Cat Cora: Her Kitchen Rules

Jan 13, 2017
Originally published on April 5, 2017 6:31 pm

According to celebrity chef Cat Cora, when she became the first female Iron Chef in America, things started to get a little weird. "I got into a winning streak...I would wear the same socks, I'd eat the same breakfast - I mean five almonds on my granola, my two tablespoons ... of yogurt... I measured everything out," she told host Ophira Eisenberg. "You get weird, you get freakin' weird."

Cora grew up around chefs — both her father and grandfather were restaurateurs. So when cooking icon Julia Child advised her to leave her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to study at the Culinary Institute of America, Cora signed up the very next day. From that point on, Cora's career took off "fast and furious." In 2001, she became the co-host of Food Network's Melting Pot with Rocco DiSpirito. Since then, she's taken her signature enthusiasm and no-nonsense style to more than a dozen other TV food shows.

Cora firmly believes anyone can learn to cook. "I've always said, if you can read ... you can cook." That's what she proves on her new Fox TV show My Kitchen Rules, where she and co-host Curtis Stone judge celebrity pairs as they invite each other over for high-stakes dinner parties. "We created an environment where we wouldn't allow them to fall short," explained Cora. "You're not going to open boxes, you're not going to open cans...we're going to do this the right way."

In honor of Cora's TV experience, her game is inspired by the cooking show staple challenge where competitors are given strange ingredients that make no sense together, and are asked to create something edible. Cora guesses nonsensical dishes made up of rhyming foods, like "steak cake."


On going to a friend's house for dinner, knowing they aren't the best cook

I have eaten a lot of really bad meals with a lot of people I love

On how she won 5 straight Iron Chef matches

You gotta get the endorphins going, you gotta like, keep limber... I ran the whole time. I never stopped ... I'd fly by Bobby Flay, or whoever. Bobby'd be like, 'What are you doing?'

On her dream "secret ingredient"

Baby octopus, oh they're so awesome...If I was a baby octopus...if I was given to a gourmet a three-star restaurant, and I'm on the grill, and I'm so tenderly marinated... rubbed and massaged before I was cooked and eaten ... I mean hello! Are you going to swim in the ocean all your life? (...) How many octopus get that chance?

Heard on Cat Cora: Her Kitchen Rules

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Greg Pliska. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Soon we'll find out which of our contestants, Virginia or Mitch, will be today's big winner. But first, it's time to welcome our special guest. She's not just a celebrity chef. She's an "Iron Chef." And her new show on Fox is called "My Kitchen Rules." Please welcome Cat Cora.


CAT CORA: Hi. How's everybody doing?


CORA: Thank you.

EISENBERG: You're welcome. Now, as the first female Iron Chef in America - you know, that is the cooking competition show that basically started everyone's craze with cooking competition shows.

CORA: Right. It did.

EISENBERG: So when you were in those challenges, did you do something before each episode to prepare for the challenges? Could you prepare?

CORA: Well, yeah. I mean, I, you know, worked out. I did my thing. You know, I got myself prepared. I ate - you know, I was eating clean. I was kind of, like, going for my workout - the whole thing. But it was really weird. When I got into a winning streak, I would wear the same socks.


CORA: I'd eat the same breakfast. I mean, five almonds on my granola - my two tablespoons of - or four tablespoons of yogurt or whatever. I mean. I measured everything out. And you get weird. You get freaking weird. When you win five "Iron Chefs" in a row, you get [expletive] weird. I mean, seriously.

EISENBERG: Now, when you say you work out, you meant a physical workout. Is that because you have to be, like, fast and agile in that kitchen?

CORA: Yeah. I just have to do it for mental purposes. You know, when you have a workout, you've got to get the endorphins going. You've got to, like, keep limber. You know, you got to run around. You guys saw me in "Iron Chef," right? I ran the whole time.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

CORA: I never stopped.


CORA: I mean, I was running. I had my Pumas on. I was, like, running, right? I mean, you know, I'd fly by Bobby Flay or whoever. And, you know, Bobby would be like, what are you doing? Like...


CORA: ...I was always a running, like, theme in kitchen stadium because it was what you had to do to win.


CORA: And I won some. And I didn't win some. But I kicked a lot of ass.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

CORA: I did.


EISENBERG: Now, Julia Child...

CORA: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...Was a mentor to you early on in your cooking career...

CORA: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...And actually told you that you should leave Mississippi, where you grew up, and move to New York.

CORA: She did say that I should go to culinary school. She said I should go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. And, I mean, what are you going to say? You sign up right away, right?


CORA: I mean, you don't hesitate. The next day, I signed up.


CORA: And there I was. I was in Culinary Institute of America. And in 1999, I got the show with Rocco Di Spirito. And then "Iron Chef" - and then it's just kept going. I mean, so it just really was fast.


CORA: It was fast and furious.

EISENBERG: Do you think that we are all making better food because of these shows?

CORA: For sure.


CORA: I mean, I think everybody's more savvy. Don't you guys think you're more savvy? I mean, like, you know more. It's at your fingertips. You can go on the computer. You go on any show. You can go on Hulu. You can go on this, that, whatever. And you can find out what's happening in the culinary world. We can go in and just DVR something. We can do this, that. I mean, I've always said if you can read a recipe - if you can read, you can cook. And that's always been my philosophy.

EISENBERG: All right. So speaking of this, the difference, let's say, between a good cook and a bad cook...

CORA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Your new show on Fox is called "My Kitchen Rules."

CORA: Yes. Yes.

EISENBERG: Now, I keep wanting want to say it like, my kitchen rules.

CORA: That's great.

EISENBERG: That's good? All right.

CORA: My kitchen rules.


CORA: Yes. Why not?

EISENBERG: So in "My Kitchen Rules," celebrity pairs invite each other over for a high-stakes dinner party.

CORA: Right.

EISENBERG: So before we talk about the show, what do you do when you're invited to a friend's place for dinner, and you know they are terrible cooks?

CORA: You're very diplomatic.


CORA: You taste, and you eat. I mean, I've eaten a lot of really bad meals with people I love.


CORA: And, you know, there's nothing...

EISENBERG: That is a one-woman show right there, by the way.


CORA: There - it is. A lot of bad meals with people I love. That's a one-woman - I could do a whole show about it.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

CORA: I mean, literally, you have to just - you've got to be gracious. I mean, if anybody cooks for me, I feel so nurtured because I'm always doing it for everybody else. I'm always giving. I'm always teaching. I'm always providing 'cause people always talk about - I'm so scared to cook for you. Don't be scared to cook for me. Cook for me please. I'm asking you. Yes, please. Cook for me.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) All I want's a meal. Come on.

CORA: Please, I want a meal. I want a meal cooked for me. So...

EISENBERG: So some of the celebrities on the show - you have Brandy. You have Lance Bass.

CORA: Yes.

EISENBERG: You have Andrew Dice Clay. Were they good chefs for celebrities, or were they good chefs by chef standard?

CORA: They were good because they - no. None of them were good for chef standards.

EISENBERG: OK, good to know.


CORA: They're all celebrities (laughter).

EISENBERG: They're doing their best.

CORA: They're doing their best, right. They're good home cooks. They're all - they all claim to be home cooks. But we created an environment where we wouldn't allow them to fall short. Really, it's about teaching them, look, you're not going to open boxes. You're not going to open cans. You're going to cook with fresh ingredients, right? You're going to cut from scratch. We're going to do this the right way. You're competing. You came in here, and you told us that you could cook. We want to see the cooking.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And I'm sure there's some good surprises as to who kind of brought it.

CORA: You're never going to guess it.

EISENBERG: All right, very exciting.

CORA: Never.

EISENBERG: Lance Bass, let's go.


CORA: Never.

EISENBERG: All right.

CORA: Never going to guess it.

EISENBERG: So what ingredient do you think is the trendy thing that is totally overused that we should see less of?

CORA: Definitely a lot of the foams and...


CORA: ...You know, the molecular gastronomy...


CORA: ...And things like that. I mean, I think that's done for a while. I mean, it may come back, but I think that and - what else are we doing a lot of?

EISENBERG: How do you feel about bacon?

CORA: Bacon - believe me, I just opened a burger place in Santa Barbara. I mean, we're using bacon all over the place.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

CORA: Are you kidding? A bacon cheddar burger - I mean, all kinds of good barbecue. Like...

EISENBERG: All right, yeah.

CORA: Brioche bun, like...

EISENBERG: I'm hungry.

CORA: Char-grilled.

EISENBERG: I'm hungry. See, I can tell that you have had to work...

CORA: I mean, seriously, really?

EISENBERG: ...As a successful person talking about food on television because you actually described food that I can taste as you were saying it.

CORA: Yes, exactly.

EISENBERG: Yeah, just amazing.

CORA: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: All right. Cat Cora, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

CORA: Oh, I guess so. Yes, I'm ready.

EISENBERG: All right.

CORA: I'm ready. I'm ready. Let's do it.


CORA: Let's do it. I'm ready.

EISENBERG: Now, Cat Cora, one staple of television cooking competitions is the challenge where contestants are given a bunch of ingredients that make no sense together.

CORA: Right.

EISENBERG: And they have to create something edible...

CORA: OK, got it.

EISENBERG: ...Right? So that's the inspiration for this challenge.

CORA: Nice.

COULTON: And in this game, every...

CORA: I'm back and having nightmares about "Iron Chef" already.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's right.

COULTON: I bet, yeah. In this game, every answer is two foods that rhyme. For example, if we gave you the clue combine a big old ribeye and a birthday treat with candles on top, you would answer steak cake.

CORA: OK, wait, what? What?


CORA: What?

EISENBERG: Yeah, so you're just going to rhyme them together. We'll go through it.

CORA: All right. Cool.

EISENBERG: OK. Here we go. Let's try this one. Here are your first two ingredients - a white, creamy pasta sauce and Idaho's famous tuber.

CORA: Alfredo.


CORA: Potatoes (laughter).

EISENBERG: Alfredo potato.


CORA: There you go.


CORA: See, I did it.


COULTON: OK, here we go.


COULTON: It's the Middle East meets Belgium. Your ingredients are fried balls of chickpeas and a breakfast staple made with an iron.

CORA: Falafel?


CORA: And...

EISENBERG: What's a...


CORA: Waffle.


COULTON: Yes, there you go.


CORA: I can do this. I'm...

COULTON: (Laughter).

CORA: I'm making it more interesting, OK?

EISENBERG: I have a side question for you.


EISENBERG: You said that if you could choose your secret ingredient, you know, for an "Iron Chef" competition...

CORA: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...You would choose a tank of live octopus.

CORA: (Laughter) Baby octopus.

EISENBERG: Baby octopus.

CORA: Oh, they're so awesome. They just go like this, and you got to catch them and, like, cook them and, like, throw them on the grill and, like - they're awesome.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) But can you make a dessert?

CORA: Oh, it's OK, it's OK. All you've eat - oh, no, I get it. I hear a bunch of, oh, oh, oh.


CORA: They're octopus. They're meant to be eaten.


CORA: That's what they're on Earth for. They live for that. They want to be eaten.


CORA: If I was an octopus - if I was a baby octopus - my life - if I was given to a gourmet restaurant, oh, my God - like a three-star restaurant. And I'm on the grill, and I'm so tenderly marinated.


CORA: Oh, my God, rubbed and massaged before I was cooked and eaten.


CORA: I mean, hello? Or you want to swim in the ocean all your life?




CORA: You know...

EISENBERG: I want to be massaged and fried.

CORA: (Laughter) How many octopus get that chance? Listen...

EISENBERG: Every once in a while, I am super happy I asked a question...



EISENBERG: ...And that was my super happy of this evening.


EISENBERG: All right, here's your next question.

CORA: OK, next question.

EISENBERG: Whip up something classy with a jar of Grey Poupon and a pudding-like dessert.

CORA: Mustard.

EISENBERG: Yeah, and then a pudding-like dessert that rhymes with it.

CORA: Is a custard.

EISENBERG: Yeah, mustard custard.


CORA: Not bad for 30 minutes of sleep...

EISENBERG: It's pretty good.

CORA: ...In 48 hours.

EISENBERG: I think it's amazing.

CORA: OK, let's keep going.

COULTON: Let's keep going.

CORA: I'm ready now. I'm ready now.

COULTON: We only have about 25 more of these.

CORA: Hold on. Hold on.


CORA: All right. Here we go.

EISENBERG: Cat Cora just took off her blazer, which means things are getting serious.

PLISKA: "Iron Chef" - watch out.

CORA: All right. Here we go.

COULTON: OK, here we go.

CORA: All right.

COULTON: It's a lunchmeat surprise. Take this sliced meat that has a first name, OSCAR, and pair it with a traditional Italian vegetable soup.

CORA: Bologna.

PLISKA: Pronounce it with less class.


PLISKA: Pronounce it like you didn't go to cooking school.

CORA: Bologna.

COULTON: Yeah. And a traditional Italian vegetable soup.

CORA: Minestrone.


COULTON: You got it.


CORA: Bologna - I had to go back to my Southern roots for a minute. I was in France for a second. But then I had to go to Mississippi. OK.

COULTON: (Laughter).

CORA: Got it. OK.

EISENBERG: All right. This is your last question. So this one - the theme is get ready to party and/or vomit. Your ingredients are...

CORA: Oh. All right.

EISENBERG: ...A common tequila cocktail and a processed cheese product made by Kraft.

CORA: Margarita and...

COULTON: Colby Swiss and cheddar blended all together.

CORA: Oh, that - oh, I get what you're saying. Like, that thing.

EISENBERG: The audience want to start it off?

CORA: Margarita...

PLISKA: It starts with a V.

CORA: Velveeta.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. That's right.


CORA: Yeah. Thank you, guys. I called in friends.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Cat Cora, together, you got them all correct.

CORA: (Laughter).


CORA: Barely.

EISENBERG: You were an amazing guest...

CORA: Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: ...And you win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

CORA: Oh, yes.


EISENBERG: So congratulations.

CORA: Yes. I got a Rubik's Cube, yes.

EISENBERG: "My Kitchen Rules" airs Thursdays on Fox. Let's hear it one more time...

CORA: Yeah, thank you all.

EISENBERG: ...For Cat Cora.


CORA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.