Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
It's a breezy spring evening in the backyard of Cat and Jennifer Cora's butter yellow, white-shuttered beach bungalow in Santa Barbara, and the women of the house are joining forces against the men, of whom there are four, all under age 8.
"Mommy is with Mommy on this!" warns Cat, the no-nonsense Greek-via-Mississippi kitchen dynamo of Iron Chef fame, eyes trained on 7-year-old Zoran, whom Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom and Cat's wife of ten years, has repeatedly asked to stop bouncing a ball in the vicinity of a table set with pitchers of lemonade.
Four-year-old Caje, meanwhile, drums the wooden picnic bench with a serving spoon he pilfered from the salad bowl, and Thatcher—one of two handsome, sturdy toddlers—waddles the yard screaming.
Nearby, the adult guests sip mango margaritas, oblivious to the fracas. "Have y'all met before?" Cat asks Valerie and Toni, two blonde friends from the neighborhood. "Yes, but we didn't recognize each other until we had cocktails in our hands!" exclaims Toni as a soccer ball sails over her head.
Cat smiles, unfazed, and disappears briefly into the house to retrieve a tray of grilled skewered shrimp ("or scrimps, as we say in Mississippi"), which she encourages her guests to "just dunk" into glass tumblers of watermelon gazpacho garnished with Greek yogurt.
Her unfussy, Mediterranean-inflected cooking and energetic, practical manner have made her one of the country's top TV chefs. She trained at the Culinary Institute of America ("the Harvard of culinary schools," Julia Child told her at a book signing in Mississippi when she was 21, prompting Cat to apply the next day) and then two triple-Michelin-starred eateries in France before getting her big break in the late '90s as cohost of the Food Network's Melting Pot with Rocco DiSpirito.
A string of other shows followed, and in 2005 she was named the first and only female Iron Chef; she's dispatched competitors with a steely determination and an abundance of salt and lemon ever since.
She's also opened several restaurants, including Kouzzina ("kitchen" in Greek) at Walt Disney World and the brand-new Cat Cora San Francisco, a locally sourced "farm to flight" eatery in the gleaming Virgin America terminal ("Chefs in airports is a big trend!" she explains).
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