Iron Chef Cat Cora Shares Her Recipe For A Happy Life
She may be a best-selling author, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and the star of multiple Food Network shows, but as the holidays near, famed chef Cat Cora transforms into the foreman of a pop-up mustard factory, located in the kitchen of her Santa Barbara, Calif., home.
With the help of assistants like her four sons — 14-year-old Zoran, 10-year-old Caje, and Nash and Thatcher, both 8 — she cranks out batch after batch of her grandmother Alma’s famous spicy, sweet mustard. She packs it in Mason jars, which she tops with ribbons and crafty tags. They become gifts to friends, the dentist, the pediatrician, her sons’ teachers — all of whom wonder whether they’ve made the list this time around.
“It’s something you put your heart into,” Cora says. “You took the time and effort to make something special.”
Holidays have always been about the heart for Cora. Growing up in Mississippi, her schoolteacher father and nurse mother didn’t have much money, but they worked hard to make the time memorable for Cora and her brothers.
Every Thanksgiving, her parents would invite anyone who didn’t have a place to go. On Christmas, the family meal often was followed by caroling at her mother’s patients’ homes. Even if she never got most of the presents she painstakingly circled in the J.C. Penney catalog, “I always felt like we were rich in other ways,” Cora says.
That heritage of generosity and hospitality may explain why she remains especially proud of Cat Cora’s Kitchen, with locations in airports such as San Francisco and Houston.
Around the holidays, Cora decorates each of her restaurants festively and adds comforting food and drink specials to the menu. Offering thousands of weary travelers a moment of refuge and cheer exemplifies the true spirit of the season, she says.
And just as her family welcomed neighbors to the holiday table, Cora takes care of her staff. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, several of the 32 Cat Cora’s Kitchen employees lost their homes. Cora and her team responded by donating to the Houston Airport Interfaith Chapels’ Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, a volunteer organization sending more than 98 percent of the money raised directly to airport families affected by the storm.
It isn’t the first time Cora has jumped to action in the wake of a hurricane. Chefs for Humanity, the philanthropic organization she started 13 years ago, played a key role in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
The organization acts as a sort of Doctors Without Borders for the culinary set, marshaling money and resources for food- and hunger-related emergencies and causes. After Katrina, Cora and other chefs affiliated with the group camped out near shelters, feeding about 3,000 displaced people daily with food saved from restaurants and casinos.
The nonprofit also has raised funds for hunger relief in Haiti and joined forces with former first lady Michelle Obama to get chefs involved in children’s nutrition education. Cora finds the work an essential counterbalance to her time in front of the camera and helming kitchens. “You’re behind the scenes, doing things for someone else,” she says. “It’s an amazing time to be selfless and give back. That’s what it’s all about.”
Long before she became a famous chef and philanthropist, Cora loved cooking, and her family’s dinner table boasted a fusion of flavors that inspired her creativity — her Greek father had feta and kalamata olives shipped to Mississippi, and her mother combined them with traditional recipes and local ingredients to make dishes like grits and feta and Southern-style greens with Greek olive oil.
Cora landed her first kitchen job in 1992. As her passion for the profession grew — and on the advice of culinary icon Julia Child, an idol she first met at a book signing — she eventually enrolled in the renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Child also warned her that cooking was still a man’s world, and that she needed to be tough to thrive. But Cora was no stranger to feeling like an outsider: “I came out at age 19,” she says. “I was probably the only lesbian in Mississippi — the only out lesbian, anyway.”
Empowered by ambition and the fighting spirit instilled in her by her feminist mother, she worked her way up through two Michelin-starred restaurants in France, where female chefs were an anomaly. After returning to the United States, she spent time in kitchens in New York and California, including a stint as chef de cuisine at Napa Valley’s Bistro Don Giovanni.
Her TV career began somewhat serendipitously, when a television network in San Francisco asked her to do a segment, cooking a veal dish from Postino, where she worked at the time. She enjoyed the experience more than she’d dreamed — on camera, she felt a rush almost equal to what she’d experienced during pressure-packed shifts at some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens in France.
So, she sent a tape to the then-brand-new Food Network, which was actively scouting for talent. The vice president of development called her two weeks later. In 2000, she made her debut as the co-host of Melting Pot with Rocco DiSpirito.
In 2005, she blazed another trail, becoming the first female Iron Chef on the show of the same name. In 2012, she was the first female inducted into the American Academy of Chefs Culinary Hall of Fame. Today, she appears regularly on cooking and talk shows, has opened 18 restaurants across the U.S. and as far away as Singapore, collaborates on a line of cookware by Canadian company Starfrit and plans to expand into appliances, movies and voice-over work.
It’s an eclectic mix of projects, but to Cora, it all fits together. “The most exciting thing in the world is creating — whether it’s a movie role, a pot and pan line, a restaurant or a beautiful dish I’m cooking for my family,” she says.
“I’m doing what I’m passionate about, what I love. And I’m trying to spread positivity every day.”
Cora balances it all with a bustling family life. She splits custody of her four sons with her ex-wife, Jennifer. The two divorced in 2015, and their bitter feud made headlines at the time. Cora is honest about the challenges: “My parents were married for 50 years,” she says. “I never experienced divorce as a kid. I had to really reach deep in myself and reflect on my part of it.” Fortunately, she says, the biggest storms have subsided, and the children have adjusted well. As the holidays approach, she and Jennifer each have scheduled days with the boys. And Cora has found new love — she’s engaged to producer Nicole Ehrlich, who has two boys of her own (Jonas, 12, and Gavin, 9).
Cora grew up Greek Orthodox, and Nicole (and Jennifer) are Jewish. So the Cora household honors both traditions by celebrating Christmas and Hannukah, with copious gifts, matzo ball soup and roasted crab after Christmas Mass.
“The traditions are rich, just like I grew up with,” she says. “There’s such a positivity in teaching the kids about the different languages and prayers. And charity is a big part of both religions, so they’re getting an amazing spiritual foundation and learning about giving back as well.”
With six boys to consider and weeks of celebration, even a celebrity chef like Cora keeps her budget in mind when adorning her home for the holidays. She balances out a few pieces of finery — her grandmother’s tablecloth and the delicate glassware she doesn’t use every day — with simple and beautiful place settings crafted with candles, framed family photos, handwritten notes and antique salt and pepper shakers.
For centerpieces, she goes for things she’ll put to use in the kitchen later, rather than spend extra cash on flowers. “It could be a vase of lemons or pomegranates or a bowl of beautiful artichokes,” she says. “All these little things that can really blossom your holidays.”
In another nod to balance, Cora, who earned an undergraduate degree in exercise physiology, offsets the festive cocktails and rich desserts of the season with regular workouts. She exercises every day, attending a bootcamp, or mixing it up with cycling, running or surfing. When she’s traveling or on set, she’ll set an alarm for 4 a.m., if she has to. Doing so not only keeps her on track with her health and wellness, it also relieves the stress of her hectic holiday schedule. And, she says, knowing she’ll sweat the next day keeps her mindful when she does enjoy a holiday treat — a message she hopes resonates with women who beat themselves up for indulgences. “We’re so hard on ourselves, especially modern women, and our expectations are so high,” she says. “Give yourself permission to be OK for a minute and enjoy the moment and that piece of pie, because you’re having it with your best friends and your family.”
After all, it’s not the presents or the food that matter most. As delicious as her Christmas mustard may be, Cora knows that people value it the most because of what it represents — the time, tradition and love stirred into every jar.
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