5 Questions with Iron Chef Cat Cora

Image Credit: Cat Cora
As the first female “Iron Chef” and a familiar face on the Food Network, Cat Cora has established a name for herself in the culinary world. A Jackson, Mississippi native and the product of a large Greek family, Cora practically grew up in the kitchen, taking tips from her parents and grandparents on traditional Greek cooking. Cora eventually went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America, finding a mentorship in Julia Childs, among other prolific chefs. Today, she owns and operates multiple restaurants throughout the country, is the founder for the anti-hunger organization Chefs for Humanity and appears on and even co-hosts shows on both the Food Network and Bravo.

5 Getting Started

Top5: Did you start cooking at an early age? Who were some of your early influences?

Cat: I do remember starting to cook at a young age. I remember doing tea parties for my family, cooking with my mom and her showing me how to cook Greek food like grape leaves and phyllo dough. Food was a really integral part of our lives and I always loved cooking and getting in the kitchen. My dad was kind of the “grill meister” so he was always showing me how to grill meats and marinate meats.

Professionally, Julia Child had a big influence on me. I met her before I went to culinary school and spent some time around her—she was a phenomenal person and obviously a phenomenal cook and chef.

4 Recipe Experimentation

Top5: Where do you get your inspiration when it comes to making new dishes? What is your process when it comes to experimenting with new foods or new flavor combinations?

Cat: The process is really just getting in the kitchen and seeing something I really want to work with—for instance, a good example is molecular gastronomy. Getting in your kitchen and working with liquid nitrogen and working with xanthan gum and working with different chemical powders to see what you can do with it. When that style of cooking or cuisine comes along, that’s the first thing I want to do is get in my kitchen and try different techniques and flavor combinations and I see different things that come along in the world—different types of spices or herbs or seeds, and it’s really about getting in there and using those and seeing what will happen!

3 Chefs for Humanity

Top5: Can you talk a little about Chefs for Humanity? What caused you to want to create this organization and what is your mission?

Cat: I started Chefs for Humanity about eight years ago when the tsunami hit Asia. Our three-prong mission is anti-hunger, nutrition awareness and education and emergency feeding relief. We’ve set up programs in Haiti for SAFE Stoves and working with their program for school feeding which helps the economy there, helps the deforestation there and helps the school kids and neighborhood families. That’s been a really cool program that we’ve partnered with the Word Food Program.

We’ve also done some exploration work on programs we can be a part of in Ethiopia. I’ve been to Nicaragua and Honduras to scope out potential programs we can be a part of there with the World Food Program, so for me it’s all about getting out in the world with the organization and my teams and seeing what can do to help combat hunger. Also, here in the US and part of that is really working together with different organizations such as the Teaching Garden, to be a part of those programs in some way, educate school children and bring knowledge to the family—it’s really teaching them tools—everything from how to work within a budget to how to buy nutritious foods.

2 Male-Dominated World?

Top5: I’ve heard that being a female chef in a male-dominated industry can pose a lot of challenges. So, I was wondering if you’ve encountered that sort of gendered bias earlier on in your career.

Cat: Yeah, definitely in culinary school. I graduated in 1995, I started in 1993 and in the early 90s there was still definitely prejudice against women in culinary school, even in New York in CIA (Culinary Institute of America), which is one of the most prestigious in the world. Now the amount of women graduating is huge, but at the time we were the biggest group of females in a graduating class and there were six of us. Several of the old instructors still very much [held] that it was a men’s place, that it was male-dominated and women didn’t belong in professional cooking and we belonged in our own kitchens. And I was actually told by one instructor that I needed to go back to Mississippi and be barefoot and pregnant and so yeah, it was definitely a male-dominated field, so we were really on the cusp of it changing in a big way.
You have to be a part of that change; you can’t just wait for it to happen. My class was a group of very strong women and we did make changes while we were there… I refused to be a victim of it. You have to put your head down and be strong and try to be fearless as possible. And that’s what I did, and I think I earned a lot of respect there.

1 Advice for Aspiring Chefs

Top5: What advice do you have for aspiring chefs? Do you think it’s necessary to attend a culinary institute or do you think it’s possible to self-teach?

Cat: I think nowadays it’s definitely possible to self-teach, but I think it’s what your goals are and where you want to be in your career [that matter most]. You have to get in with some great restaurants. If you’re not going to go to culinary school you need to really get in to some serious kitchens and work with some top chefs—female or male, doesn’t matter—and really get some of that on your resume because that’s important.

When I was getting out of culinary school everyone needed to have [gone to] CIA to get a job and now it’s not as necessary. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to go to culinary school—I think education is incredible. I love education. I think everyone should have it, but no, I don’t think it’s absolutely crucial to getting a great job and having a great career.

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