Cat Cora Chats With Chow Bella, Part 1

After spending so many hours glued to the TV watching chef Cat Cora make unexpected ingredients into glorious dishes that get the Iron Chef America judges waxing rhapsodic, we figured we'd never attempt to cook like the master.

But as it turns out, Cora's just as much of a whiz at devising unpretentious comfort food dishes for home cooks as she is battling in the Kitchen Stadium.

Next week, Chow Bella and Changing Hands Bookstore are teaming up to host Cora for a signing of her new cookbook, Cat Cora's Classics With a Twist (7 p.m., June 23). In fact, we're even giving away primo seats and other goodies in a contest that runs through Friday

But since we can't wait for the event -- and we know you can't, either -- we managed to get the gracious chef on the phone to give us a few insights on her life as a culinary powerhouse.

Meeting Julia Child: I was at a book signing in Jackson, Missisippi before I even went to culinary school. I was looking at culinary schools and she guided me towards the Culinary Institute of America. So the rest is kind of history on that. It was life changing for me, obviously.

Iron Chef-in-training: I did a lot of different demonstrations when I was at the culinary institute, and I think that kind of prepared me to perform in front of people a lot. But there's all kinds of things you're not prepared for when you're thrust into the limelight... you gotta be on all the time. People recognize you. I'm the last person to complain, because it's what you work for, but honestly, going to culinary school, my goal was never to be on television.

Becoming a mentor: You've gotta be gracious, you've got to pay it forward, and when a young chef or aspiring chef has questions, you've got to take the time to answer those questions and spend time with them like Julia did with me, and I do that every day - every single day that I'm on the road. And I nurture my fans. That's what it's about.

Her new book: It's really about taking peoples' favorite foods and updating them, making them healthier, quicker, easier . . . I think that's always an ongoing challenge for everybody. For at home, I like simple dishes, things like like a simple fish taco or grilled chicken or spaghetti and meat sauce. Some of the dishes in the book are like a great fried baked fish and chips, and I do a spicy Caesar and it's got chipotle croutons. I do a lemongrass coq au vin that's done Asian style, and grilled avocado guacamole. It's very international.

Tomorrow, in part 2 of our interview with Cat Cora, we'll get a taste of what else the Iron Chef has in the works.

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