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Friday, August 13, 2010

Interview: Cat Cora of Food Network's "Iron Chef America"

Posted By on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 at 8:10 PM

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Ambrosia. Far from an immortaility-inducing elixir of the gods, It's a relic from the era in which "salad" was a loosely-defined term encompassing molded things made of gelatin and canned fruit. But Cat Cora makes it sing. Her version of it, which she acknowledged as that Southern dish "you only see at weddings and funerals," gets much-needed revisions with fresh Bing cherries, grapefruit, watermelon and a honey-vanilla whipped cream topped with roasted coconut flakes. She gives a similar treatment to coleslaw — sometimes a soggy, mayonnaise-y mess resembling the "grass" you find in Easter baskets — by subbing out cabbage for julienned broccoli that stays crunchy even under a spicy vinaigrette (the secret ingredient? Tabasco sauce).
It's this mix of Southern flavors with a modern, margarine-free consciousness that informs Cora's new cookbook, Classics With a Twist: Fresh Takes on Favorite Dishes, which she promoted in an event at the Lakeside Mall Macy's on Thursday. This is the third cookbook for the supremely busy chef, who splits time as a restauranteur, appearing on television, working as a spokesperson for charities and product lines and of course, battling in Kitchen Stadium on Food Network's Iron Chef America, on which she has the distinction of being the only woman to earn the show's coveted title.
Cora took a few minutes to talk to Gambit before signing cookbooks and whipping up the aforementioned ambrosia, as well as flank steak tacos with pineapple salsa, before an audience on the department store's third floor.
Is this your first time in New Orleans?

No. I grew up in Jackson, Miss. and I went to college at USM, so I was in New Orleans a lot. I kinda grew up in this city. So even though I’m from Jackson, I kind of think of New Orleans as a second home, a second Southern home, because I spent so much time here.

Do you have a favorite New Orleans restaurant?

A lot of my friends have restaurants here. Donald (Link) has Cochon, and that’s great. But I also like some of the old classics — especially because I don’t get down here often — like going to Galatoire’s, Brennan’s for brunch, or whatever, and doing some of the classic places. Central Grocery for a muffaletta and cold beer, that kind of thing. A friend of mine, Scott (Boswell) owns Stella! I went to culinary school with him. I have a few newer ones I like, but I also like the old classics, as well.

Will you be dining when you’re here?

I’m only here for the night … my sons are with me, so we’re going to go down to the French Quarter and show them around, because they’ve never been here before. So, like I said, we’ll hit some of the classic places.

How did the new cookbook come to be?

This one is Classics with a Twist, so this is really about everyone’s favorite classic recipes that I’ve done and given them a twist to, or what people think of classic recipes in a lot of ways. So coq au vin, Caesar salad, soft tacos, things like that that I’ve taken and given them my own twist. An all-American tomato soup that I do with grilled cheese croutons, because it’s kind of a take on grilled cheese and tomato soup. Just fun things like that, and a lot of really great cocktails that are kind of throwback cocktails. Just bringing back a lot of classics, as well. Like tonight I’m doing ambrosia. We’ve all seen it somewhere, but it’s really one of those old, thrown-together dishes that can be really freshened up with fresh fruit instead of canned fruit and fresh coconut, things like that.

What was the process of putting together your cookbook like?

It was really tough. It was actually tougher than I thought it would be. It took a really long time to narrow down what the classics were going to be. Because we had hundreds and we had to narrow it down to a hundred, so that was harder, I think, than anything. And there was a lot of back and forth with myself, my publisher, my writer, my whole team about what they thought of as classic, and what we thought of as classic, and what should be in the book … obviously, there were things we would just toss back and forth and brainstorm about, you know, “Is this more of a classic than this?” And vise versa. So it was a really, really tough process breaking it all down. And then, (figuring out) what were the twists going to be that made it unique, but while still keeping the foundation of the recipe, which was important. Because I don’t want to take a Caesar salad and make it into something that — we’re giving it a little Southwestern flair, making it with a little chipotle dressing, chili croutons and things like that — but I didn’t want to take the classic and completely damage it, and make it a whole other dish.

What are your biggest tips for beginner cooks?

Just really taking a recipe you really know well. If you do a great whole roasted chicken, then stay with that, but do some different spices. Do some different twists on that. Put it on the grill and do a pomegranate glaze, versus throwing it in the oven. Take it and make it a fennel-spiced chicken versus just putting salt and pepper on it. I think really taking that and working with the spices and the flavors and things and getting brave that way, and then moving into something a little bit different. Maybe then try my lemongrass coq au vin, which is a stewed chicken, but with a little bit of Asian flare to it. So I would say go with something you know, then mix it up a little bit on that recipe. Practice on that recipe, and also don’t be bummed out if it doesn’t work the first time.

Do you cook at home, or do you associate cooking with work?

I cook at home all the time when I’m at home. Almost every night I cook at home — when I’m home. But I travel a lot, and all of my work is really fast and furious — It’s Iron Chef, morning shows, trying to crank out cookbooks or a restaurant menu. It’s all really business oriented versus just being kind of organic and enjoying it. And I enjoy those things — I enjoy creating — but it’s not when you’re just sitting back and enjoying and really focusing on a meal with your family. So I like to do that because, to me, it’s a completely different experience when you’re just home having a great meal with your family and having a glass of wine.

A big part of your career involves cooking in front of large audiences, whether it be on Iron Chef, on TV appearances, or at in-store cooking demonstrations like this. Do you ever get nervous?

You know, I don’t really get nervous cooking in front of everybody. This year I’ve been to the White House twice, I’ve cooked really once and did a huge dinner at the White House, and I was nervous about that, obviously. I still get nervous about doing Iron Chef, but it’s more good nervous versus that anxiety-ridden, kind of stressful nervous. It’s just more of an excited, “OK let’s do it,” kind of nervousness. I really don’t get nervous doing an event like this, like Macy’s or a morning show in front of a million viewers. I’ve done it so long. But I still get excited about it, and that’s important. As long as you’re still getting excited about what you’re doing, then that’s a good thing.

It seems like the culinary industry is very male-dominated. And being that you’re the first and only female Iron Chef, do you ever still face any pressure or difficulty being a woman in this industry?

I don’t face difficulties anymore. I’ve been doing this 20 years — working in 3-star Michelin restaurants in France, working in the tough kitchens of New York, Napa Valley, San Francisco — I’ve cooked in really tough cities and big food cities. And then becoming an Iron Chef, that was it. For me, it was never hard again. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues — for my male colleagues and my female colleagues. I definitely think it’s not so much that it’s male-dominated, it’s just that we see more male chefs because they’re the ones out promoting themselves. So think women need to step up and promote themselves more, because I don’t think they do that enough. They tend to be a little more demure, they stay in the kitchen behind the stove instead of getting out and celebrating their accomplishments and marketing themselves in a good way, in a really positive way. That’s why we just don’t see all the amazing chefs that are out there — because they’re out there. I think it’s pretty equal as far as women who own restaurants or are cooking in restaurants. Especially if you take one city, like New York. It’s a pretty big number of women there.

It also takes a lot of skill to be on camera, to be able carry a persona on camera, to be able to be a personality that shines through and also cook, and also talk, and a few other hundred things you’re supposed to be doing when you have a cooking show or whatever. So I think it just takes a certain skill level, and I think there’s women out there, they just need to step up and market themselves.
You know, I’m not sure what’s going on with the next Iron Chef. I keep waiting for a woman to win, so I don’t know what’s going to happen this season. I’ve been doing this for 10 seasons now, since 2005. So I think it’s time for another female. I mean, if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, you know? But we’ll see. Maybe one will get it this year.
What’s next for you?

This fall I’m launching a merchandise line and a food line consecutively, so that’s been really, really intense. Then I’ve got a restaurant opening in San Fransisco airport in the Virgin America terminal. We’re opening two more of my CCQs [Cora's barbecue-influenced restaurant chain] in Baltimore Airport and Houston Airport. I have a new show with OWN, Oprah’s new network, that we just started filming. And more Iron Chef, more Food Network. So it’s going to be a really busy end of the year and a really busy 2011.

How do you balance it all, with all the hats you wear?

I have a really great professional team, and I have a really great wife. And we have amazing help. We’re lucky we can afford to have help. We have a great balance that way. And then when I’m home, I’m home. When I’m home, they come first, and I work out of a home office. It’s definitely a balance, though, even with all the people around helping — it takes a village — but I still have to put that extra effort in.

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