There are good chefs, and then there are good chefs who really shine under pressure. Chef Cat Cora proved that even a nerve-wracking reality cooking competition only brings out the best in her. In 2005, she was the first woman to compete as an "Iron Chef" on "Iron Chef" (via Food Network) – a title that continues to be used as a prefix to her name more than a decade after she broke that ceiling. Now, many years after her big break, the Mississippi-born chef and mother of six boys has continued to entertain her viewers in a variety of television shows (via IMDb).
Though she was brought up in a warm and loving family, Cora went through a tough period of abuse and bullying as a child (via "Cooking as Fast as I Can") that deeply affected her. "What it taught me in life was that life isn’t fair […] It’s not sugar coated and no one can do this life but you. I had to find my purpose," she said (via The Oracle). Furthermore, as a woman chef in the ’90s, Cora fought her way through a male-dominated culinary world to establish her name, all while clearing the path for more female chefs to follow their dreams. Today, her culinary empire consists of a host of shows, restaurants, a cookware line, and numerous books. Here’s how Cora transformed from a small-town girl to a world-famous chef.
Cat Cora was adopted as a one-week-old baby
Cat Cora was born ‘Melanie’ on April 3, 1967, to a teenager who had been sent to a "home for unwed mothers" near New Orleans, where she stayed until Cora came into the world and adopted from the Mississippi Children’s Home. Just a week after her birth, Virginia Lee and Spiro Cora, an "upstanding middle-class couple" from Jackson, Mississippi, took her in, changed her name to Catherine Anne Cora, and gave her a new home (via "Cooking as Fast as I Can").
Of her days as a child, Cora remembers plucking soft figs from trees with her two brothers, water-skiing on a lake, and camping on an island near home. Her mom, a psychiatric nurse, and dad, a world history teacher, were extremely liberal for a family in the 1960s. In "Cooking as Fast as I Can", she vividly recalls the Thanksgiving dinners that saw guests of different, color, race, and sexual orientations drop by. Theirs was an inclusive home that later defined Cora’s personality.
Cora was happy, but at the same time curious about her real mom. Her birth mom had called the Mississippi Children’s Home every year on Cora’s birthday to seek some info about her (via "Cooking as Fast as I Can". When they finally reconnected, there were tears, of course, but also a lot of love.
Cat Cora had a tough time accepting her own identity
Cat Cora had it rough in school. Though she was popular and good at sports and cheerleading, she was constantly bullied. "An older girl who unknowingly hated me and had a locker right next to me, tortured me mercilessly every single day. She threatened to beat my a**, have her friends beat the hell out of me, and yes, the word "kill" came up," she said on Larry King Live. As if that wasn’t enough issue to deal with for a teenager, Cora was also struggling to accept and be accepted for her sexuality.
All through her school years, she had to hide the fact that she was gay. This meant that she couldn’t even truly express her feelings for her first love at 17. As she said on Larry King Live, "I was born in the ’60’s in Mississippi. I was also born gay […] I tried to pray ‘it’ away at church every Sunday like a good Christian girl from the South. I tried to date ‘it’ away, dating good guys who didn’t understand why I wouldn’t, no couldn’t, be with them completely. I wanted so badly to be straight like my friends."
But if experience has taught Cora anything, it is that "You deserve to live your truth and to be accepted with love and compassion." She later came out to her "loving, supportive" parents at 19 (via Facebook).
Cat Cora drafted a restaurant plan at the age of 15
Since Cat Cora’s parents worked full time, she and her brothers often had to fend for themselves after returning from school. "We either made ourselves a red-necked grilled cheese — white bread topped with "green can" parmesan melted in the toaster oven — or else we’d turn on the FryDaddy and make ourselves some french fries," she writes in "Cooking as Fast as I Can". That cool FryDaddy was enough to boost little Cora’s confidence to make more food. When in elementary school, she would host tea parties, and bake shamrock, heart, and star-shaped cookies at home with her mom’s help (via "Cooking as Fast as I Can").
Eventually, when her folks bought an Easy-Bake Oven, she conceptualized her first business idea around it — to make vanilla cakes with chocolate frosting, and sell them in the community for five cents. "I would ride my bike around the neighborhood announcing my sale, then start production […]," she wrote. Sadly, not many shared her excitement — she got only one customer.
But Cora wasn’t ready to throw in the towel because of a bad sale. At 15, she drew up a full-fledged plan to start a restaurant. After all, she had restaurateurs in the family — her grandfather owned cafes, and her godfather ran restaurants in Mississippi (via Gainesville). She is now living that dream, having opened more than 18 restaurants in her career (via Cat Cora).
Julia Child played a big role in shaping Cat Cora’s career
Car Cora didn’t doubt her love for cooking, but she was in a haze about how to pursue it. She had studied exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of Southern Mississippi and was planning to do pre-med, but there was just one small hitch — she loved cooking too much. So, she got a job at Nick Apostle’s, a five-star restaurant in Jackson at that time.
"I started waiting tables, bartending, doing anything I could to get my foot in the door," she told The Sip Magazine. She even tried to start her own restaurant, though that first attempt fizzled. At this point, Cora realized she needed a break. She was a fresh graduate with a lot of saved money who didn’t have a clear career objective yet and sought answers. She was, therefore, a perfect candidate for a backpacking trip to Europe.
A four-month tour around Europe only cemented her desire to be a chef. The final push came at a book-signing event where Cora met chef Julia Child and was lucky enough to get a one-on-one with her. "She sat down and had this whole mentoring moment with me," Cora said on Larry King Now. That conversation was the turning point for Cora, for, upon Child’s advice, she applied to the prestigious Culinary School of America the next day.
Cat Cora faced serious gender discrimination
Being the first in anything always has a story of resilience attached to it. Cat Cora’s is no different. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame by the American Culinary Federation, and the first woman to be an Iron Chef in the Food Network series of the same name (via PR Newswire). To be able to earn these accolades, Cora had to wade through a mire of shockingly sexist attitudes that slowed her career growth. She recalls of her instructors at the Culinary School of America: "They were old-school types that still believed that men should be the ones cooking in the kitchens and not the women" (via HuffPost). "I faced harassment and discrimination and [was told], "You shouldn’t be here, you should be back home in Mississippi, barefoot and pregnant," she added.
Another set of challenges awaited her after graduation. "When I went to France [early in my career], I got 10 rejection letters in a row saying, ‘We don’t allow females in our kitchen," she told Money. In the two decades since then, though things have changed, there is still a yawning gap between the number of men and women restaurant owners. To quote the specifics, according to Cora, "Only 7% of owners or executives at restaurants in this country are women" (via HuffPost). Cora is doing her bit to help close this gap by running a mentorship program specifically for female chefs.
Cat Cora loved being on television from day one
Cat Cora was too busy honing her profile as a restaurateur to be thinking of television in the ’90s. By then, she had worked in some of the finest restaurants in Europe, trained under the stalwarts of the culinary world including Anne Rosenzweig, Georges Blanc and Roger Vergé (via The Culinary Institute of America), and opened an Italian restaurant called Postino in San Francisco. Life seemingly couldn’t get better. Or so she thought until she got an opportunity to star in a television show called "Bay Café" hosted by chef Joey Altman (via Money). Being in front of the camera made Cora realize that she had another talent besides making the perfect spanakopita.
"The task of making a dish in front of the camera turned out to be weirdly and deeply satisfying," she wrote in her book "Cooking as Fast as I Can". The cameraman and Altman himself were stunned by her naturalistic performance, pretty remarkable for a newbie. Call it clairvoyance or sheer confidence, but Cora knew she was worth a larger audience. So she sent the recorded tape to Food Network and bagged the opportunity to host "The Melting Pot", an ethnic cuisine show, alongside Rocco DiSpirito. She followed it up with "My Country My Kitchen", became a columnist for "Contra Costa Times", and turned author with "Cat Cora’s Kitchen". "So much was happening so fast, and yet it couldn’t happen fast enough," she wrote.
Cat Cora’s first cookbook was inspired by her Greek and Southern roots
There is Greek food, and then there is Greek food cooked in an American home. Like many other cuisines, it is tweaked to form a Greek-American cuisine of its very own, one that Cora has mastered with the thoroughness of a person raised on it from early life. She grew up in the South, in a Greek household, where every big occasion was by default associated with cooking an extensive spread of Greek-American food with a particular Southern flair. But of course, it wasn’t authentically Greek, as she explains in "Cat Cora’s Kitchen". "My relatives in Greece don’t add mustard and bourbon to their pork roast as we do […], but this very Southern combo is what makes the roast so tender and flavorful," she writes.
Cora nourished her dreams of being a chef in her parents’ kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, but it was her skill at presenting the treasures of a Greek kitchen that thrust her career forward. As she explained in "Cat Cora’s Kitchen", Cora did a show called "My Country My Kitchen", where she took the audience to her aunt Demetra and uncle Yiorgios’ kitchen on Greece’s Skopelos Island. The show gave her an opportunity to taste dishes such as spinach and dill-stuffed spanakopita made with a chef’s acumen. Cora acknowledged that the experience highly influenced the cooking style and menu at her restaurants back in the United States.
Cat Cora became the first female Iron Chef in 2005
When Cora became an Iron Chef in 2005, she was the first and then the only female to be so. Being on Iron Chef, for Cora, was more than just being on a cooking competition. The reality show, which requires as many culinary skills as physical fitness and mindfulness, helped Cora prove that "women can cook as hard and fast as men […] It definitely proves that over and over, especially if I win," she told The Tribune.
Cora thrived in the chaos that the show’s format inevitably created. She recalls an incident in which chef Bobby Flay was electrocuted while, in another episode, fellow chef Michael Symon sliced his finger open. The show’s format wasn’t forgiving of such accidents. "They could take you out on a stretcher and the clock will still be ticking," she said (via The Oracle).
Cora competed in "Iron Chef" for almost six years starting in 2005, shooting 12 seasons. It was only in season 11 that another woman Iron Chef, Alex Guarnaschelli, came into the picture (via Money). In the afterglow of the success that came with "Iron Chef", Cora hosted "Around the World in 80 Plates" and judged "My Kitchen Rules" alongside chef Curtis Stone, besides featuring in many more shows (via IMDb). She stayed away from competing for a decade, before jumping right back in with Food Network’s bracket-style contest "Tournament of Champions", in 2021 (via Twitter).
Cat Cora founded Chefs for Humanity to reduce hunger worldwide
Chef Cat Cora is a good samaritan — a quality that was recognized by President Obama himself, who awarded her The President’s Volunteer Service Award for her efforts to keep the world safely fed (via Cat Cora). "What I don’t think people understand yet is that chefs and other culinary professionals are just so important in emergency feeding relief. Untrained people don’t know how to keep food sanitary, and the last thing you want in a crisis is to have a food-borne illness breakout," she told Food & Wine. So, in 2004, Cora founded Chefs for Humanity, an organization that follows a Doctors without Borders-like model, presenting one large platform for people in the culinary field to come together to support a cause.
Chefs for Humanity’s aim was to provide aid to those affected by the tsunami of 2004 that took more than 200,000 lives (via World Vision). "I decided to take on hunger and dedicate energy to connect with others to help bring relief to those in need and provide needed education on nutrition to improve health and well-being," Cora said via her website. In her pursuit to understand the issues plaguing the vulnerable population, Cora traveled to Honduras and Nicaragua as part of The United Nations World Food Programme in 2007. She also helped launch a school nutrition program in a Zambian village and raised funds for clean water and therapeutic milk formula for infants (via Industry Today).
Cat Cora ended her first marriage
Cat Cora and her first wife Jennifer Cora’s relationship seemed right out of a fairytale until it turned into what Cora called "a nightmare that I can’t wake up from" (via Page Six). The two were together for 17 years and married for two, during the span of which they had four boys — including two born in the same year. Said Cora, "The doctor implanted Jennifer and me with each other’s eggs" (via The Daily Mail).
Though they gave birth to each other’s biological kids, but Cora said that "as a same-sex couple, we had to go back and legally adopt them." Sounds like a complex legal equation, but one that the duo eventually solved. So it was a shocker for those who had been following their love life when Cora announced their split in 2015. "It is with great sadness, that after 17 years, a tremendous amount of work, careful consideration and heavy hearts, my wife and I have mutually decided to no longer remain married," Cora wrote (via People).
Cora’s married life had started falling apart in 2015, with the chef alleging that her partner wanted to destroy her life. "It’s cyber-stalking, mental and emotional distress and abuse," she had said (via Page Six). Cora claimed that though they had officially divorced each other, Jennifer had continued to harass her. In 2020, per Page Six, Cora even filed a petition for a restraining order against her ex-wife.
Cat Cora second marriage didn’t last
After a rather tumultuous end to a long relationship with her ex-wife, Cat Cora was ready to find a new love and settle down. As it turned out, it wasn’t a big challenge for the culinary star, who found someone the year she was officially out of her previous relationship. Cora met Nicole Ehrlich, a music video producer and director, in 2016, according to Yahoo! Life. It was Ehlrich who reached out to Cora after recognizing her from the many shows she had starred in. The couple hit it off and, after two years, decided to tie the knot in a villa in Santa Barbara, California in 2018 (via Brides).
Speaking to Yahoo! Life, Ehrlich referred to Cora as her "angel on earth". "She’s my savior […] She saves my life every day," she said. As for Cora, she felt that Ehrlich was a "game-changer" for her. "I thought to myself, ‘I am in trouble. She is everything I’ve ever been looking for.’". After her marriage with Ehrlich, Cora was mom to six children — four of whom she had shared with her ex, and two of Ehrlich’s. But sadly, the picture-perfect "wolfpack" couldn’t stay together as vowed. Ehlrich filed for divorce in 2021, three years after their wedding, according to People.