As with all great creators, a great chef can do something with nothing. That is to say, taking an ingredient from the top of the chain, say caviar, and making a spectacular appetizer is easy, says celebrity chef Cat Cora. Coming out of the walk-in freezer with common ingredients and whipping these into a superb dining experience takes a bit more finesse.
Cora knows about finesse. And she also knows about whipping up something out of nothing. As the only female on Iron Chefs of America – the Food Network competition in which chefs are pitted against each other to devise a complete five-course meal in an hour with not so much as a spoonful of prep work – Cora has no doubt thought good and hard of how to be spontaneous in the kitchen.
That kind of confidence stems from her Jackson, Miss., childhood of being around food, featuring a father and grandfather who operated restaurants, a Greek home kitchen always smelling of garlic and onions – staples of any meal in the Cora household – coupled with natural talent and a keen business mind (by 15 she had developed a business plan for her own restaurant). As Cora honed her talents at home and abroad, she drew inspiration from luminaries such as Julia Child, Barbara Tropp, M.F.K. Fisher and her grandmother, Alma. Her hard work and expertise paid off, both through the Iron Chef and other distinctions, such as the November 2006 Bon Appetit Magazine Teacher of the Year Award (that same month the magazine named her its executive chef.) Her cuisine is a blend of dishes from her Greek and Southern roots like her favorite dish Kota Kapama (Greek cinnamon chicken), and slow-cooked lamb shanks with feta salsa verde.
“For me, a great chef is all about freshness, seasonality, organic, and all natural – procuring the best quality products, farm to table seasonality,” she says.
As someone who has traveled the world in search of new flavor profiles, Cora has also experienced the global need for nutritional education. To aid humanitarian efforts in this vein she founded Chefs for Humanity (CFH), an alliance of culinary professionals and educators working in partnership with United States and global organizations to provide nutrition education, hunger relief and emergency and humanitarian aid to reduce hunger around the world. CFH is comprised of The Chefs’ Council, a group of world-famous culinary professionals, including Bobby Flay, Rick Bayless, Ming Tsai and Gail Gand, all of whom are committed to providing resources and help with fundraising.
The effort officially kicked off in 2007 when, through The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), an entourage – Cora included – visited Honduras and Nicaragua. Its goal was to study the challenges facing the area, including child under-nutrition, poverty, the impact of climate change and the devastation caused by Hurricane Felix as well as observe the positive impact of school feeding programs. The group visited the remote regions of Miskitos, Mayagnas and Ramas, which are mainly inhabited by Afro-descendants, as well as indigenous communities that retained their own culture and dialects – all of whom survive by subsistence agriculture, hunting and small-scale fishing. The highest poverty rates in the country are found in these regions – 61 percent of the population is in poverty and 20 percent is in extreme poverty.
“We have three missions,” Cora stresses, “emergency feeding, relief organization and mobilization when tragedy happens.” Founded following the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Chefs for Humanity, in Hurricane Katrina’s wake, also traveled to Mississippi and fed 3,000 to 5,000 people a day, and helped with sponsorship to build mobilization trucks with cooking equipment that could be stationed or transferred to different areas of the city.
Chefs for Humanity has also joined forces with Action Against Hunger, a well-established hunger relief organization, to produce a DRC Congo media awareness campaign to bring to the forefront the deaths of 1,200 people each day from preventable hunger and disease. The two humanitarian groups strive to raise consciousness and in turn, funds to provide therapeutic milk formula to infants, supplies to rebuild households and economic activity, and clean water to entire communities.
“Everyone needs to know about a healthy diet – from the overwhelming number of people fighting obesity in the United States to those with barely enough food to feed their families in developing nations,” Cora says. The chef also traveled to Africa to launch a school nutrition program in a village in Zambia – the organization has dedicated five years of funding for the program.
IN THE KITCHEN
Back at home, Cora concentrates on inventing and re-inventing twists on food and with her book, Cooking from the Hip: Fast, Easy, Phenomenal Meals (Houghton Mifflin) her “go-with-what-you’ve got” philosophy helps foodies create simple, yet sensational meals. Cora takes readers through four categories of cooking: FAST (30 minutes or less); EASY (interruptionproof); FUN (relaxing to prepare with friends) and PHENOMENAL (special dishes for special evenings).
“Each chapter eases the reader into gourmet cooking, often using basic pantry items,” explains Cora. “By the time they’re ready for the ‘phenomenal’ dishes, they’ll be heroes with their family and friends.” A second book, Classic from the Hip, is due out in spring 2009 and revamps old classics, such as chicken noodle soup or Beef Wellington, all with Cora’s special flair.
‘These are absolutely incredible dishes,” she says. ‘They’re simple and easy for the home chef.”
Busy also with launching a restaurant, CCQ (for Cat Cora Que) Cora is tapping into her love of barbecue sauce with a menu that features dishes using barbecue sauces from all over the world. One restaurant has already been launched in Costa Mesa, Calif., and others could follow.
It’s a busy life of mashing, grating, dicing and chopping – a career spent sharing a love of food with the world. Cora has achieved a great deal through her own passion, and has become a true Iron Chef in mind and spirit.