only female chef on the panel, Catherine brings a unique perspective and expertise that enriches the evaluation process,” said Laurence Torcherie, Chocolate Academy project co-ordinator for the Montreal competition.

“(O’Donnell) embodies unparalleled dedication, with a career coaching and judging top pastry chefs worldwide,” Torcherie added.

National selections for the World Chocolate Masters for Canada and the United States will take place from May 29 to 30 in Montreal ahead of the world final in 2025.

O’Donnell has been teaching at Niagara College since 2015 – along with being a program co-ordinator in the baking and pastry arts program, she is currently a professor.

She’s also a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident most widely known as the face of Willow Cakes and Pastries, where she creates wedding cakes, as well as desserts for some of the area’s finest restaurants and offers a selection of unique breads, cakes and pastries.

O’Donnell also oversees the creation of the cake for NOTL’s Canada Day celebrations, where long lines of sweet tooths can be seen along Queen Street as the cake makes its way to Simcoe Park accompanied by the Fort George Fife and Drum Corps.

She has worked as a pastry chef in Toronto for Oliver & Bonacini, the King Edward Hotel and in Niagara for Vintage Hotels, Hillebrand’s Vineyard Café and Peller Estates Winery Restaurant.

Two years ago, she was one of five chefs inducted into the Canadian Culinary Federation Honour Society during the organization’s national conference in Saskatoon.

In 2016, O’Donnell was part of the coaching crew behind Junior Culinary Team Canada, which captured gold and silver medals at the Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. She also coached the senior team.

Later, she earned the title of certified international judge from the World Association of Chefs’ Societies, recognizing her as a senior-level culinary professional with advanced judging experience.

Despite her accomplishments, O’Donnell doesn’t consider herself to be among the world’s elite pastry chefs.

Even with a successful career spanning more than 40 years, she has seen how both women and pastry chefs can be overlooked in the culinary industry.

“Nobody ever knows the pastry chef at a restaurant, male or female,” she said. “But behind every great chef is a great pastry chef.”

O’Donnell is writing a book that sheds light on the life of a pastry chef.

People don’t realize how hard we work. Every holiday,” she said. “They don’t see what we sacrifice and what our kids sacrifice.”

Today, O’Donnell is as passionate about teaching as she is about baking and the pastry arts.

“You get to teach somebody what you love to and make a difference in their lives,” she said. “It doesn’t get better than that.”

Craig Youdale, Niagara College’s dean of culinary, tourism and beverage studies division, said O’Donnell’s appointment as an international competition judge speaks to the quality of faculty at the school.

“Chef Catherine has dedicated a lot of time and effort to become a top-level international judge and it’s exciting she can share her expertise with future chocolate champions,” he said.

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