Professional chef Cat Cora is a force to be reckoned with. The only woman, to date, on the Food Network's Iron Chef America, she is also the executive chef for Bon Appetit magazine, a published book author, and founder of Chefs for Humanity, which brings culinary professionals and educators together with U.S. and global organizations to provide nutrition education and humanitarian aid to countries around the world. She talked to WebMD the Magazine about how she stays healthy and balanced with her high-stress lifestyle (did we mention she has four young boys?) as well as her connection to Julia Child, her new cooking show, why commercial kitchens are still considered male territory, and how she teaches aspiring female chefs to deal with that.
Your new cookbook, Cat Cora's Classics With a Twist, comes out next month. How do you take a classic dish and still surprise?
My goal is to take high-end meals and make them lighter, healthier, easier, and more approachable. For instance, instead of Beef Wellington, I offer a Chicken Wellington made with puff pastry you can buy at the grocery store.
You are, to date, the only female Iron Chef. Why do you think kitchens -- well, commercial ones, anyway -- are still so male-dominated?
When I go around speaking to young women who are aspiring chefs, I tell them that they need to believe more in themselves. Men's strength is in marketing themselves and patting themselves on the back; women are more modest and demure about it. There are so many incredible female chefs out there, great ones. No one knows about it. My strength is getting out there, being proud of myself, not being afraid to market myself.
How do you prepare for a grueling hour of cooking on Food Network's Iron Chef America?
I get in a workout beforehand. I need to be pumped up and energized. I like to be really well rested the night before. Then I mentally zone out and focus on the ideas in my head. Even if I don't know the secret ingredient until I get there, my strategy is to know as much as I can about the cuisine through research. So if I know it'll be a Moroccan dish I'll research all the spices and techniques beforehand. Once I'm in the kitchen I just apply it, and get into the zone.
You refer to the late Julia Child as your "mentor." Explain your connection to this culinary great.
I met Julia before I became a chef. I went to a book signing of hers. She was so gracious, so nice. And while she had a million other things to do, she stopped and gave me 45 minutes of her time, told me where to go to culinary school, things like that. She saw I had this passion. Two years later I was able to spend time with her at her house in Cambridge. I said, "I want you to know, I followed your advice and this is where I'm at!" It was a great personal moment. She had such an impact on me. And now when I'm talking with young chefs I remember to always pay it forward.
Tell us about your web cooking series, The Muppet Kitchen, which debuted in March. Is new Muppet Chef Angelo worth his salt?
Chef Angleo is an interesting character. He's Robert DeNiro in the kitchen. You know: Italian, a real home chef, passionate, big, loud, and sizzling. He's the yin to my yang. All the Muppets make appearances. [You can check out the series on Disney.com]
You're also launching your own line of pots and pans later this year. What inspired you to do so, and what makes your kitchen line unique?
Every chef wants her own line! It's a new business venture. My line is different because it uses a lot of acacia wood -- a renewable product that's like bamboo. It's eco-friendly, doesn't expand and holds up better when washed and used. I'm also doing utensils with acacia wood and stainless steel together, which I haven't seen been done before. The line is cook-and-serve for home chefs, for entertaining or getting dinner on the table in rush. I'm also launching an eco-friendly sauté pan. It's really amazing, chemical free, and it's made entirely of renewable resources. It'll last forever. It's not Teflon; it's not going to rust.
Tell us about your duties as executive chef of Bon Appetit magazine.
I host their special events in Beaver Creek, do a Supper Club at Sundance, or a Vegas event held in May. I cook for VIPs on the business end of things.
In addition to your media dominance -- publishing, TV, web -- you just opened Kouzzina, which is Greek for "kitchen," at Walt Disney World's Boardwalk Resort. Describe the cuisine and what inspired it.
It's a beautiful restaurant. It's my signature kitchen, very sophisticated. But it comes from an idea of my family. You walk in the lobby and see pictures of my grandfather and the rest of my Greek family. It serves the food from my childhood: traditional Greek cuisine. I wanted to take a restaurant and put it in the middle of the boardwalk. You've got so many parents running around the park with the kids all day. They need a date night. Or they can come with kids and get a great meal.
How did the partnership with Disney evolve?
My relationship with Disney has grown over the years and this is one of several projects I'm doing with them. Of course, they have properties in Shanghai, Paris, and Anaheim, California, too. This is the first time Disney has ever partnered with an individual. It's very exciting.
If all this is not enough, you and your partner Jennifer have two babies under a year at home, plus another toddler and a six-year-old, too. How's motherhood treating you?
We have four boys. And we have so much fun with them!
What's your secret ingredient for balancing a passion for work with love for your family?
You know, I have a great team professionally. And I have a great one at home. If it weren't for my partner, Jennifer, I would not be able to do all I do. She does so much.
Describe your approach for introducing more sophisticated fare than, say, mac-n-cheese to younger children.
I get asked that a lot. Jennifer and I introduced spices -- ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg -- when the children started eating rice cereal to help develop their palates by balancing the savory with the sweet. And we get the kids involved in meal planning, so they're invested. "Don't want broccoli tonight? OK, how about carrots? Great!" The more you do it, the more they get used to it. In the evening we cook one meal. This is dinner, that's it. After that, the kitchen is closed. If they don't eat, I say, "OK, guess we'll be having a big breakfast in the morning!" It only takes one or two times and they get it. My kids are just like everybody else's out there. It's hard when they're younger than, say, two-and-a-half to do this, but after that age they're able to understand.
You also founded the charitable organization Chefs for Humanity in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. How did your group respond to recent events in Haiti?
We were on it the day after [the earthquake] happened. You can read about our initiative, One Million in 1 Month for Haiti, at http://1million1month.org/. We've raised $100,000 so far. We've created a buzz, a movement in the culinary industry. The bottom line is that we're acting and partnering with the World Food Programme. Around 50 top chefs are on board to go to Haiti and help with an emergency feeding relief plan. We've galvanized to go physically on the ground with emergency feeding relief, just like we did during Katrina. The organization is modeled on Doctors Without Borders, but it's for the culinary industry.
Are you an adherent of: "You are what you eat?" If so, how does mealtime apply to health, in your opinion?
What you eat is hugely important. We eat healthily around my house. I've been involved with wellness for a long time. I got my degree in exercise physiology 20 years ago and have been eating well before it became trendy. Now it's a family affair. When I do shows like Oprah, or I'm touring with one of my cookbooks, it's about bringing parents and kids together as a unit and teaching them to eat well as a family. It's essential to give parents the skills and knowledge and show them that it's not always cheaper to go to McDonalds. Or, instead of buying packaged frozen foods for $200 a week, I can show a family how to cook healthy meals with $70 a week. Families need to know how to shop, cook, and eat better.
What is your best health habit?
Exercising! I do something active seven days a week. We have an active family. We go out on the beach cruiser or take a walk on the beach. We boogie board and we love swimming. I jog everyday. And we take the kids to the park. Our oldest plays soccer, skateboards, does karate. And I never smoked!
I love wine. But I think that's a good thing! For me, it's about too much stress. Also I don't stretch enough! And nothing is meditative or quiet enough. Everything is big and hyper -- the name of the game in my life.
Many people cook to relax. As a professional chef, do you find other ways to unwind?
I love to read. If given the chance I can read a book in a day. And traveling. I also get massages as often as I can, about once a month. Taking a walk on the beach relaxes me, as does a dinner party with friends.
What's the one thing concerning your health that you wish you'd done as a child?
Exercise more. When I was growing up, health clubs weren't a big part of our lives. I wish they had been. I did sports in school but never jogged or things like that. We just didn't do that.
Do you find yourself recommending a healthy recipe or practice to your friends (like drinking carrot juice in the morning)?
We do protein smoothies in the morning. Here's how to make them: Add some fresh baby spinach, frozen mango chunks, five or six almonds, a little soy milk, a little juice if you like, some protein powder, and blend it up. Delicious! We love it around the house. We call it a Shrek drink to get the boys to drink it. And they do!
When the going gets rough, what comfort food do you reach for?
A big, hot bowl of spaghetti and meatballs with a blue cheese salad and red wine, with some toasted crusty, bread.
You're 42 now (even if you look a decade younger). How do you feel about aging?
I hit 40 and went: Nothing's different! My forties are exciting! My thirties were, too, toward their second half. So the best is yet to come. I have no anxiety. I guess I'm more surprised because I don't feel worried about it. But I don't want go back to my twenties. I would not want to be 22 again!
Of the five senses -- sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch -- which do you value the most?
My nose. The ability to smell. It's related to the palate. I wouldn't be able to taste anything without it. Sight is important, of course. They all are. But if I had to choose? Easy. Smell.