Cat Cora will host The Food Bank's 8th Annual Celebrity Chef Fundraiser on February 26th. I was able to catch up with her by phone and ask her some questions about her career in food and what makes her tick. She's a great lady - very committed and passionate - and I enjoyed having a chance to talk to her. Below is the interview.
FSM: First, why did you become a chef? I’m curious as to why you became a chef versus what’s kept you being a chef?
Cat: Well, you know, I grew up in a family full of great cooks and also restaurateurs. I guess you could say it’s really in my blood. I grew up around restaurants, and that really exciting side that I got from that – it just kind of stuck with me. I knew that I always wanted to have a restaurant someday and be a part of that excitement. It just seemed like one of those really exciting careers I could go into, and also it has become that – and that’s why I’ve stayed in it.
FSM: And when it’s in your blood, it doesn’t go away, right?
Cat: Yeah, it’s true.
FSM: I started Food & Spirits about a year ago, and one of the things I’ve noticed as publisher is that I always struggle to get more female articles because it is kind of a guy-centric industry – but I have a feeling that’s changing a little bit. So what’s it like to work in that environment, and do you see it shifting a little as well?
Cat: Yeah, I definitely see it shifting. Every year I think it changes a little more. I’m seeing as I go to culinary schools and lectures that it is becoming a little more equal, in terms of women versus men. I think there’s definitely more women in the industry, which is a great thing, and there are more students coming up, which is always a great sign. I also see a lot more equality in the men and women and the way they interact. I think the women in my generation, and obviously the generations before us broke a lot of barriers. We count on the past pioneers who have forced some of that.
FSM: Along those lines, you worked under Julia Child, right?
Cat: No, I didn’t work under her. I had met her a couple of times and she really mentored me.
FSM: Did she prepare you for that too, since she was one of the pioneers in inserting women in the culinary world.
Cat: I don’t think she necessarily said, “Watch out for the men” or “You have to take care of yourself”, I think she just really exuded that, it was one of those things that was kind of unspoken. She showed that through example, and that’s what I try to do as well. And I think she showed that by breaking down barriers. For the women of each generation, we have to keep doing that in all areas and careers. Again, we count on those pioneers to help make it more acceptable for us, and we have to make it our job when we get in the arena to make it more acceptable and better for the next generation.
FSM: Absolutely. And in a broader scope, we work really closely with the culinary institute here in Omaha, which is a really great one. I work a lot with the students and if they had to ask you a question, I bet they’d ask you what advice you would give to aspiring chefs?
Cat: I think it would be to never give up. Set your goals and go for it; and once you’ve reached your goals, set new ones. I think in continuing to do that you never finish learning. You need to pay your dues, which is really important. We’ve got to really get that through to this next generation because when I came into the culinary world it was a given. You had to pay lots of dues for many years before you got to that coveted executive chef position. You put your time in, and sometimes it’s free, sometimes you make very little money, but you do what you have to do. I think that’s really important, and it’s an investment in our future. I like to look at it that way and it goes so far with the person you’re working under. It shows a tremendous amount of integrity and work ethic and I think that’s super, super important. We have to continue that feeling in this next generation, because that’s one of the biggest complaints of employers out there right now in our industry. A lot of kids get out of culinary school and are trying to demand top dollar, top position. They just don’t understand. Before I became a Food Network personality, I’d been paying dues for 10 years. I went to France and worked six months for free because I wanted that knowledge and experience, and I did it solely for that. I think we need to continue feeling that quality and the value of education, both in school and in the industry. Continue to persevere.
FSM: I think that’s just totally spot on because that is certainly something I hear from employers rather than chefs. Some of these guys think that they’re celebrities and rock stars, and they need to be putting their time in and grinding it out. That will really resonate with our readers, because I hear that out there too. It’s the same coming up as a writer; sometimes you work for free and just have to put your time in.
Cat: Yeah, and always stealing time. You know, there’s always people who roll in 10 minutes late and don’t call. Really, it seems like a small thing, but it’s hugely important. You need to always be there, and I still do that to this day. People think “Oh, she’s not going to be here for another 30 minutes” when I show up to events, and I’m on time every single time, even now. So I think that it’s just hugely important. If you don’t, you’re basically saying “My time is more important than yours”.
FSM: So the last questions I have here are just some kind of fun ones. I’m curious; I always like to ask chefs what the last meal is that they made for their family.
Cat: Last night I made this great scallion and green bean stir fry. I did an Asian wild salmon with a quick homemade hoisin teriyaki style spicy sauce.
FSM: Another one I always like to ask a chef is what would I be surprised to find in your fridge?
Cat: I keep probably five jars of pepprocinis at a time. I eat them every single day. I eat them with lunch, dinner; it’s a pretty big indulgence.
FSM: And I know this question has been overdone a bit, but what would you want your last meal to be? Would you want to prepare it, or would you want it prepared for you?
Cat: I think I would probably want to prepare it. I’d probably want a lot of things, all of my favorites. Probably served with some sort of peanut butter and chocolate and ice cream. My favorite meat is lamb, so probably a great slow-braised lamb shank, every vegetable and fruit under the sun - all the briny stuff; peppercinis, olives, of course cheeses. Lots of wine. It’s my last meal going out.
FSM: You’re very involved with charity events. I’d like you to speak a bit as to why you’re so involved with those things and what the importance is.
Cat: It’s always been a part of my life growing up. My mom was a nurse, my dad was a schoolteacher and my parents always gave back. Whether it was time, or giving to Goodwill, always giving to charity. My mom would do house calls and think nothing of it. I just grew up around that. I’ve always done things for charity throughout my career. I’m super blessed in my career; I can speak out and have a voice about nutritional education. I’ve also created an organization, Chefs for Humanity, which does emergency food relief. During Katrina we were there, as well as in other countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras. We’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg now. For 2009 we have much more planned. We’ve had great partners; Bon Appetit magazine has been a great partner to us. We’re still building, we’re still evolving. I want this to be my legacy, and I want it to go on way past my time.
FSM: Have you ever been to Omaha before?
Cat: I have not; I’m looking forward to it.
FSM: How long are you going to be in town for?
Cat: A couple of days, my mom used to live in Lincoln, so I’ve been to the area and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
FSM: Are you going to be able to go out to eat anywhere when you’re in Omaha?
Cat: I hope to, do you have any places in mind that I should check out?
FSM: Dixie Quicks, which was one of the restaurant featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is one of my favorite place in town.
FSM: Thank you so much for speaking with us, and enjoy your day.
Cat: Thank you so much, I will.