Cooking with Cat Cora

The celebrity chef - who will lead a seminar at September's Savor the Central Coast - preaches her passion for sustainable, seasonal food

slinn@thetribunenews.comJune 12, 2011 

  • What’s hot for 2011?

    Celebrity chef Cat Cora dishes out the latest food and dining trends.


    • The localvore movement: Cooks everywhere are craving local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. “People are really seeking out organic food,” Cora said.
    • Airport dining: With air travel more expensive and stressful than ever, airports are teaming up with celebrity chefs to provide gourmet goodies to harried travelers.
    • Casual dining: Stuffy, pricey restaurants are out of style. “I don’t necessarily want to go to a fancy restaurant and have 12 courses,” Cora explained. “I just want to have great fish tacos and a beer.”
    • Simple yet chic food: Inspired by street food, chefs are turning to homey flavors and humble ingredients. “It takes more effort to make grits or flank steak taste phenomenal than it does to cook a really great cut of meat,” Cora said. “It’s more challenging.”

When asked about her personal food philosophy, celebrity chef Cat Cora mentions a few simple guidelines.

“Always cook by the seasons. Always buy locally as much as possible. Always buy organic and sustainable,” she said. “Being eco-friendly is very important.”

Cora’s passion for seasonal, sustainable cuisine will be on display at this year’s Sunset Savor the Central Coast, a four-day food-and-wine festival sponsored by Sunset magazine and the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau.

On Oct. 1, she’ll present a cooking seminar at the Santa Margarita Ranch and participate in the Paso Glow event in Paso Robles.

“It’s one of the perks of working so hard for 20 years and having so many wonderful experiences,” the Santa Barbara chef said.

Raised in a Greek-American family in Jackson, Miss., Cora started cooking at an early age.

“It was just natural for me to go right into the kitchen and cook with my mother – wrap grape leaves and roll phyllo dough,” Cora, 44, recalled. “(My upbringing) really taught me about food and family … that whole world of being together.”

At age 15, she announced her plans to open a restaurant -- just like her grandfather and godfather before her.

Back then, the term “celebrity chef” wasn’t part of her vocabulary, Cora said.

“The only chefs were over in Europe,” she said. “Julia Child considered herself a cook. She didn’t consider herself a chef.”

After studying physiology and biology at the University of Southern Mississippi, Cora attended the Culinary Institute of America on Child’s advice. The young chef then apprenticed with two of France’s three Michelin-star chefs, George Blanc and Roger Verge.

Cora spent stints in New York and the Napa Valley before making her national television debut in 1999 as the co-host of the Food Network’s “The Melting Pot.”

“It was really strange to go from cooking in restaurants to cooking in front of millions of television viewers,” she said.

Over the years, she’s come to enjoy her place in the spotlight.

“I’ve always wanted to share what I do and what I love with everyone,” said Cora, who was named executive chef of Bon Appetit magazine in 2006. “It’s always been fun and amazing.”

Between co-hosting cooking shows such as the Food Network’s “Kitchen Accomplished” and the Disney Web series “The Muppets Kitchen with Cat Cora,” Cora has found fame as the first and only female champion on “Iron Chef America.”

Based on the popular Japanese show “Iron Chef,” the high-pressure cooking competition challenges chefs to create an entire meal showcasing a “secret ingredient” -- such as corn or cheddar cheese -- in a single hour.

“I’m representing the fact that women can cook as hard and fast as men,” said Cora, who’s been competing on the show since 2005. “It definitely proves that over and over, especially if I win.”

Cora has proved her celebrity chef status in other areas, too.

She’s published three cookbooks – “Cat Cora’s Kitchen: Favorite Meals for Family and Friends,” “Cooking from the Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals” and “Cat Cora’s Classics with a Twist: Fresh Takes on Favorite Dishes” – and launched three restaurants, with more on the way. (Cat Cora, a lounge-style eatery featuring tapas and cocktails, opened at the San Francisco International Airport in April.)

Also this year, Cora launched a line of eco-friendly cookware and kitchen gadgets; the Cora’s Kitchen line of Mediterranean olive oils, sauces, tapenades and vinegars; and a wine collection, Coranation. (Her products use recycled packaging and sustainable materials such as acacia wood and bamboo.)

“If you keep working hard and you keep evolving, it becomes this wonderful brand,” explained Cora, who’s currently shooting a pilot for a food-and-lifestyle show for the Oprah Winfrey Network. “That’s what I’m doing right now is continuing to build the brand.”

Cora views herself as a role model for cooks and non-cooks alike.

In 2004, she founded Chefs for Humanity, a not-for-profit alliance of culinary professionals and educators dedicated to combating hunger across the world. She’s also a UNICEF spokeswoman.

“You have to look at everything you do,” Cora said. “It’s not just about the money. You have to support your philosophy.”

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