After graduating in 1993 from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, Donatella Arpaia pursued a brief career as an attorney before becoming one of the most influential women in the culinary world. But for Arpaia, switching from the law to culinary arts was only natural; in fact, her passion for food runs in her blood.
Spending her summers in Italy and her childhood in her parents’ restaurants, Arpaia not only developed a love of food, but also a passion for the business. Despite her natural fascination with the culinary industry, Arpaia explains on her website that her parents persuaded her to attend law school, leading to a career as a corporate attorney. But her stint as an attorney was short-lived, as her love of food proved much stronger than the law. Arpaia soon decided that a career in the culinary world would fulfill her inherent passion for food.
“I grew up in a family of restaurateurs and always had a passion for the business. It was scary to make a drastic career change but my fear of living a life that wasn’t a good fit for me was more scary,” she said of her career change.
Once Arpaia decided to pursue her passion, she’s never looked back. She opened her first restaurant, Bellini, in 1998, and has since opened other highly-acclaimed restaurants, including Davidburke & Donatella and Mia Dona, as well as Kefi, a restaurant New York Magazine says is a joint project with chef Michael Psilakis featuring a rustic Greek cuisine.
Arpaia’s success soon began to attract media attention. “I started getting small write-ups about my first restaurant Bellini because there were very few 26-year-old female lawyers-turned-restaurateurs at the time,” she said.
This attention eventually landed her a spot as a judge on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” in 2005, according to IMDB. But Arpaia explained that her time as a judge didn’t end there; after doing one appearance on the show, she said, “the reaction was so great that they kept asking me to return!”
On the heels of her success, Arpaia landed in the spotlight once again, this time being recognized not only as a successful restaurateur and Iron Chef judge, but also as an influential businesswoman. In 2008, Arpaia was listed among the most powerful women in New York City by The New York Post, ranked above the likes of Rachael Ray, Mariah Carey and Robin Roberts.
Being listed among equally successful women is not something that Arpaia takes lightly, but she knows that she earned her place with her tenacious work ethic. “I was a trail blazer in a field that, at the time, was dominated by men. My legal background gave me an edge because it taught me how to think. I am humbled to be part of an amazing group of women and constantly aspire to grow and develop,” she said.
Arpaia certainly finds plenty of inspiration around her to incite further growth and success. Reflecting on her experience as an “Iron Chef” judge, Arpaia said she realized she finds inspiration all around her: “Everything I experience impacts my cooking; of course being surrounded by the best chefs in the world inspires me constantly.”
And on Feb. 26, Arpaia is set to inspire others when she returns to her alma mater. Fairfield University’s Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts will be hosting an Open VISIONS Forum called, “From Undergrad Stag to a Hotshot TV Foodie: How This Iron Chef and Restaurateur Followed Her Dream to Success,” where Arpaia will share more of her story. According to the University, tickets are available for $45 and can be purchased via the Quick Center’s box office (203-254-4010 or toll-free 1-877-278-7396) or online at www.quickcenter.com.