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Iron Chef Cat Cora

The Food Network’s only female Iron Chef is out, proud, and juggles more than lemons.
by Marene Gustin
Photo by Robert Quailer

Celebrity chef Cat Cora hit town last month to cook up some Q—that’s CCQ, as in Cat Cora’s Que—at Macy’s in Memorial City. Cora is one of Macy’s Culinary Council of famous chefs. She’s also the only female cook on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, has written two cookbooks with a third on the way, just opened a new restaurant called Kouzzina at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, tweets and Facebooks, and has a gorgeous wife and four sons. Whew. How does she do it all?

“When you run a restaurant,” she laughs, “you learn to multitask.”

It also helps that she’s built up a great professional team over the last decade because, as she says, it takes a village to run her brand and her brood. The gorgeous 43-year-old chef hails from a Greek community in Jackson, Mississippi, but today lives with her wife Jennifer in Santa Barbara, California, with their four sons Zoran, 6; Caje, 3; Thatcher, 8 months; and baby Nash. All four boys have the same sperm donor father, and Cora and her wife carried the youngest two at the same time.

“I was scared to death to do it,” Cora says of being pregnant at the same time. “But it really worked out—we went on cupcake cravings together!” Adding that while Jennifer craved sweets constantly, she also craved spicy food during the pregnancies.

Jennifer, a former nanny, puts those skills to good use. “She stays home with the boys and works from home helping with my business,” Cora says. “It’s a lovely chaos.”

Besides her restaurant, Macy’s work, books, and TV, Cora is also committed to philanthropy. She’s a spokesperson for UNICEF, won Bon Appétit Magazine’s Teacher of the Year Award, and is president and founder of Chefs for Humanity, an organization founded in response to the 2004 tsunami disaster to provide emergency food supplies. She also donated $10,000 recently to the Haitian relief effort.

“I was brought up to give back,” Cora says. “My mother was a nurse, and she would make free house calls. I have a really blessed life and I just want to give something back.”

She’s also involved in fighting childhood obesity, a subject she discussed with First Lady Michelle Obama last month when she cooked for the White House’s Greek Independence Day celebration. Cora uses her Greek heritage to blend Mediterranean flavors with classical dishes. One of her early mentors was the iconic Julia Child, who encouraged her to study at The Culinary Institute of America.

“She really taught me the basics,” says Cora. “A lot of what I do are classics, but maybe I do them with olive oil instead of butter.” French, Greek—and yes, even barbeque—are all in Cora’s repertory.

“Even though I’m Greek American, I am from the South,” she says. “We grew up eating great barbeque. My dad is a purist, smoking brisket with no sauce, but I love it all. Everybody barbeques, all over the world.”

And speaking of that Jackson upbringing, Cora recently weighed in on the prom controversy over Constance McMillen, a lesbian student who wanted to bring her girlfriend to the Itawamba Agricultural High School prom. When McMillen and the ACLU challenged the school district’s policy banning same-sex dates to the prom, the school board responded by canceling the dance.

“I was that girl from Mississippi one time,” Cora told the media. “I hate seeing things that reinforce negative attitudes about Mississippi like this. This is the 21st century. This is a time for us to unite and support each other; this isn’t just for [McMillen’s] civil rights. This is for all Americans’ civil rights, whether they know it or not.”

At press time, the status of the prom was in litigation, but the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, which advocates for gay and lesbian students, has already pledged to support an alternative dance for all students. Either way, Cora has pledged her support and said she would like to make a personal appearance at the prom.

As for her own kids, she’s hopeful one of her boys will want to someday take over the family business. “That would be great!” she says. “Cooking is a great career, but whatever they want to do is fine. They are pretty adventurous eaters, although my philosophy for feeding them is the same one my mom had: here’s dinner, the kitchen is now closed!”

Keeping up with Cora could be a full-time job, but it’s made easier with social media. Her fans can follow her on Twitter and Facebook. “I think they are important tools for chefs today,” Cora says. “Someone who’s 15 or 16 might not pick up a paper but they’re on the Internet, so it’s a good way to reach them and get them invested in what they are eating.”

Social media queen, wife, mother, restaurant owner, and philanthropy guru, Cora is still probably best known as the only female Iron Chef.

“I worked hard to achieve that status,” Cora says. “I thought there would be another female by now, but there isn’t. But there will be, and when she wins I’ll welcome her with open arms.”

Chef Cat Cora’s books Cat Cora’s Kitchen and From the Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals are currently available. Her third book, Classics with a Twist, is due out in June.

Marene Gustin also profiles Monica Pope in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

Inspired by her barbeque traditions and passion for global flavors, Chef Cat Cora’s fast and unique recipes can easily be recreated at home. She shares a few with OutSmart readers.

Basque–Rubbed Shrimp with Chimichurri Sauce (Basque-Style Green Sauce)

Basque–Rubbed Shrimp
4 lbs shrimp
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp dried orange rind
½ tbsp chili powder
1 tsp sea salt

Chimichurri Sauce
6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3 dried bay leaves
1 fresh poblano pepper, coarsely chopped with the seeds left in
1 fresh Serrano chile, coarsely chopped with the seeds left in
½ tbsp sea salt
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh oregano
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
Rub the shrimp with salt and pepper first, so that it stays on, and then rub the shrimp with the entire Basque blend until well coated. Cover, set in refrigerator, and let sit for 30 minutes. Preheat the grill and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

While the shrimp is absorbing the rub, make the green sauce by combining the garlic, bay leaves, peppers, and sea salt in a mortar and mash with a pestle until a smooth paste is formed. (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, put all the ingredients into a blender along with just a teaspoon or so of the vinegar.) Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the parsley, oregano, and basil. Whisk in the vinegar and olive oil until well combined. Set aside.

Place the shrimp on the hot grill and sear on both sides until pink. Remove shrimp onto a clean platter. To serve, set several shrimp onto each plate, and spoon the green sauce over them.

Cat’s Broccoli Slaw

2 packages of broccoli slaw

1/3 cup Dijon mustard
½ cup sugar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp hot sauce
1 tsp celery seeds
Salt and freshly cracked pepper

In a large bowl, whisk together the mustard and the sugar. Slowly add in the remaining ingredients for the dressing, continuing to whisk. Add in the broccoli slaw and mix thoroughly.

White Cheddar and Scallion Cornbread Madeleines

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch ground white pepper
½ tsp sea salt
2 cups sharp white cheddar cheese
1 cup scallions, thinly sliced
2 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
1 stick unsalted butter melted
¾ cup sour cream
½ cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray Madeleine pans with quick release spray (Pam). In a large bowl combine all dry ingredients. In a small bowl whisk gggs and sugar until thick and smooth. Add melted butter and whisk until incorporated, add in sour cream and milk. Whisk until smooth. Add wet ingredients into bowl with dry ingredients. Add cheddar and scallions and mix gently until all ingredients are incorporated. Do not over mix. Using a large teaspoon, fill the Madeleine pan half full. Bake until Madeleines are golden, about 12 minutes. Cool on wire rack.


Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and, among others.

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