TV and I are not very close friends yet. Sadly, my life keeps me too busy to find time to enjoy the television and all the shows that people know and follow. For me Cat Cora is not the Iron Chef she is to many. She is mother of four boys, a loving partner to her wife, a beloved daughter and grand-daughter, and a realist who has lived the American Dream. At least her dream, that she began realizing at age 15, after presenting her father and grandfather with a business plan for her own restaurant.
The travel-rich world of celebrity chefs is not all that it is made out to be. Tiring, tedious, joyous, inspiring, inpsirational, enriching, stimulating, filled with opportunities to share and also a place to use your voice to make a difference. And there are celebrities and then some. I could never think that being placed on the same marquee with Cat places me at the same pedestal. Hers is a world that I certainly can only imagine as being all that I have to live and so much more. How then can this small-dynamo of a woman smile, look beautiful, be gracious and be honest?
If the ingredients she had chosen to play with on stage were a mirror to the mind and thought inside the beautifully charming facade that is Cat - you had much to learn, and much to be hopeful about. With simple available ingredients, she was teaching the fans and groupies alike, to eat better and live more honestly.
Her salad dressing was made quickly, simply, without any aplomb and at first. Allowed to rest and be a silent observer, to all the other action that would take place in the kitchen (stage in this case) where Cat cooks and teaches, speaks and inspires, and is able to also have fun whilst on the road, away from her family.
As she spoke about Tuna, what impressed me most was her educating words that revealed for all hearing and watching, that it was OK to buy cheaper cuts of meat and fish, if you had looked at them, checked for freshness, and understood why they were cheaper or more expensive. Also great was the guidance and freedom she gave of allowing her followers to adapt the recipe she presented, and change it to the realities of their own lives. Highlight that in her own home, with four sons, Tuna was not an easy sell, but the nicoise salad was made with Salmon instead. She spoke about her liking it more rare, but allowing people the ability to eat as they wish, and do what they feel is best. But happily for me, all along, ensuring they made good choices, and still personalizing them. Often celebrity comes with a silencing of honest exchange. The result of sponsorships for the most part. And sometimes even those that invite us to speak and present. Cat was able to cook, chat, encourage, inspire and educate all at once.
What makes Cat, a cool cat? Well part of it has to do with her rich heritage. Born in Mississippi and raised with a deep and meaningful connection to her Greek heritage. Always enjoying the comforts of Southern cuisine and living whilst also celebrating the mysterious flavors and life of the Island of Skopelos brought closer to her through relatives the family was close to. Perhaps this early education on the world being a small village, separated by borders, but not by minds, created her "go-with-what-you've-got" attitude. It is this quick, meaningful and very empowering message that resonated with me. And I hope that those attending, were able to look deeper than the skin-deep beauty Cat has in great abundance, and allow her words, her recipes, and her message, to be the real reason to have been at her presentation yesterday morning at the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago.
Cat was signing after the demo, copies of her new book, Cat Cora's Classics With A Twist - Fresh Takes on Favorite Dishes. Serpentine lines awaited her arrival after the demo, to get their copies of this new book signed. Such is the admiration for Cat. And did they realize how lucky they were? The new book is being released June 2nd. And I am sure someday, she could easily do a tell-all, that would share many fun and challenging stories, that have shaped who she is, as she handles the machismo that permeates every restaurant kitchen and certainly must come out even as she tapes segments with Iron Chef. She is the only female Iron Chef. Not one to shy from challenge, seeing her, hearing her and grasping her stories - one would never imagine that she has had even a singular moment of strife. She seems comfortable with herself, her work and life. Comfortable in ways that speak of happiness that comes only when truly loved. A love that comes from relationships that have been weathered by time, politics and people. From a life lived with open eyes and heart. Cat is a woman at the VERY top of her game, in an industry ruled by mostly men. The only woman Iron Chef. Unabashedly out and proud, enjoying her personal life, and celebrating it as smart and proud people do everywhere. Not calling it out for any reason, but not allowing anyone to make it an issue either. Blessed with a wife that must make her life comfy and hopeful when she is home, and with four sons, each of whom sport smiles so big that you know the mommies make them proud, protect them well, and inspire them with rich lives enriched with great food and the magic of a large and loving family. The twist for me is not her marriage to a woman, but the fact that she is a celebrity with a very basic and ordinary story. Nothing sensational about her. Hers is a story most all of us want to have in our own lives, and hope to achieve in marriage, work and with family. Cat has worked hard to be where she is professionally. She works hard to be a great wife and mother, a loving relative and friend to her near and dear ones. Luckily, in our twisted world, where celebrities often show sides of life far from charming, the only twist in Cat's personal life is the lack of any unnecessary drama. Bravo Cat! Your culinary twists with classic dishes, will certainly make it to my table!
Just like the most of us, who do not feel the need to ladle out dressings, Cat cuts the fuss, and simply drizzles the salad, right from the bowl, over the plated nicoise salad, guided by her wooden spatula. A woman who makes my heart feel warm because of the honesty with which she lives on and off stage. Not one to do things on stage, that she may not in her kitchen. It is this honesty, that is at once comforting and also endearing.
Simple ingredients, enriched with simple flair, honest commentary and a deeply rooted sense of self - make Cat's nicoise salad a twist that will be welcome everywhere. Cat highlighted how a nicoise salad is a wonderful way of getting kids to participate in the act of cooking (at least constructing), and of course she added that it would be nice to allow some input from them. Also suggesting that her own boys would suggest making anything and everything about ice cream sundae. She spoke about this reality and also spoke about how that debate is necessary to have happen between parent and child. She also suggested that with some delicate disciplining, it is possible to get kids to do what they should, and have fun doing it. Of course a smart elder is able to make certain compromises and changes as needed. Cat's message was succinct, timely and necessary.
In twisting the classic Nicoise into a wrap, Cat shows us she is smart and playful. Who does not like wraps? But for Cat, twisting this classic also became an opportunity to do the right thing by people, by food and by flavor. It also kept the ingredients classic enough and yet create some fun. In a world where celebrities would easily make decisions that support sponsors, even if they compromise the people who are their loyal supporters. Not here. Cat did what was right and because she believed in it. You could see in her eyes, in her voice, in her energy, that here is a woman who is just as happy eating this salad, as she is making it on stage. It sometimes sickens me to see people do on stage, things they would never do for themselves behind a closed door. Watching Cat, I realized quickly, that I could trust her. She talked about this wrap as being tasty, fun and playful. But she also said, it was a messy job, that made for playful dining, where you gave up some of the stuffy inhibitions, and allowed the mess to make for comfortable and easy dining, that most often also makes for memorable mealtimes.
Cat presented the Nicoise Wrap with a certain pride and elan, that spoke of a inner confidence and peace that came from knowing she was doing the right thing. Cat's food has honesty and simplicity. It also has something for most everyone. She also gives the person following her, a freedom to create, change, adapt and actually live - whilst being inspired to do what she does. That is marvelous. Cat founded Chefs for Humanity and has cajoled many chefs to join her in changing lives wherever a need arises. If not cooking her food through her books, or following her on her travels, you can find Cat's food at Kouzzina at Walt Disney World or at her restaurant CCQ in Costa Mesa or the many others around the country. Cat is also launching at the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago, a new line of cookware. Follow her through her website and in the media, and you can discover what it is that she is giving her name to. But most of all, follow this woman, even if only to learn from her to live smartly. If she can be a mother of four boys, a loving wife, a respected and respectable member of society, and be a celebrity at the same time - we can all aspire to do better in our own lives. And more importantly can at least cook better at home. Feed our loves ones better to, and smile and have fun doing it. Thanks Cat for always being chipper and energetic, even as you live a grueling life with so much to do. You are always too gracious and kind. Always able to talk about those you respect and care for, even in your own air-time or stage-time, and that too is one of your magical gifts. I felt blessed to have been heaped with all the praise you showered me with during your cooking demo. It was actually embarrassing. What you did do, was to show me yet again, that your humanity, your generosity and your spirit to live a beautiful life is something very real and tangible. Nothing your celebrity and work schedule can change. We are lucky to have you around in the world of food, and also as someone we can all emulate to be like. Charlie and I look forward to your help in making us parents. Your promising that on stage, was so sweet and beautiful. Thanks a ton!