Cat Cora, the first female winner of competition cooking show Iron Chef, recently sat down for a Q&A session on Reddit and answered all of our burning questions about cooking. (She also dished about what goes on behind the scenes on Iron Chef.)
What was your most challenging iron chef ingredient? Who was the most challenging competitor?
“The toughest Iron Chef ingredient I had were things that were not protein, like milk, coffee, butter, that you usually use within a dish, but they had to be the star of the dish. So those were the most challenging types of ingredients, versus chicken, or fish, or shrimp, something that’s a protein. Who I lost to with the largest lead was Will Shriver, who used to be the White House chef at the time and he smoked me.”
What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever eaten?
“Oh, I would definitely have to say fried bull testicles. Definitely the craziest thing that someone has cooked for me. It was pretty wild. They tasted like chicken? Everybody says that, so it’s kind of a running joke, but anytime you taste something weird, it tasted like chicken. But it tasted like a little chicken meatball, because that’s what it is. That’s probably the oddest thing, and I’ve eaten alligator, and turtle, and things like that as well. I’ve eaten some really wild things, particularly in Asia.”
Without naming names, was there ever a “celebrity” judge on Iron Chef who you thought maybe wasn’t entirely qualified to be judging a competition between chefs?
“Oh yes, there were several times when we would have celebrity judges that didn’t know how to cook, or the best thing they would do would be to make reservations. You could definitely tell. It would be like if I were to judge Dancing with the Stars, without dancing. So you could definitely tell, and it was frustrating at times.”
Do you really only get an hour and when that thing rises, is that really the first time you see the secret ingredient?
“Yes, we do know (and this is documented because Food Network did a documentary on behind the scenes) that we know it will be one of 4 or 5 ingredients, but we don’t know which one until the chairman raises the top of the ingredient. And we do only get 60 minutes.”
What is your opinion of the Food Network slowly changing into the Game Network? It seems that more recent shows are no longer geared to learning cooking techniques, but rather game-style competition.
“I think that’s just right now where the competition is. That’s where the ratings are. So Iron Chef was obviously the first real competition show, and after that everyone was doing all these different shows, everyone else wanted to jump on the bandwagon. The reason people love cooking competitions is because it’s two of America’s favorite pastimes: cooking and sporting events.”
Have you ever thought “damn, I have a badass name for a chef.” Cause seriously. bad. ass. name.
“Yeah, thanks! I think it’s pretty cool too, you know? And I was lucky, I guess my parents named me right and I got that nickname in culinary school. One of my first restaurants I ran with Michael Curiello, he tagged me “Cat” so for my whole life I was called Cathy, a lot of people I know, my family, my wife, called me Cathy, and so when Michael called me “Cat” that was right before I got my Food Network show and got started on this journey.”
What dish do you remember first making and feeling like you really climbed a mountain and succeeded at it? Like something that was tricky or used to intimidate you?
“I think really working with liquid nitrogen. I think that was something very monumental for me. I remember working with liquid nitrogen, because I wanted to use that on Iron Chef, and I was terrified. And once I made a great ice cream with it, and I really worked with it, it became so easy and I did feel like I’d climbed a mountain.”
What mythical creature would be most difficult to cook and eat? And, how would you prepare it?
“Probably a dragon, because first of all, you’d have to capture it, and my kids – since we have 4 boys – they were for a long time into dragons. And they breathe fire, so they’d be really tough to capture. And how gnarly that skin is, to get to the meat. I’d probably do some barbecue dragon ribs, with a little olive oil, salt & pepper, then slather some bbq sauce on it. Spicy barbecued dragon ribs.”
What is one great dish every home cook should know how to make, and do you have any tips on making it?
“Oooh. Everyone should know how to make a great roasted chicken. It’s something classic that everyone can do. And it’s not going to break the budget in case you over or under cook it. And it’s one of the first things that young chefs learn how to make, is how to roast a great chicken. That is one dish that everyone should know how to make. If you can do that, you can do a lot of other things. I think the biggest tip is to really give it a good slathering of good olive oil, a really nice quality olive oil like a cold press. Always look for cold press olive oil, that will always be high quality, good salt and pepper, and put lemon and various herbs, like thyme, parsley, oregano, rub that on the skin, and then after you squeeze the lemons over the chicken, then put the remainder leftover lemon inside the cavity of the chicken to infuse more citrus into it. And that will really keep your chicken nice and moist. Roast it slowly if you can, 350 degrees, for a good hour, hour and fifteen minutes. Keep basting with juices, the dripping juices, add some more olive oil, just to keep it moist.”
While competing in Kitchen Stadium, which secret ingredient gave you the most trouble?
“I think it was when we had to butcher a whole hog, and that thing was bigger than two of me, that was probably the most challenging I’ve ever had.”
For foodies at home who don’t have the funds to spend on a whole set of top-of-the-line ingredients and equipment, what items should have in my kitchen?
“I would say the top 5 things: 1. have at least one good knife that is sharp, most accidents happen with a dull knife, that you love to use. 2. a decent set of pots & pans. 3. a really great blender. If you’re going to splurge on anything, get a really powerful blender or something similar to make great sauces. 4. For ingredients, just so you know, I always keep a bowl of great citrus – lemon, limes, oranges, tangerines – just so that I can enhance every single dish with a little citrus. That’s a secret ingredient I always use every time in my food. 5. I have my own line of olive oils and ingredients, so I know they are authentic because they come directly from Greece. So investigate the quality of your olive oil. Bonus: Good vinegars too. Any kind of acid like vinegar or citrus has no fat, no calories, but it enhances the quality of your food like crazy.”
What is something about being on Iron Chef that you think would surprise the viewer at home?
I think what would surprise viewers is how treacherous it can be, running round the stadium with knives and fire. People don’t see all those moments, and there’s definitely things that happen in kitchen stadium, people get cut and burned, but we’re all pros so we take it in stride.
I love peanut butter! What’s your favorite peanut butter based recipe, if you have one?
“OMG! I’m a peanut butter fanatic. If I could have one last food, it would probably be that, on a spoon. There’s a great african food made with peanut butter that I love to make. African peanut stew, made with peanut butter and chicken, it’s really really spicy.”
How does the Iron Chef challenge work in terms of portions for the judges? The competitors only ever make 1 of each dish but end up serving 5.
“Well, that’s the great challenge of Iron Chef, it’s a coin toss about who gets to go first. And you have to decide which will be your strategy. That is where the game gets good, because you’ve done the battle, you’ve cooked the food, but you have to make sure the food cooks well, and you can only re-warm things. And you have to make 5 dishes of each course, 25 dishes in 45 minutes that you have to get through the judging. So you must be strategic throughout.”
What do you make for lunch for yourself when you are feeling especially lazy?
“Oh lunch! I’m really into kale salads right now. I love getting kale and spinach, and just making this big chopped salads with all kinds of veggies, some avocado on there, that’s really a super easy lunch. I just eat it out of a mixing bowl, don’t even put it on a plate. I usually do a lemon olive oil, maybe a little dijon, whip it up, add some salt and cracked pepper. A classic french mustard vinaigrette.”
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
“I think real young, when I was a teen, I started cooking with my godfather some, my family were great cooks, my dad was a great grillmeister, my mom and my grandma cooked well, so when I was 14-15 I started really getting into cooking. And that’s when I knew I wanted to have my own restaurant someday.”
Other than your own, what is your favorite food-related TV show?
“I have kind of a secret obsession with cake decorating, so I am all about the guys on ‘Cake Boss.’ I have this secret obsession with learning how to decorate cakes.”
As a soon to be mom myself, I was just curious what are some dishes you love to cook for your boys?
“We don’t sneak foods, we are honest about foods, we don’t label it good or bad. Growing up, we started real young, when they started eating rice cereal, we’d add spices like cinnamon or ginger, and if you haven’t done that, it’s not too late, but you have to go with the rule I grew up with–try everything once, and start re-introducing foods in a few months. Don’t ever give up, because my mom never did, and I turned out to be a chef. I continued to introduce foods, set a rule to try everything once, and get your kids involved in mealtime. Get them involved on whether it will be chicken or salmon tonight, corn or peas or broccoli, empower them to make decisions about the menu and they will be more likely to eat the food they’ve chosen. We do things like great fajitas, fish tacos, edamame, we’re doing comfort food too, like Friday night is pizza & movie night, it’s a tradition I grew up with and we like to keep it going in our family. We like to mix it up.”
I had the pleasure of eating at your restaurant in Houston’s airport. My question for you is, how did the idea for this come about?
“The good news is we are going to be opening another Cat Cora’s kitchen in the B terminal at Atlanta International Airport this summer and the concept came about because I travel a lot too, and I wanted travelers to have a healthy option, and this is something I’m really passionate about. I’m going to continue to spread these all around the country. And thank you for coming.”
What’s your ultimate go-to comfort food?
“I would say the ultimate comfort food is I love a great steak on the grill. Everything is very simplistic. High quality but made very simply, just olive oil, squeeze of lemon, cracked pepper. Or a good roasted chicken with root vegetables. Or just fresh fish tacos.”
Does the iron chef pantry automatically have things like black truffles or really obscure things, or are those things you have to bring yourself? And, how much of cooking challenge shows are real?
“Well, there’s a pantry that has lots of obscure things. They do have a lot of obscure things, not black truffles, but each chef also gets a $500 budget to bring in anything that they want to bring in. So if I wanted to spend $500 on one black truffle to bring in, I could do that. I know for a fact that Iron Chef is real. And I know that Top Chef and Master Chef are real so for the most part, they are all legit shows. They are down and dirty competitions. They are really legit competitions and people are really battling it out.”