The incredibly well-respected, very celebrity, and trailblazing chef Cat Cora comes from a proud Greek American family rooted in Jackson, Mississippi. She was the first female Iron Chef, which she calls “the tipping point of my career. I was immediately thrust into the spotlight.”
Cora studied at the Culinary Institute of America, the Hogwarts School of cooking, and soon was in France working in a pair of 3-star Michelin restaurants. “It was as high pressure as it sounds. It was a challenge,” she remembers. “It built character for me, and my resilience and hard work paid off. I was one of the few female chefs that dared to work in 3-star Michelin restaurants in France at a time when women were not allowed or invited into French kitchens.”
Iron Chef really did catapult her into that rarified stratosphere of chefs who seem to walk on water. She became a TV star and wrote cookbooks, in addition to growing what has become a global food empire. In her wide-ranging cooking and entrepreneurial career, she has opened 18 restaurants across the country and, through franchise partnerships with airports and the Aramark corporation, literally has her name on hundreds of eateries. In 2004, she also started Chefs for Humanity, a charitable organization that strives to tackle hunger and obesity.
“Chefs for Humanity was the first chef-driven charity—now there are so many—whose mission was emergency feeding relief in world crises and natural disasters. We were in Haiti in 2010, first on the scene for Katrina and other disasters that followed. We have fed people after fires and mudslides and in poverty-stricken areas,” she tells me. “We have fed thousands upon thousands of people all over the world and in America.”
While her home state of Mississippi is known as the birthplace of the blues, what is less known about Mississippi is how culturally, and especially culinarily, diverse the area is.
“I am Greek Orthodox and grew up in a Greek community with lots of restaurateurs around me, including my godfather and grandfather,” she says. “But my church had a strong relationship with the Lebanese community and at certain times of the year we shared meals and it was wonderful. I love Lebanese food and Greek food is my soul food. Asian cuisine is very abundant in Mississippi, especially in Jackson. I would say the melting pot definitely influenced my love of food and cooking.”
What are some of her favorite restaurants in Mississippi? “Spots that remind me of home are Crechale’s, the Mayflower Cafe, Hal and Mal’s, Yiayia’s Greek Kitchen, the Ajax Diner in Oxford, Crawdad Hole for crayfish and Walkers Drive-In in Jackson.”
Since she’s such a globetrotter, I asked her what her favorite restaurant in the world is. “How could I ever pick one?” she explodes merrily. “So, I will say my favorite kitchen is my home kitchen, cooking for my family.”
These are her five favorite meals.
Having Kota Kapama, a Greek cinnamon-stewed chicken, for my birthday every year growing up. If there is one family recipe that was my family’s signature, it was this dish. Being Greek American in Mississippi, this dish was served for every celebration meal and also just for Sunday suppers. So many memories.
Eating fresh lobsters on the beach on the island Holbox, in Mexico. Fresh-caught local lobster and right onto the grill, with chips, salsa, guacamole made fresh at the table and cold Mexican beer with lime. Feet in the sand and madly in love—nothing better. I had that every day following a lot of sex, sun and tequila.
Sailing around the Exumas on our brother’s yacht and grilling fresh wahoo fish we caught ourselves with the bluest waters and a huge, beautiful sunset. A chilled bottle of Cristal and love in the air. The world stood still.
Being on my family’s Greek island of Skopelos, in the North Aegean, eating at our country house overlooking the water. We dug a hole and roasted goat over a spit fire, and served it with fresh farm-to-table Greek salad (wild greens, fresh crushed olive oil, fruit from their trees, feta from the neighbor goat herder), fresh baked bread from the hearth and wine that was made by a small, local winery. Magical!
In Bora Bora, staying in a luxurious thatch bungalow that jutted out over the crystal-clear water, in what can only be described as paradise. One of the many memorable moments was when breakfast was delivered every morning by locals in full traditional ceremonial dress. They would blow a conch shell to announce their arrival in a small wooden canoe. They would deliver fresh papaya and orange juice, banana crepes, fresh local fruit, fresh coconut and fresh baked pastries. It was so romantic to start the day.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.