Santa Barbara, Calif. — Think about if life were a buffet of endless options, how would you fill your plate? If you ask Cat Cora, there has to be a balanced blend of rich nutrients for the soul. She’s worked hard to chase her dreams based on a personal blend of fortitude, spontaneity and sheer determination. And, as she says, it’s been a pretty sweet ride.
With roots deep in Greek heritage with an equally as dominant Southern legacy, Cora knew from a very early age that she had a unique take on the world based on an amazing upbringing. She grew up with family in the restaurant business in Jackson with food and fellowship as the center of every family gathering.
“As part of a Greek family in Mississippi, food was absolutely the center of our world. Every meal had this combination of rich cuisines,” said Cora, 50. “Every holiday we would have the traditional turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce and pie, then feta cheese and grape leaves and Kalamata olives on the table. It was just an amazing blend of these two cultures.”
As a teen, Cora dreamed of owning her own restaurant, although she’s quick to admit that the idea of being a chef, much less a world-renowned celebrity chef, was never an aspiration. It wasn’t even a viable option at the time since the Food Network, the satellite and cable channel that helped launch Cora’s career and has since turned her into a household name, wouldn’t debut for nearly another decade.
“Actually, when I went to college, I was going to be pre-med. At that time, I wanted to do something in the health and wellness arena, so I ended up with a degree in exercise physiology and nutrition,” said the University of Southern Mississippi graduate.
“But the timing wasn’t right, and that just wasn’t the path for me. But, little did I know at the time that this world and my dream world in restaurants would merge in such a great way. It was really a universal thing.”
After college graduation, Cora moved back home to Jackson and started to slowly pursue her dream of becoming a restaurateur in the only way she knew how – gaining some first-hand, gritty knowledge working in every aspect of the business.
“I worked at Nick Apostle’s place, 400 East Capitol, which was the five-star, white tablecloth restaurant in town at that time. I started waiting tables, bartending, doing anything I could to get my foot in the door. I tried to make as much money as I could in a couple of months. Then I took off and went backpacking around Europe for four months, which was something I had always dreamed of doing,” Cora said.
“While in Jackson, I tried my hand at opening a restaurant and getting investors, but the world had other plans for me. And, I thank God that it did. It worked out the best way that it could have – not against Jackson at all, but it enabled me to really go out into the world in a bigger way,” she said.
With a refreshed view of optimism, Cora came back from Europe and told her mother that she still wasn’t ready to give up on her dream.
“She suggested I go to culinary school, which I really had never thought about, ironically. Soon after, I met Julia Child at an event in Natchez, and she recommended that I pursue the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I literally signed up the next day,” she said.
Cora thrived in New York, soaking up every educational opportunity she could. She apprenticed and studied under some of the most well-known chefs in the world, including Anne Rozenweig at Arcadia and Larry Forgione of an American Place. She continued her training in Europe throughout the 1990s before heading back to the States and eventually settling in California as Chef de Cuisine at Napa Valley’s Bistro Don Giovanni.
In 1999, Cora made her first TV appearance on the Food Network as co-host of a new show, Melting Pot, with Rocco DiSpirito. After working on various other network shows, it was in 2005 when she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I was leaving a book signing of my first cookbook ever at The Today Show, and I got a call from the executive producer who asked if I wanted to be the first female Iron Chef. And I was like, ‘Yes!’ I didn’t know what I was getting into. But, I’ve always been that way – I’ll say yes, but we’ll figure out the details later. That’s how it happened,” she said.
Based on the Japanese cult sensation, Iron Chef America is a culinary game show that brings world-class chefs to Kitchen Stadium to compete in a gauntlet against the resident Food Network Iron Chef (including such names as Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto) based on a secret ingredient or theme. Cora was not only one of the original few chefs bestowed with this honor, but she was also the first woman.
“It was definitely a tipping point in my career in many ways, although it had been building up to this point. It was very validating. I knew I could do it. I had the TV chops and the experience that no other women had at the time in the trenches of serious kitchens. It was again one of those serendipitous moments for me,” she said. “And then it became this real cult show that no one expected it to be. It still is. It just started airing in Asia and Australia two years ago, so it’s brand new for them. It’s surreal.”
Soon after her Iron Chef debut, Cora was named Teacher of the Year by Bon Appetite Magazine and named Executive Chef of the magazine, as well as a UNICEF spokesperson.
“I didn’t go to culinary school to do any of this. Food Network was just beginning when I graduated culinary school. I thought that I would just work in a restaurant. Maybe I’d open a restaurant and make a nest egg for my future kids. Then, it all just took an incredible turn. A lot of it’s timing, but a lot of it is hard work,” she said.
Cora’s career has continued to flourish as she has opened numerous restaurants throughout the U.S. and abroad. She has continued to give back to the world through many philanthropic causes, such as Chefs for Humanity (an organization she founded that is modeled after Doctors Without Borders), as well as Save the Children and Chefs Move to Schools, a program started by Former First Lady Michelle Obama.
“I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve opened some successful restaurants – they’ve made a lot of people happy, and I’ve made a lot of money from it. I’m still doing that,” she said. “I feel like my career has always been so blessed, and I’ve worked very hard at keeping it true and authentic. I try to live and work in a philosophy that I believe in. My career has been a sweet ride. I’ve created goals and accomplished goals. It’s been a steady upward climb, but a very sweet surprise.”
Cora still visits the Magnolia State often to see family and friends, and she’s been active throughout the years with partnership projects with the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the American Red Cross following Hurricane Isaac in 2012. She even served as the grand marshal for the 2006 Hal and Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade in Jackson.
“I never felt like I necessarily had to leave Mississippi to achieve what I wanted to do at all, but the planets aligned in a very different way, and I always believed in that. For me, one thing just led to another,” she said. “But, of course, when I do come home, I have to get a healthy dose of my true soul food – good Mississippi fried catfish, barbecue, and sushi from Nagoya.”
It wouldn’t be a secret that Cora’s career keeps her schedule pretty busy. She just completed a season as a chef judge on Fox’s My Kitchen Rules, an adaptation of Australia’s hit cooking show that features celebrity duos competing by hosting dinner parties. Between the release of her newest cookbook, “Cooking as Fast as I Can,” regular cookbook signing events, TV appearances and hosting various food and wine festivals, sometimes it can be hard for Cora to find a sense of steadiness in the chaos.
“I think it’s always a challenge to find your balance. And sometimes when you think you have it figured out, it’s time to revamp again – always a work in progress. You have to constantly reflect on it. There are times when it’s all moving like a well-oiled machine, and then the wheels start falling off,” she said.
As a mother rearing six sons with her partner, Nicole, Cora says family is her biggest source of strength when life gets too busy.
“I find total balance in my family – my girl, who is the love of my life, and our kids. Family is always so grounding and keeps you true to who you are,” she said. “I also think it helps to meditate and stay active and work out and eat well. And you can’t forget to enjoy life. Always try to be your best self and live your truth. It’s always just about coming back around and checking in with yourself.”