Iron Chef champion Cat Cora cooks up a winner with her new cookbook
As a Mississippi girl with a strong Greek heritage, Cat Cora’s passion for good food sprouted as a young child and today she’s at the top of her game as a celebrated American culinary celebrity. In 2005, Cora turned the tides on Food Network’s Iron Chef America when she became the first and only female Iron Chef. The following year she was recognized as Bon Appétit’s Teacher of the Year and also named executive chef of the magazine. She’s also authored two cookbooks, Cat Cora’s Kitchen: Favorite Meals for Family and Friends and her latest, Cooking From the Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals, both of which showcase her dedication to innovative, healthy cooking. Cora is now fully entrenched in the restaurant world. Now that she’s opened CCQ (Cat Cora’s Que) at Macy’s new Signature Kitchen restaurant in California and is looking to launch Kouzzina at Walt Disney World’s Boardwalk Resort this fall, her exciting, flavorful cuisine can be shared with the hungry masses.
The ambitions of this Food Network star don’t stop at the kitchen door, though–Cora is a fervent supporter of charities to assist others. She has founded and is the president of Chefs for Humanity, a not-for-profit organization geared toward providing resources for emergency, educational and hunger-related causes. To continue her ongoing humanitarian work for the devastated Gulf Coast, on Friday, May 29, Cora will attend the fundraiser/silent auction One Way Out at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi where she’ll helm a cooking demonstration and present a five- course dinner with wine pairings to benefit the Gulfport Police Athletic League and Chefs for Humanity. On Saturday, May 30, Cora will appear at the boutique restaurant ConFusion in Gulfport for a lunch and wine tasting and mingle with fans. As an ardent lover of New Orleans, this queen of cuisine and doting mom found time to spend with New Orleans Living magazine. From food to family, Cora is the absolute cat’s meow!
Cat, I’m starving! It’s been torturous flipping through your latest cookbook, Cooking From the Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals. Everything in it looks absolutely delicious, like the Grilled Watermelon and Shrimp dish …
That is a fun recipe! I developed it for a show for Food Network. We were in the South, so I wanted to make use of watermelon, and I love watermelon in anything. I love to put fruit on the grill and I wanted to add tropical flavors to it with the coconut, the shrimp and the jalapeño to make it spicy. This was something for me that was different, and it turned out to be delicious.
I have got to try that one! And Cooking From the Hip is divided into different chapters such as “Fast, Easy and Phenomenal.” That’s a great way to get you where you need to be to cook.
Exactly. I wanted it to be a book that people actually use. All my books have stains on them from wine and food and people actually using them; they’re not just sitting on a shelf. It’s important to have made it user- friendly. I have people that come up, like newlyweds, and it’s the first cookbook they’ve bought. It’s a great book to start on so they can build their skills, because it’s stepping up the ladder with each chapter. That’s so cool that you are the first female Iron Chef! Nothing in your career must compare to that type of major competition!
Yeah, nothing really compares to it; it’s definitely fast and furious! It’s like an athlete getting ready for a huge competition. The sixty minutes that we cook is real time—they definitely time us down to the last second, and it is a great honor to be the first of something. To be the first female chef is amazing, and we’re going into our eighth season, and it’s bigger than ever. It’s fantastic that it’s still going so strong and we’re getting new fans every day.
Iron Chef America is fun to watch, and while I’m watching the show I just say to myself: “How on earth can they make all this haute cuisine so quickly?”
[Laughs] I know, we ask ourselves the same thing. It’s intense! You do really go in and zone out and really cook your butt off for an hour, and it’s the fastest hour of your life and still, as many shows as I’ve done and the rest of the Iron Chefs have done, we all say that whether it’s opening a restaurant or doing a cookbook or what have you, it’s still the hardest thing we do. But it’s great and I like the fact that it is the real deal.
You were raised in a small Greek community in Jackson, Mississippi, and your Greek and Southern heritages highly influenced your career. And you tell people you’re from “Southern Greece!”
When people say, “That’s not a Greek accent,” I go, “Well, yeah, I’m from Southern Greece!” [Laughs] It’s been fantastic to have two strong cultures and two strong cuisines, and we had amazing cooks that I learned from on both my Southern side and my Greek side. I learned how to make great biscuits and grits and greens and fried chicken and corn pudding from my Southern side, and then a whole variety of Greek cuisine. I think when you learn from great cooks, you wind up loving food. That’s been huge in my love of cooking.
You say that Greek food is your “soul food.”
I think everybody has their soul food, whether it’s Southern, Cajun, Creole, whatever. For me, Southern food is my second soul food for sure, but my family was so engrained in the Greek Orthodox Church and the community that I think we really cooked more Mediterranean Greek than we did Southern food. I grew up rolling grape leaves and using phyllo dough and eating feta cheese and olives. It was always on the table.
You met Julia Child at a book signing in Natchez, and the conversation you had with her changed your life …
I was really lost about where to go to culinary school, and at that time, chefs didn’t have the notoriety they have today. When I met Julia, she gave me advice on going to the Culinary Institute of America and named some other great school, but she maintained that CIA was the Harvard of culinary schools and that I should go there and then work in cities like New York. Her insight did change my life—I applied the next day to CIA and took a year to get experience in restaurants and went to CIA the next year. I was able to meet her later on right before I graduated and told her that because of her advice, I was about to go and cook in France and about to graduate and she was really pleased.
You have been very familiar with New Orleans and its cuisine your whole life, right?
I grew up going to New Orleans. Many times my family would pile into the station wagon and drive from Mississippi down to New Orleans. I remember going to the King Tut exhibit in New Orleans and sleeping in the car and standing in line because my parents really wanted to see it. I feel like New Orleans really is my second home; I’ve loved coming back every time. It’s a great city and really unique, and I love everything about it! There isn’t anything I don’t love that you guys do. I come there and go to Central Grocery, and I definitely have to get my Quarter muffaletta and a beer–obviously not right now because I’m pregnant, so I might just get half a muffaletta and skip the beer! I gotta get some good pralines, jambalaya and crawfish when it’s in season–I just go for everything! I have a lot of good chef friends there like John Besh and Susan Spicer, so I’ll come down and eat with the chefs and go to all the mom-and-pops and the joints and just eat! Po’boys, beignets, chicory coffee, the whole gamut! It’s just a great city!
You took a very special trip down to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina through Chefs for Humanity, the organization you founded and are president of.
We came down and did emergency feeding relief. We had only been together about a year before Katrina hit, so we hustled down there and stayed for about a month, and we were feeding about 3,000 to 5,000 people a day, like a lot of law enforcement who were working around the clock just trying to help people out. There are still so many people who don’t have homes who are still trying to rebuild, so it was great for us to be able to do that. We had chefs that dropped everything and came down, like Food Network chefs and executives, and that’s just what we do. I started it for anyone who loves food and wine to roll their sleeves up and do emergency feeding relief, nutritional education and also hunger causes. I’ve continued to do fundraisers for Katrina around the country since then. It still needs to be at the top of people’s minds; we tend to forget about the damage storms cause, and the fact that every year hurricanes pose a threat. I’m actually going to the Gulf Coast in May to do a Katrina fundraiser for the rebuilding. [Hurricanes] will always be a threat to my home state and to New Orleans, so I hope people stay aware of it.
You and your partner Jennifer are the proud parents of three adorable young sons, Zoran, Caje and Thatcher, whom Jennifer recently gave birth to, and now you are pregnant for the first time and your son is due in July. How is it to have two pregnant women in the house at the same time? Were ya’ll fighting over ice cream and stuff?
We don’t really fight too much over ice cream; we’re kind of on the same page with all the food cravings, which is good. It’s more over who’s taking a bubble bath and gets to soak first! [Laughs] We knew exactly what we were doing when we planned the pregnancies close together, because it’s easier to raise two infants together, and we always knew we wanted four kids, and I’m not getting any younger and there was never going to be a time in my career when I wasn’t busy, so it was just one of those things that we thought we needed to do sooner rather than later. We were worried about all the hormones and stuff, but we’ve actually done pretty well with it. And surprisingly, we’ve just been having a really good time. It’s kind of like being pregnant with your best friend, and we just give each other tips and yes, there’s definitely been times when everybody goes in the corner, like in any relationship! [Laughs] But we’ve definitely had a lot of fun over the cupcakes and that kind of stuff, so it’s been a blast and interesting and a wild journey. We’re a little nuts now, but we’re excited that we’re going to have a house full.
Do your children have sort of sophisticated tastes for their ages because of your profession, or are they all about buttered rice and Cheerios?
Well, Zoran, our five-year-old, doesn’t really ask for rice and butter. He loves fish like salmon and halibut or a braised lamb shank because it’s more tender, but yeah, they do crave cereal sometimes for dinner, and they want candy, and we really try to limit that, so we go through the normal things. We do dessert every night and that varies, and they definitely have sweet tooths like every other kid, and sometimes they’ll want just pancakes for dinner, but we’re pretty happy with their progress.
So an Iron Chef’s child is not immune from wanting the Cheerios and stuff!
No! Not at all! Definitely not.
How do you hope to spend Mother’s Day this year?
This year, Mother’s Day will be extra special for my family, as we have a brand-new addition to our family, and I’m expecting our fourth son. Spending a quality day at home together soaking up the great Southern California weather and enjoying a backyard afternoon picnic are all on the agenda, and we’re are all very much looking forward to it.