he sun hasn't been up long in Santa Barbara, Calif., and 1,500 miles from
her native Mississippi home, Cat Cora has just packed her four children off
to school. With two at age 2, a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old, she has her
"Full hands, full heart," she says of caring for her children. "They eat
well, but I do it the old-fashioned way. I say, 'This is dinner. Better eat
because this is it.'"
Her next task could be strategic planning for Chefs for Humanity, the global
charity she founded and spearheads. Or, it could be revamping menus for any
of her three restaurants... or, researching dishes for her next stint as the
only female chef on the Food Network's Iron Chef America competition.
As a celebrity who works out seven days a week to maintain her svelte figure
(she tastes food throughout the day), Cora got into the industry at a time
when the public's awareness of nutrition wasn't so acute. Coming from a
food-loving Greek family, she had prepared a business model for a restaurant
when she was a teenager. The Jackson native instead earned her degree in
exercise physiology, graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi
in 1990. From there, she returned to her first love - food - and decided to
further her education at New York's Culinary Institute of America.
"It was a contradiction in a lot of ways because health and wellness hadn't
really caught on," she said.
From there, she began her quest to create health-conscious and appealing
dishes. In Europe, she apprenticed with two of France's three-star Michelin
chefs. She made her television debut in 1999 as a Food Network co-host on
"Melting Pot." After a string of hosting Food Network shows and a
documentary called "Cat's in the Kitchen," she became the first and only
female Iron Chef on the network's Iron Chef America series.
World renowned, Cora says her Greek family history, coupled with a
Mississippi upbringing, inspired her to create her own nouvelle Southern
fare - lobster and macaroni and cheese, low and slow barbecue with a
Mediterranean flavors, broccoli slaw with a hot, sweet mustard, cinnamon
spiced barbecue and cornbread made in the style of a French Madeleine with
scallions, white cheddar cheese, blue corn and jalapeno.
When competing on the Iron Chef America series, however, Cora says she likes
to keep her competitors on their toes.
"I may do Greek or Southern, but I also may come up with an African cuisine,
throw something off the wall with Ethiopian. It's fun for me to throw off my
competitors and be strategic about it," she says.
What's not viewed on TV is the strategic planning that goes into the menus.
Once the "secret ingredient" is revealed, Cora says she huddles with her
sous chefs to decide who will do specific tasks. "I delegate to each person
what they're going to do, and take over the secret ingredient. It's a real
time problem because it is one hour of cooking in real time, but it takes
six hours to produce. It has to be edited to 45 minutes."
Cora says she returns to her Mississippi roots several times yearly, and
almost always visits her share of favorite restaurants - Nagoya, Hal &
Mal's, Keifer's Restaurant, Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q and the Mayflower in
Jackson; the Crystal Grill and the Alluvian in Greenwood; and City Grocery
"I love the ribs at Hal & Mal's, and the pies at the Crystal Grill - all the
restaurants in Oxford, tried and true places like Keifer's, the Alluvian.
The Mayflower, I ate there when my dad was passing away, and they perked us
up. They were awesome. And Sonny's, my dad loved going there." she says.
"Jackson has some phenomenal food. Mississippi has some really great
People are often surprised to hear she is from Mississippi, she says.
"They don't realize it until I start talking about it, but I'm really proud
to be from Mississippi," she says. "I'm always proud of it. I speak very
highly of Mississippi. People know they better not say anything negative
when I'm around because I'll get on to them. They know they better not talk
trash about Mississippi.
"I tell them they better get familiar with the South before they make a
judgment because we've got the blues, the food, the history. Of course we
have some negative, but there's a lot of positive, too. I tell people to go
there. It's so beautiful. It's where the blues was born."
As for the future, Cora says she'll continue the legacy she began with the
founding of Chefs for Humanity, a coalition of chefs dedicated to nutrition
education, hunger relief and emergency and humanitarian aid to reduce hunger
Cora founded the organization in 2004 in response to the Tsunami disaster,
and she serves as president still. Modeled after Doctors without Borders,
the not-for-profit gathered along Mississippi's Gulf Coast in the weeks
following Katrina to provide relief from hunger.
She will be in Haiti in April to continue campaigning for safe, energy
efficient stoves. The organization recently raised $100,000 to provide safe
stoves to earthquake victims, "which is feeding thousands of children," she
says. "This is the work I want to do. This is my legacy - to be far
reaching, to help millions of people and to be part of the movement to end
hunger around the world."
Cat Cora's Classics with a Twist, featuring healthy recipe twists and
lighter cooking methods
Cooking from the Hip, a how-to guide for improvising exciting dishes
Cat Cora's Kitchen, with inspiration from Cora's Greek heritage and Southern
Kouzzina by Cat Cora, Disneyworld
Cat Cora's Kitchen at San Francisco's Terminal 2 and Houston's Bush
Intercontinental Airport, Terminal E.
What's next for Cat?
Cat Cora, already famous as the Food Network's Iron Chef America series,
will launch "Around the World in 80 Plates" on Bravo in May.
Chefs for Humanity, want to know more?