Cat Cora Opens Up About Raising Six Boys, Making Headlines, And Kitchen Inspirations - Exclusive Interview

Cat Cora is a formidable figure in the culinary world,  and for good reason. The seasoned chef is talented, hard-working, and fiercely determined — traits instilled into her by her Greek family and her upbringing in the South. Since the start of her career, she's fought tooth and nail to secure her place among the culinary greats, all while paving the way for so many female chefs who've come to dominate the food world.

In 2005, Cora was the first woman to win the distinction of Iron Chef. Ten years later, she was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame. In the meantime, she became a household name among food TV lovers, launched nearly 20 different restaurant concepts, published cookbooks, started a non-profit and a foundation, and so much more. Oh, and she's also raising six teenage boys.

On paper, Cora is impressive, but there is so much more to the chef than just what you see on TV. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, we got the chance to get to know more of the real Cat Cora. The chef opened up about her road to success (including her Iron Chef legacy and what it means to her), reflected on what she's learned along the way, and talked about how she continues to pay it forward in her life and work. She also dished on some of her favorite family recipes and revealed her number one tip for cooking like an Iron Chef at home.

Her favorite family-style holiday food tradition

Do you have any holiday food traditions in your house that you're looking forward to this season?

Oh, yeah. Well, we definitely do a lot of baking together and various things. And we also celebrate Hanukkah. Half our family is Greek Orthodox and half our family is Jewish, so we do a Chrismukkah, if you will.

One of my biggest traditions, I would say, is, on Christmas Eve, I do what I call Crab Buon Natale and it's this big, big pan of roasted Dungeness crab, and it's already cracked. I cook it, I boil it all, and then I pull them apart, crack them a little bit, throw them in a pan, toss it in olive oil, garlic, herbs and lots of lemon, and then roast it and just put it out on a table with some baguettes and some great white burgundy and a salad and everybody just cracks crabs. Sometimes I'll throw in some potatoes, and I just put it all out on the table and everybody just cracks crab all night and eats and drinks and is merry.

That sounds incredible, food and fun.

That's one of my favorite ones. That's probably my favorite, on Christmas Eve, yeah. And then, if there's any leftover the next morning, we make omelets out of it, do some fun things for the leftovers, or I make eggs Benedict with a crab hollandaise or something.

That sounds like a lot to manage with two different holidays worth of baking and cooking to do.

It is, but we have six boys. We put everybody to work and it's perfect. Everybody has a job and it's fine.

How chef Cat Cora stays on top of all her holiday cooking

Do you have any holiday cooking tips or tricks that you can share with our readers for getting through it all?

I would just say, literally, the biggest thing is just making lots of lists. I always plan ahead. The simplest tip that I can give is plan ahead, plan your menu ahead, shop ahead. It gets really busy close to the holidays in grocery stores. And then I try to prep ahead if I can. Anything that I can chop or cut or dice or slice or anything that I can make ahead of time, I make ahead of time, so that, when the day comes, or the evening or the meal, that I actually get to enjoy it and I'm not just in the kitchen cooking everything from the very beginning.

I have a lot of things prepped already and I have my list, my menu, and I pull out all my plates and platters. And this is super helpful, especially when you're trying to plate everything at the same time. Pull all your plates out ahead of time, put little sticky notes in them – this is for the turkey or the ham or the leg of lamb or whatever, this is for the stuffing, this is for the mashed potatoes, whatever you're making, and just label them. That's a real quick way to just keep it all together and organized.

And then I like to pre-set the table. If I can pre-set the table, I'm having an evening dinner and I can pre-set it in late morning or early afternoon and have it ready to go, then I do that as well. If you can do it in phases, it's always more enjoyable. And then clean as you go as much as you can.

Oh, yeah. Well, you've got six boys for that.

Yeah, exactly. Or you put all your kids to work.

Reflections on what it means to be the first female Iron Chef

You obviously have a very impressive resume, to say the least, starting with being the world's first female Iron Chef. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and what it meant, how it feels when you look back?

I can't deny it, winning that incredible distinction, it was a very special moment in my life. I'd worked tirelessly to be at the top of my game and my craft and being seen and heard was ... it's a wonderful experience. I see it as a time period when society began to open up space for women to create powerful outcomes with their life, so that was really an important time. For instance, Oprah, who is one of the first female billionaires of our generation and also a mentor of mine and Lori Grenier, a dear friend who is the Queen of QVC, known also for being a Shark on Shark Tank, as well as Sara Blakely was coming out with Spanx, and you had people like Susan Arnold, who was taking over as the chairperson at Disney when Bob Iger was stepping down. So things like that, that really were shaping the world and shaping the business world especially, and the billionaire club was being shaped by women finally, so they could achieve their goals.

I can say that being the first female Iron Chef, it felt like a moment. I was able to join my peers and be a leader in my craft and in my industry. That was really, I think, a special time for me. It's always been the tipping point of my career and it really placed me in an echelon with all men, where I could be a role model to women in the world, and young girls in the world, to say that you can cook as hard and fast as men can and you can be a leader just like the men can in your industry.

Cat Cora's biggest takeaways from Iron Chef

Obviously, you spent years competing on that show so many times. Do you have a few favorite memorable moments that stick out in your mind?

There's so many. I can't say, per se, that there's one moment, but I would say that the totality of the experience, it made it really special for me. It's like being a working mom. There are so many things going on at once, and you have to be able to plan, coordinate, execute, so that it all comes out perfectly, or at least as perfect as possible. And I think, being a mom or a parent, I think that anyone reading this interview can relate to that. It's being in the circus balancing all the plates at once on sticks and hoping that you can keep them all in the air.

And I think that's really what it was about. I think being amongst my peers, especially, again, as a role model, and being the first of something and breaking down barriers, I think that's been really incredible. And I think that the cuisine that I was able to craft in that time ... I was known for Mediterranean cuisine and Greek cuisine and Southern cuisine, but I was able to come out and really showcase my skills in global cuisine, if you will, and I think that was really great for me. [Masaharu] Morimoto was from Japan and his cuisine was Japanese that he focused on, Bobby [Flay] was more Santa Fe and Tex-Mex, and Mario [Batali], at the time, was Italian, and so we had all had our distinctions, but I wanted to break out of that mold and run with global cuisine and, really, it was a good strategy because it threw a lot of my opponents off their game.

And so I think that was one of my strategies. But I think just the totality of the experience was incredible and it's something I'll never forget. And just the fact that every generation now gets to continue to see "Iron Chef" because they get to see the reruns and it's got such a cult following that it just makes me super proud that I was a part of it from the beginning.

If you could compete against anyone on Iron Chef, is there a chef you'd want to go up against?

It would've been fun to do more exhibition matches with chefs that were my mentors, like Julia Child. If I could've gone back in time, and her being one of my mentors, just in a fun exhibition battle. It would've been really fun to do something like that. But I really feel blessed that I got to really compete against and got to know a lot of my colleagues that are now ... they're now out there doing great things in the world.

Cat Cora on success and the value of mentors

In many ways, you were one of the first women to really break into and dominate this boys club that was the culinary industry and the food world. What do you credit that to?

I just think I credit it to having great mentors. I credit it to having incredible parents and a very strong mother and grandmother who told me I could be anything I wanted to be, and I really believe that. And I think that breaking down barriers and really seeing the effect of that helped me want to continue to do that. It created a new narrative and it became the reason why people were able and willing to see women chefs compete in a world that was dominated by men.

Julia Child was an incredible mentor of mine. I was very, very lucky and blessed and grateful to have known her and gotten really amazing advice from her and spent time with her. Again, I had strong women who raised me, along with a wonderful man, who actually believed that women could do anything they wanted to do.

I think that it was working with all the incredible chefs, Anne Rosenzweig, Larry Forgione, Melissa Kelly, all of these incredible female chefs that are out there that, again, were at the top of their game. They were some of the top chefs that were creating a new narrative and a new paradigm for women and I just really was able to follow in those footsteps and learn from them and then go out and break out on my own and start breaking down barriers, such as being the first female Iron Chef and the first female inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame. And that feels good to be able to do that and to be able to pave the way for the next generations.

Follow your passion and the rest will fall into place

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs now based on what you've experienced on your path to success?

I would say be yourself, because, at the end of the day, people love and they're attracted to people who are genuine and authentic. And I would say remain focused, that's really important, and committed to who you are and why you got started in the first place, where you come from. I never lost sight of where I came from and my roots, being from the deep South, being from Mississippi, being young and gay in Mississippi, being a woman who had adversity at a very young age, being raised by strong Southern women who were very genuine and believed in honesty and integrity and hard work.

Ask yourself that — "Why am I passionate about this?" And I think that whatever comes to you out of that question is authenticity, and I think that you lead with that and, if you could lead with that and be yourself and be who you are and do something you love ... Oprah, who's a dear friend of mine, said to me one time, "Cat, just do what you love. The money, the awareness, all those things will come. But, first and foremost is what is in your core and that is what you love and you want to do and that you're passionate about," and I've always held on to that.

I think that's such an important thing to remember. We tend to get caught up, when we're young, in the fame, the money, the fast cars, all of those things, the material things. What I try to instill into my sons and what was instilled into me is that, no, follow your heart and your mind and what you're passionate about first and the rest of that will fall into place in some way, shape, or form.

Cora shares how her career was partly shaped by a legend

You mentioned Julia Child. Could you talk a little bit more about your experience with her and the advice you received?

Well, before I even went to culinary school, I saw that she was visiting Natchez, Mississippi. She was on a book tour, and I said to my mom and my grandmother and my dad, "We have to go. Can you take me to Natchez? I want her to sign my book. I want to meet her." And that just started a friendship that really went on until she moved to Santa Barbara, where I now have a home, and so there was a very full circle moment, if you will.

And I think that one of the biggest things that she ever told me was exactly what I was just talking about, follow your aspirations, follow your passion. But the one thing that I've always taken forward is that she said, "Always pay it forward. Whatever comes to you, pay that forward. Whatever gratitude you have and any blessings you get, pay that forward to someone, like I'm doing for you right now, do that. That's all I ask. I'm going to mentor you, but I want you to always promise me that you'll pay it forward to someone else as well." And so I've always done that.

We have a mentorship program that we have, once a year, where we find an aspiring chef. We really focus on empowering women and young girls, but I think that's important. That's how we pay it forward. I started Chefs for Humanity 17 years ago, where we became a charity that does emergency feeding relief. We were actually the first one that was chef-driven. Now there's many chefs that have charities that are called on for emergency feeding relief and in world crisis and hunger initiatives, but we were one of the first, and that's a way that I pay it forward.

If we get letters from young, aspiring chefs or we get Instagram messages or social media messages from chefs that need advice in some way, I always try to answer everybody and help out when I can and help them. If they need help in some way, I try to do that. I've always done that my whole career since, basically, way before I met Julia, because my parents were very giving in that way and all about charity work. They said, "That's the one thing that you can do is you can always help. You can always give back in some way." But even more so since I met Julia.

Her recent struggles and headlines

You've had a lot going on lately. Some of it's been in the headlines. What do you want people to know about you and what you've been going through lately?

Well, I just think that each of us has a situation. We've all faced situations that lead us to growth. We all deal with it differently. I think what people need to know about me is that I'm extremely kind, I'm extremely giving. I'm always there for my friends and my family. I'm a wonderful daughter, I'm a wonderful mom, I take pride in raising six teenage boys, and a wonderful friend, and I think that's just really important that people need to know.

I'm aware of how I frame the events of my life. I see anything I'm dealing with, whether it's kids, work, family, as an opportunity to grow, and I think we're all just doing our best. We're all out here doing our best, especially through two years of COVID. It was a bittersweet time. It was a time where it was very tragic in so many ways, but the silver lining was that I got to spend 24/7 with our kids for two years, homeschooling and being there and not being on a plane racing off to work or to another country or to another city. I think, really, doing our best is always enough, and I think the ability to be gentle and gracious and grateful and intentional is super important, and I really pride myself on that.

What inspires Chef Cora's approach to global cuisine

I know you've described your cooking style as focused on global cuisine. Where would you say that inspiration in the kitchen comes from?

Well, I'm inspired by a lot of things. There isn't any one thing. I think that, when I was younger, I was inspired by my mentors and, when I was very young, inspired by my mother and my father and my grandmother, being Greek American in a Greek community, inspired by the restaurateurs around us. My godfather was a restaurateur, he had restaurants. My grandfather had restaurants. When I was young, I was very inspired by my family. And, interestingly enough, as you go into your professional career, you become inspired by your mentors, you become inspired by a Julia Child or by someone who you see as someone who is a leader and is so talented in a craft and such a legend. And so I think, through my career, I became very inspired by that.

And then, ironically, now I'm inspired by my family again. I get inspired by my children. I have a couple of aspiring chefs within the kids. A couple of our sons are aspiring chefs, one especially. He gets in the car the other day from school and he says, "Mom, I already have the menu for Christmas. I'm going to be making puff pastry from scratch. I'm going to be making danishes. I'm going to be making these raisin scones that Grandpa wants. I'm going to be making cakes and pies and homemade pasta and short ribs." I get inspired by that because I'm like, "Wow." That energy and passion is so contagious. And so now, really, I think that it comes from motherly love. Really, that's where my drive and creativity comes from now.

And also seeing my friends who are so out there. I'm very much about empowering other people. It's not about jealousy or envy. It's really about empowerment. I'm happy for my colleagues that are doing great things. I'm happy when I see somebody successful. I'm happy when I see somebody do something incredible. That's so inspiring, whether it's opening another incredible restaurant or doing a great show or winning a competition, whatever it is, I'm super stoked for them. And I think that comes with maturity. I think it comes with being really comfortable in my own skin, very proud of my accomplishments, and there are so many more accomplishments that I want to seek out.

A favorite way to enjoy a meal

This next question might be a tough one, but I wanted to ask, if you had to pick one dish that embodies your cooking style, what would it be?

I love cranking my grill up. I have an incredible, beautiful Hestan grill, which I always say is the Lamborghini of grills, and I put everything that I can possibly fit on there. I put lamb chops, I put stone fruit, I put corn, I put these beautiful potatoes, artichokes that I've steamed and that I cut in half and put olive oil on, I stick those on the grill. Whatever I can find that is in season, I put it all on the grill, and I make these beautiful sauces on the side. I make a tzatziki with avocado in it, I make chimichurri sauces, I make a romesco sauce. I'll get these beautiful, big shrimp and langoustine that I'll put on top of the grill. And so I think, for me, that's one of my favorite ways to eat. It makes me feel like I'm back in Greece on one of the Greek islands and it's really from my roots.

I remember growing up, as a little girl, and my dad always grilling. That was one of the highlights, and that meant that something yummy was going to come off the grill, that it was probably sunny out, that it was warm. And it reminds me so much of my childhood because my dad, he inspired me on the grill. He's the one who taught me how to grill. He taught me how to marinate meats. He taught me how to season meats. He taught me how to smoke turkeys and briskets and all these things and he was so good at it.

And, for me, that's my happy place. That's where I'm in the zone is when I'm just out there grilling everything I can get my hands on that will go on the grill, and there's not one corner of the grill that's not taken up by something. And making beautiful sauces. And then I put it all out on one big table and we eat family-style and that's just my favorite way of eating. And then open up some great wine, of course, to go with it.

Cat Cora on connecting with her fans during the pandemic

During the height of the pandemic, as all of us getting into the kitchen more, you started an Instagram Live series, CORA-ntine. How did that come about?

I wanted to connect with people through the lens of our collective experience. We were all going through it. We were going through so much at the time. It was impacting everybody. And so many people were reaching out to me and I was like, first of all, I'm in my home just like everybody else. We're not going anywhere. We're right here. And I love to cook at home, actually, I really love to cook and cook for the family, and I'm going to be making dinner every night, so I might as well share it with all of my social media and start a show. Why not connect with everyone and really pay attention to the obvious events that we were all going through in society and our collective experience together?

And I just wanted to make it a point, every night, to open up my home, if you will, and share it with everybody, and that's what I did. You couldn't sweep away the effects of what was happening with COVID and that was my way of connecting and doing something I love and giving back to people who were at home. And it was just a way for me to give back, a way to grow, and, again, expand my connection with everybody, which I wanted to do for so long, and this was just a perfect opportunity for me to do that.

Any favorite go-to quarantine meals?

Oh, my God, there was just so many. I just did exactly what I would've been doing, like, "What am I going to cook tonight for dinner? I'm going to make fajitas." It was funny because it was coronavirus at the time, now everybody says COVID, but it was coronavirus, so I was like, "Okay, let's have a Corona and some fajitas." And so that was a fun one that sticks out in my mind. It was one of the very first ones. And then I just went on, and I wanted to do foods and meals that everybody could relate to, that people could get at their local grocery store. I didn't go too fancy. I just went real super simple, but delicious and something that I knew people would enjoy.

Relating to the kitchen stress so many were feeling during quarantine

For a lot of people, just getting in the kitchen alone was stressful. It can be time-consuming, it's messy, it's overwhelming.

I think that's really true. The thing that was so mind-boggling to me, and it really was a shock to the system in the beginning, was okay, we're going to be homeschooling now. For me, I was like, "What? Wait, I'm going to be homeschooling six kids in one house every day?" So we had to scramble and figure it out and it ended up being wonderful because we were able to really, again, spend that quality time. We may never get much time together again, one-on-one time with our kids.

For me, I relate it to folks having to get into the kitchen and cook 24/7. In the beginning, there wasn't even real takeout. It was really like you have to figure out how to get food, and sometimes the shelves were bare in the very beginning. I could just relate it to the homeschooling experience for me because I had to really shift quickly and pivot very quickly and learn how to do this at home. I can assume that people at home are having to learn how to cook and how to figure out how to cook every meal at home by themselves. That was one of the reasons why I really wanted to do the show as well is to help all of the folks out there that would have been struggling and then entertain the people that weren't. It was a gift from A to Z — whatever you're struggling with, I wanted to be part of the solution.

What are your top tips for all of us at home who want to be more efficient and cook like an Iron Chef in the kitchen at home?

It really goes back to ... I plan the way I would plan for any holiday. During the holidays, we put that extra attention into like, "Okay, now I've got to really be efficient in the kitchen because I have 25 family members coming over, so now what do I do?" I do that for my everyday, it's just on a smaller scale.

Every day, I think about what am I going to cook for dinner tonight, and it doesn't have to be overthought. It's just really I plan a little bit. I think about it. I look at what I have on hand. I think about "do I need to go to the grocery store," make a list. A little bit will get you so far in being able to really manage your time in the kitchen and really be able to enjoy it as well, so it's not such a job. Because what I love to bring is a sense of joy to cooking. I try to make it as easy and as approachable as possible so that people can enjoy being in the kitchen instead of it feeling like it's such a task and such a job.

How to make your life easier in the kitchen, according to chef Cat Cora

You're a big meal prep fan.

I think it's really planning ahead. If you have a day where you're just hanging out at the house, make a couple of meals and put them in the freezer, make a lasagna or make a pot of chili. I think meal prep, to an extent, is not a bad idea. I think that I can cook fairly quickly because I can look at my refrigerator and know, but I'm trained to do that. For folks who aren't, I think, if you can put a little more time into it and a little more thought.

And we don't have a lot of time, none of us do, but if you have a day, like a Sunday, where you go to brunch, you wake up late, you get a little coffee, or your day off, and you can take a minute and make one extra meal to pop in your freezer to make your life easier during the week. Or you could put something in a crock pot and you have dinner when you get home. Or you can get some things prepped ahead, and then, the next day, dinner's a little easier. Those are the types of things.

And don't be afraid to buy pre-prepared things if it makes your life easier. You make a pot of rice or what have you, or you make some something on the stove or a pasta, but then you might buy a rotisserie chicken, that's okay. No one should have guilt about that because nowadays we have so many things that are done well, that are high quality, that aren't expensive, that we can all get at our local market. If that makes your life easier and you get a good meal out of it and you're eating healthy or as healthy as possible and, again, it makes your time management so much better and it makes you enjoy being in the kitchen, I say go for it. Don't feel guilt about it.

Because then you may do that pre-prepared rotisserie chicken one day, but it might inspire you to be like, "You know what? I think I'm going to make some chili, turkey chili, from scratch. I'm going to sauté the turkey and I'm going to add the beans and I'm going to add the tomatoes," then, great. I think that I'm all about everybody having a healthy relationship to food and really having the quality of life around food that I have, and I try to give people tips on how to do that easier.

Whatever it takes to take the pressure off and keep you coming back into the kitchen. That's all that matters.

Exactly. And that's really the answer, whatever takes pressure off and keeps you coming back to kitchen, exactly, because, if you say to someone who's not a trained chef, who's a busy working parent or just a busy person in general, who has a crazy schedule, come in here and do everything from scratch on a Monday or a Tuesday, the chances of you doing that again ... it might be a little while.

Cat Cora answers the tough questions

What is one ingredient you could never live without?

I'd have to say lemons. I'm going to say citrus, but lemons specifically, definitely. I have lemons everywhere. I love citrus on anything. I love citrus on food. I love citrus in cocktails. I love to squeeze a little citrus over my fish when I finish searing it. Especially being Greek American, I think that's the one thing. And I have lemon trees. And I think that's the one thing that my mom, if nothing else — obviously, she has garlic, onions, and all the great, yummy fresh herbs –- but lemon is special. It really is.

Who is one chef that you'd want to cook you dinner?

I know this sounds very woo-woo, but I'm going to say it anyway. I love to travel to the ends of the earth and I've always wanted to meet the Dalai Lama and I read all about his chef because we were talking about doing a show in that vein. And I would have to say I read all about his chef, and that would be fascinating to, really, to be served a meal by the Dalai Lama's chef, and I'm really saying that truthfully.

That's such a unique answer.

I'm not saying that to be extravagant or to try to be different. I'm saying that's the truth. I was reading all about the biography of his chef and I was so fascinated by it and that just popped into my head because I remember reading about him and I was like, "Wow, I want him to cook for me," and it would be even better if I'm eating with the Dalai Lama. That would be the experience right there.

Outside of just cooking, you've also built a platform that's centered around health and fitness and general wellness, but do you have any guilty pleasure foods, maybe a fast food guilty pleasure?

I'd have to say that it would be a really great slice of New York pizza. Okay? New York pizza, nowhere else, New York pizza with some fresh ricotta baked on top. And the crust is like ... forget about it. Folded over, oh, yeah.