Haley Bittermann, Corporate Executive Chef and Director of Operations at the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, always turns challenges into successes. For starters, it took an injured knee as pre-med college student to spark her culinary dreams. “I was a server and bartender when I hurt my knee,” she recalls. “I thought it would be easier to stand in the kitchen than to run around in the front of the house, and once I got back there, I just fell in love with it.” Years later that love shines through every dish she conceptualizes and prepares (her favorite is barbecue shrimp).

When Bittermann attended a small culinary school in her hometown of Cincinnati, she landed an externship in 1993 at Mr. B’s in New Orleans, owned by restaurateur Ralph Brennan. The two had an instant rapport, so it was a no-brainer for Bittermann to make the city her permanent home after graduating, and to continue working for Brennan. “New Orleans is a city with a soul,” she beams. “It’s the best place in the world to cook because the people here love to eat.”

For Bittermann, food has always been a way to bring people together. “When we got Red Fish [Grill] open after Hurricane Katrina, I wanted to everyone to have some gumbo,” she says. “I was so excited to feed them and watch them come back in the restaurant and sit and talk with their neighbors.” Just after Katrina, Bittermann and husband, Russell, also welcomed a newborn son.

These days Bittermann splits her time between Brennan’s growing collection of restaurants, including Ralph’s on the Park, Café NOMA and several more city staples. “My days are spent working with the chefs on the food, in meetings deciding what we’re going to do next or sometimes with our maintenance department planning a renovation,” she shares.

While she has already contributed to popular cookbooks and cooked for two former presidents (Clinton and Bush Jr.), Bittermann’s favorite person to feed is her mentor. “I love cooking for Ralph because I know how passionate he is about food,” she says. “He’s been to the best restaurants in the world so to impress him is fun – and sometimes that’s with a burger and a chocolate milkshake.”

That connection between people and food continues to inspire her. “There’s something every intimate about preparing food that someone is going to put inside their body,” Bittermann shares. “I take that responsibility very seriously.”

Mentor: Ralph Brennan. His passion for this business and his passion for the people that work for him is like nobody else’s.

Defining Moment: My decision to do my culinary externship in New Orleans at Mr. B’s, and getting the restaurants back open after Katrina. When we reopened Ralph’s, it became a gathering place for people in the neighborhood. People couldn’t cook in their own houses, so they would come into the restaurant and check in on each other. It was very gratifying to be a part of it.

Advice to Young Women: Find something that you’re passionate about and do it. The line of work I chose isn’t easy and you have to really love it to wake up every day and tackle the challenges and work very long hours. If you’re passionate and have a great work ethic then you can succeed at anything.

Goals: We’ve basically doubled the size of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in the last year and a half, so my goal is wrapping my arms around all of it. Ralph is always looking to open up other restaurants so I know there will be one on the horizon. Everything we do is about getting all the restaurants settled so that when the next opportunity happens, we’re ready for it. My pie in the sky dream is to open a farm.

Favorite Things about What I Do: Making people happy – whether it’s the guests that come into the restaurants or the people that work with us.