Cat Cora and the Mind of a Chef

Written by | Food & Wine

Cat Cora

As she prepares to release her first memoir, the celebrity chef gives us a taste of her story — including her unlikely upbringing, career high points and even what she’ll be bringing to her holiday table.

Iron Chef Cat Cora has had a surprising life behind the scenes of her public achievements — and she shares the tastiest bits in her new book Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food and Forgiveness (Scribner, $25). The openly gay chef and mother of four spoke with Metrosource about her extraordinary journey that began with lessons of acceptance at her mom’s Thanksgiving table.

METROSOURCE: In your book, you describe how your mother started sending out Thanksgiving invitations November 1 to anyone who might have nowhere to celebrate — bachelors, gays, African-Americans, someone dealing with schizophrenia. How do you think that attitude of acceptance affected you?

CAT CORA: My parents were definitely a major influence on me being very open to all cultures and orientations. I grew up in Mississippi, but I grew up in very liberal halls. There were never biases; it wasn’t tolerated. And that included, way back, gay rights as well. There was a gay couple who lived across the street from us and they were together for 35 years. They were wonderful. Everything I was surrounded by was very open-minded, which was definitely driven by my parents.

Has this carried into your own home? Do you hold “open Thanksgivings” like that?

Yeah! We — kinda all the time — are an open-door house, especially with the holidays. Our friends and our community, we all make sure that everyone has somewhere to go.

Are there favorite “must-have” dishes which are part of your Thanksgiving spread?

Oh, yes, Brussels sprouts are a huge fave, as well as sweet potatoes. And I’m obsessed with making my own mustard. We have to have pumpkin and pecan pie. If I’m going way, way decadent, we’ll make my Grandma Alma’s white chocolate pecan pie.

That does sound decadent! Are there any traditional dishes for Christmas?

We tend to make a leg of lamb for Christmas. It has become a tradition for me to make oven-roasted crab “Buon Natale” for Christmas Eve. It is a huge hit and makes an impression if you’re having guests over.

You’ve mentioned the huge influence that your parents’ Greek background has brought to your cuisine and that your favorite dish is kota kapama, a Greek preparation of chicken stewed with tomatoes and spices. Would that stand up as a holiday plate?

Absolutely. It is simple but so fulfilling. It can be a staple and then you can get creative with the side dishes, or even try it alongside your turkey. You could even try it with your turkey leftovers. It is a great dish to have in and around the holidays.

Do you have any go-to cookbooks which you always keep accessible in your kitchen?

[Laughs] I own way too many cookbooks, boxes and boxes of cookbooks! My wife has said, “Please don’t bring home any more cookbooks.”

Do you feel compelled to buy a lot of them?

When I was first starting out, if a book came out by a certain person — say, Julia Child — who has always been a personal hero and a huge inspiration, I had to have her book. Nowadays it’s more about enjoying cooking. I love going out to dinner to taste a colleague chef’s great dish, or to learn a new presentation or new flavors. It’s more about family and food.

Speaking of Julia Child, you got to meet her twice!

Yes, once at a book signing and again after I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, when she invited me to her home to watch while she filmed a Master Chefs episode. She advised me that being a chef is a man’s world, but not to let that stop me.

After writing some very successful cookbooks yourself, what prompted you to take on a memoir, which is quite a different genre?

Well, I’m in midlife, which is time at which I can look back at all of these interesting stories. … It’s an amazing idea that you may have a story which many people may relate to and find inspiring. Things in my life which are uplifting — such as Iron Chef and breaking down barriers for women in an industry dominated by men — got me starting to think I should do it.

What was your writing process like?

For me, it was really difficult to decide where to begin. The middle goes kind of fast, because once you start getting parts of your life on paper, it frees up your mind to start thinking of pieces of your life and people you haven’t thought of in years — memory flows. And then the end part is refining it all: What makes it into the book? And what do we save for another book? How do we make it flow? I’m really happy with how it all came together.

When reading about your life and the adversity you have faced, it is apparent that you have a strong sense of who you are. Would you use a term like “feminist” to identify how you’ve stood up for yourself as a woman?

I am definitely all about supporting and empowering women, 1,000%. I’ve supported various women’s groups worldwide. I don’t feel as though I am an activist, but if supporting women and their rights makes me a feminist, then I’m a feminist. I’m a realist, and it’s more about people’s rights, for me. Equal rights for all people, for any minority.

There are so many other amazing life moments in your memoir: cooking in the White House for President and Mrs. Obama, cooking at the James Beard House, epic Iron Chef battles. With so many great moments to choose from, what do you consider your standout career accomplishment?

Honestly, I have to look back to the foundation of my career, which was the externship in France. That was the hardest kitchen I have ever worked in, definitely the most hard-core kitchen I have ever been in, and also the most rewarding. I was there during a time — 20-something years ago — when women were not really allowed in the kitchen. I got lucky that two, three-star Michelin chefs were generous enough to say yes: Georges Blanc and Roger Verge. I’m most proud of that because I think it’s something a lot of young chefs want to do but they’re too afraid to do it, because it’s really packed with experience. But it is really what opened a lot of doors for me.

You describe France as the place “where cuisine was the national religion, height of culture and favorite sport all rolled into one.” Is that why you wanted to study there?

Yes, French cuisine was the crème de la crème. You could not go higher in your cooking experience than working with a three-star Michelin chef, because that is the highest star rating in the world, and they are the most exacting kitchens. If you can provide in a three-star kitchen, then you can provide in any kitchen. I came home with such a breadth of information: I had conquered it.

At the end of that portion of the book, you say that you could have stayed in France but knew your heart’s desire was to bring those skills to America.

I felt a pull to go to France and be able to cook there, but my heart was always here in America. My goal was always to bring everything I learned here and become an American chef.

Now people can taste your food all over America via Cat Cora’s Kitchens at airports in San Francisco, Houston, Salt Lake City and the restaurant Ocean at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore. What informs your choice of where to open these restaurants?

Theme parks, resorts and airports typically serve subpar food; [creating restaurants in]these settings would allow me to introduce good, healthy food and a beautiful [place to enjoy it].

Your first job after graduating from the Culinary Institute was with the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn, located in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. What drew you there, and what did you take away from the experience?

I was asked to help establish the Inn with a former executive chef I had worked for; the draw was that we’d be making our own foods from homegrown ingredients — breads and cheese, ice cream, crème brûlée — from the sheep right on the property. Twenty years ago, the idea of opening a fancy restaurant on a farm basically in the middle of nowhere, with freshness and availability determining the menu, was pretty radical. But the menu that changed daily kept me on my toes, and consistently won awards. … The whole experience gave me the taste of fame that I wanted to pursue for myself. It also informed decisions about how my own restaurants would be supplied: with locally-sourced ingredients and eco-friendly materials (since on a farm very little was manufactured). I learned about and was prepped for a trend way ahead of its time!

Do you have any advice for those who face adversity for being different — or not being on trend?

Don’t give up. If we don’t face adversity, we don’t grow, we don’t evolve. It’s part of life. Regardless of the emotions that come with facing adversity — shame, guilt, fear — you have to move forward. There’s always going to be the peaks and valleys in life, but it’s really about how you frame it. I’m not perfect by any means, but I’ve learned over the years how to reframe my adversity and use it to move forward, to use it as strength and empowerment. In the kitchen, I learned a long time ago that you make a mistake, you move forward. Tomorrow is a brand new day. You can’t go back.

Last modified: January 30, 2018