Chef Cat Cora says "Bon Appetit" at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters Life!) - Cat Cora is the executive chef for Bon Appetit magazine, and this week she has been at the Sundance Film Festival, cooking for celebrities at the Bon Appetit Supper Club.

Cora grew up in Mississippi in a Greek household, so she says she was raised on two very strong, types of cuisine, Greek Southern-style cooking. Cora attended the Culinary Institute of America, graduating with honors, and afterward went on to two apprenticeships in France with Georges Blanc and Roger Verge.

She continued her career in upstate New York and in Manhattan, Napa Valley and now in Santa Barbara, California. She took a few minutes to sit down with Reuters at Sundance to talk about her passion for world cuisine, cooking at home and how her work has led her to form Chefs for Humanity.

Q: You grew up in a family of restaurateurs, was it assumed you would go into the food industry, or was there a moment when you realized it was your passion?

A: I don’t think anyone put any expectations on me that I would carry on the tradition of restaurants. We cooked a lot in our family together. I loved cooking.

I got a degree in exercise physiology with a minor in biology and nutrition first and did wellness for a few years. But then I did have an ‘aha moment’ where I realized this is what I really want to do -- this is my passion. I really want to be around food and wine and restaurants and that whole atmosphere and vibe and I set off to do that.

Q: How would you describe the food that you cook?

A: The type of cuisine I do, especially after being on ‘Iron Chef’ for several years, is a lot of global cuisine. My strength has always been Mediterranean cuisine across the board from Morocco, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, but I think now I’m doing a lot of very different cuisines all the time.

When I do ‘Iron chef’ we do something different every time. We do Moroccan, we do Asian, we do African, we do all kinds of cuisine and it makes it really exciting. So I think I have really branched out a lot into the global communities in different regions of the world and really pulled from those.

A view of Main Street at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 14, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Q: Has TV shaped and informed where you are now?

A: Definitely. My shows allow me to grow and expand my horizons. It’s fun to pick a cuisine and say I’m going to research Ethiopian food, and see what it’s all about. You find that there are a lot of similarities in cuisines from around the world and a lot of similar flavors. It’s really interesting to go into countries and regions and dig into the history of their cuisine. I have to continue growing and learning as a chef.

Q: At home do you cook, or does your partner?

A: The thing about being at home versus being out in the world working is, it’s a whole different vibe. When I’m home with my kids and partner, I will cook -- even though she’s a very good cook. She’s learned over the years. We started with basics, you know, how to saute onions, how to saute mushrooms.

Being out and cooking, whether its ‘Iron Chef’ or a morning show or an event like Sundance, everything is really fast and furious. You’re doing huge batches of food and everything is pretty quick, you have a time limit, a deadline.

At home you can really sit back have a lot of quality time with the family and just have fun with it, have a little wine and just enjoy. It’s very therapeutic for me, very relaxing.

Q: Beyond cooking, you’re involved in several causes.

A: My humanitarian work evolved from being with my family. My mom, my dad, they really set a great example for giving back. My mom was a nurse, my dad was a school teacher. But my mom did a lot of things for geriatrics and elderly people. She would do home visits for free.

So, I founded Chefs for Humanity in response to the (2004) tsunami. Because there really wasn’t an emergency relief organization of culinary professional chefs. I was working with UNICEF at the time, and they asked me if I could reach out to my colleagues and I said, ‘sure.’

I got an overwhelming response from culinary professionals, foodies, chefs that just love food and wine. And I said there needs to be an organization that responds to this, and that’s how I set up Chefs for Humanity. That was my main mission.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Paul Casciato