Usually if you see a chef surrounded by smoke, you assume some steaks are firing up on the kitchen’s open grill. But since 2005, TV’s Iron Chef America has provided a smoke-shrouded opening so grand it might make Leni Riefenstahl blush. Each Iron Chef is shot from below, lit from below, a commanding figure coming out of the fog. But what’s most striking isn’t the cinematography-it’s that one of these chefs is a woman. That’s Cat Cora, the first and only female Iron Chef in a world where too often men feel they have to take over whenever the stakes are raised; after all, in the chichi-est of establishments even the servers must all be male.
Cat Cora is having none of it, though. In a recent phone interview she claimed, “For so many years it was a man’s world in so many professions. We had to work extra hard to get noticed. Definitely with Iron Chef I’m blazing a trail, cooking with men, losing to a few, beating a lot. It does show women have always cooked as well as and as fast as men. We don’t market ourselves enough. Men are great at being proud of their accomplishments and saying so out loud.”
Cora is now doing her home cooking in Santa Barbara, as she just moved here recently with her partner Jennifer and her young son Zoran. She said she chose our small, if far from humble, town because “I’m in large cities all the time. I feel I live part-time in New York [Kitchen Stadium, where Iron Chef is filmed, is in Manhattan’s famous Chelsea Market]. But this way I get the best of both worlds. A lot of my friends who are chefs are envious of where we live-peaceful, away from the rat race.”
Nonetheless, Cora isn’t here just to bask at the beach. “I definitely am looking to open a signature restaurant in Santa Barbara and am looking at properties and talking to people,” she said. “When we really have the news and the location locked in, I’ll let you know. But that’s definitely a goal, bringing something unique and wonderful.”
Wonderful and unique certainly describes Cora’s background. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, into a Greek family, she grew up with two delicious traditions feeding her. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a one-time mentee of Julia Child, and a former apprentice to two three-star Michelin chefs, Cora worked at top restaurants around the country before catching the television camera’s eye. The rest is history.
“It’s been such an exciting, fun career,” she said. “When I went to culinary school, I just wanted to be a great chef, so all of this has been icing on the cake. When you get to this level of your career you can make two choices: not get involved or try to change things.”
Cora chose the latter and founded the nonprofit Chefs for Humanity (chefsforhumanity.org). “I created a platform for a lot of culinary professionals and chefs and foodies,” she said. “It’s a grassroots organization where they can roll up their sleeves and not just give money.” The group fights hunger and provides emergency food relief and nutrition education around the globe in spots like Darfur. “My executive director and I leave December 3 for an awareness trip to Honduras and Nicaragua. How can we come back and help those two countries with nutritional education and feeding their needy?”
The fight to help feed the world is just one struggle Cora’s undertaking, for she realizes what she’s doing for women, too. She said about her Iron Chef-ship, “it gives women permission to say, ‘I can do that. I’m going to show I’m a leader, I have skills, I have business savvy.’ If I help women open doors for themselves and step out and shout off the mountaintops, great.”
Like most chefs, Cora wants to change your meals as well as change the world. Her latest cookbook, Cooking from the Hip, particularly tries to keep us creatively limber while offering recipes-it’s an invitation to improvisation. “I like to show people the tricks of the trade and what chefs do,” she said. “People cook from the hip every day: They open the refrigerator, see what’s in there, and try to make something. I’m showing them how to do it better, more effectively, creatively, successfully.”
That’s the very thing she values most-the ability for growth. She advises home cooks “to keep being adventurous. Don’t just buy the pretty cookbooks but browse through them and make sure you’re getting lots of tips. Look at magazines like Bon Appetit [where she’s executive chef] and others. Learn how to set up your kitchen for your cooking style. Knowledge is power,” she said.
Just as a kitchen can’t survive thanks to one all-powerful star chef, Cora insists her very full plate of nonprofit work, television, book writing, and restaurant planning couldn’t be managed without a great team. “My grandfather said the most important person in your kitchen is your dishwasher, and it’s true,” she asserted. “It’s got to be a symphony, it’s got to flow.” It seems Santa Barbara’s latest chef has got that flow down, with her baton-whisk at the ready for some mighty fine conducting.