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Iron 'Cue

Chef Cat Cora Talks to the Flyer about Mississippi, BBQ, and Iron Chef ...

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On the timed battle-cooking show Iron Chef America, chef Cat Cora and her co-stars create gourmet meals based around a mystery ingredient revealed at the show's beginning.

But in real life, the (at present) very-pregnant Jackson, Mississippi, native is happy to dine on Southern comfort food and pulled pork barbecue.

She'll be making an appearance at Macy's in Oak Court Mall at 6:00 o'clock, Thursday, April 30th to demonstrate recipes from her new CCQ (that stands for Cat Cora's 'Cue) restaurant that's in a Macy's in Costa Mesa, California. And she'll sign copies of her cookbook, Cooking from the Hip.

--Bianca Phillips

Flyer: You were born in Jackson, Mississippi. Did Southern cuisine play a role in your decision to pursue a career as a chef?

Definitely. I grew up around a lot of great Southern cooks. I was born and raised in the South, and I spent time, not only in Jackson, but Memphis, New Orleans, and other regions of Mississippi. I learned the different influences and flavors from the different regions of the South.

My aunt was an amazing Southern cook and she lived in Greenville, Mississippi. My mom made great scratch biscuits. It's such a rich cuisine, and it gave me a strong foundation.

What was your favorite childhood dish?

I'd say my mom's grits and her scratch biscuits. She made real grits, not instant grits. Some of the breakfasts we had were amazing. And there was great fried chicken and barbecue.

What's it like being the only female chef in the male-dominated Iron Chef franchise?

It's amazing to be the first at anything and have such a huge following. I think I'm most proud of that. We're going on to our eighth season and it's still the highest-rated show on the Food Network. To be the first and only female Iron Chef and to be an inspiration has been the biggest gift of the whole thing.

What's been the most challenging ingredient to work with on the show?

The thing is, you have to make the ingredient the star of the dish. If the ingredient is honey, you can't just drizzle it on top of the dish. You have to really make it stand out. Having a protein is easier than having something kind of obscure that melts into food, like honey or butter or milk or coffee. Those are pretty intense because you have to make them the star. How do make a chunk of butter the star? That's a lot of work.

What's your winning record?

I don't know, but I know I've won probably three-quarters of my battles. I've not counted my wins and losses, but I know I have a good record.

Your team members take a shot of ouzo after each battle. What's up with that?

My dad is Greek, and that's the cuisine I grew up with, so I decided I'd do Greek cuisine for my first battle. I didn't know what the secret ingredient was going to be, but whatever it was, I knew I'd make a Greek-influenced dish.

So we had ouzo on the set for my dish, and at the end of that battle, we were so relieved to be done that we were like, "let's do a shot of this ouzo." And it just stuck, so every single time we finish a battle, we get together and do a shot of ouzo.

You and your partner are both pregnant. What's that like?

I was nervous that it'd be a little chaotic and crazy with the hormones flying. But honestly, it ended up being a really amazing experience. It's like being pregnant with your best friend. We help each other out. This is my first time being pregnant and it's her third. It's our third child together, but my first time having the experience.

If I'm feeling something I've never felt before, she knows right away what it is. In your first trimester, you can cry at the drop of a hat and in the next five minutes, you're laughing. Your emotions are all over the place. It's been a great experience together and we've grown stronger from it.

Have you had any strange food cravings?

A lot of pickles and a lot of spicy foods. I've had a lot of cravings for peanut butter and things like that. I haven't gone into the whole sweet craving, but I do have the occasional cupcake craving and I have to have a cupcake now. Mostly, it's just been weird combinations like pickles with cottage cheese and crackers. I could eat spicy food for every single meal, and I'm talking like fire engine spice.

You founded Chefs for Humanity in 2005. What does that organization do?

I started it four-and-a-half years ago in response to the tsunami that hit [Southeast Asia]. At the time, there weren't any organizations set up for chefs and culinary professionals to help.

Chefs for Humanity does hunger initiatives. We've done emergency feeding relief. For instance, when Katrina happened, we mobilized to the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. We were there for months, feeding 3,000 to 5,000 people a day. We had chefs coming from Food Network and all over the country. We had local chefs helping out. We fed law enforcement and people that were out of their homes and in shelters.

We also do nutritional education in the U.S. It is geared toward kids, but you also have to teach the parents because they're the ones who cook and shop. It starts there. We've got to get the parents motivated to set an example for the kids.

What's the premise for your new restaurant, CCQ?

It's in Costa Mesa, California. We just opened in December. It stands for Cat Cora's Q. I love barbecue, and Macy's really wanted me to do a fast-casual concept form. So I created CCQ. All the barbecue is engrained in the traditional Southern way of making barbecue -- the low and slow cooking with lots of different woods. My dad always smoked meats with hickory and I love to use hickory.

It's really true Southern barbecue, but it's also got a global flair. I have sauces from all over the world. People go to the Q Bar and they can customize their barbecue with sauces from Asia and Argentina. The bottom line is barbecue is universal. Even though we're known for it in the South, everyone in the world barbecues.

We've also got great sides, like my three-bean pit beans with a cinnamon-spiked sauce, a broccoli slaw with hot sweet mustard vinaigrette, using my grandmother’s recipe from generations back. It's a hot concept and we plan on expanding and franchising it throughout the U.S.

Does CCQ serve pulled pork or ribs?

Right now, I have pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken, fire-roasted vegetables for vegans and vegetarians, and barbecued shrimp. You can pick your protein and then you can have it one of three ways -- on a platter, with my signature chopped salad, or in a wrap. My concept is made to expand from a kiosk to a full-blown House of Blues-type restaurant. If we get a little bit bigger, when we get outside of Macy's, we may add ribs or fried pickles to the menu.

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