Cat Cora
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).
Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
It's a dizzying schedule, to be sure, and it keeps Cat, 44, on the road as many as 200 days a year. Which means her time at home with Jennifer and the kids is precious—and most often it's spent right here in the backyard.

"We crank up the grill, we throw on corn, fruit, a piece of meat, we have an appetizer and a bottle of wine," Cat says (pronouncing it "whan," in her throaty Southern drawl).

Much like her TV persona, Cat is cool under pressure, with almost-military posture, but around her family she's also quick-witted and easy with a laugh.

At the moment, with 21-month-old Nash hanging on her sundress and heaps of fresh corn on the grill, she looks like any other multitasking mom attempting to placate four young kids and an anxious Chihuahua while serving appetizers to her friends (except that her friends are feasting on smoky-sweet grilled-pineapple guacamole).

Usually, Jennifer, 40, helps prep the food or bathes the babies while Cat cooks; favorites include salmon, flank steak tacos, or the grilled chicken skewers with garlicky herb-flecked chimichurri sauce on tonight's menu.

Cat met Jennifer Johnson, a veteran nanny from the Bay Area, in a crowded ski lodge at Lake Tahoe in 1999. "We were drinking Coronas, listening to the band, and we just struck up a conversation," Cat recalls. The spark was immediate, though neither had any idea that the other was gay. "I asked if her male friend was her boyfriend," says Cat. "She said she didn't go out with guys, and I said, 'Neither do I!'"

On an early date, "Cathy"—as Jennifer calls her—arrived at Jennifer's house and was overcome by the smell of burning popcorn. "She knew then there was a problem with my cooking," Jennifer says with a laugh.

The couple married in 2001, and, dreaming of a big family, moved from the Bay Area to the picturesque coastal enclave of Santa Barbara because it felt like "old-fashioned-living, where you know all your neighbors and the kids ride their bikes and play at each other's houses," says Cat.

Jennifer conceived Zoran using a sperm donor in 2003, and Caje and Thatcher followed in 2007 and 2009.

In 2008, while Jennifer was pregnant with Thatcher, Cat took time off to try to get pregnant, too. She gave birth to Nash three months after Thatcher arrived (all four boys share the same sperm donor, but Zoran and Nash were conceived using Jennifer's eggs, and Caje with Cat's; Thatcher's exact provenance is still unknown, since both women's fertilized eggs were implanted in Jennifer's uterus).

"I was scared of us being pregnant at the same time," admits Cat. "I thought, 'Who's going to lift things? Who's going to take care of us?' But we took care of each other."
Photo: Coral Von Zumwalt
If Cat is the spirited show woman in the relationship, Jennifer exudes California calm, an impression augmented by her monklike buzz cut ("It's so liberating," she says. "I spent so much time trying to keep gray away, and now I'm just embracing it"). The boys hang on her and throw themselves at her feet, but she never loses her cool.

When Cat travels, Jennifer shuttles the kids to school and to playdates and gets them fed and bathed and tucked in at night. "Cathy comes home and she's tired; the kids want her, I want her, and then she has to leave again," she says. "That's the hard part."

With their youngest nearly 2 years old, the couple is planning a kid-free vacation for the first time in years, to a spa near San Luis Obispo.

"Raising young kids is stressful on a marriage," Cat says. "We're no different than anyone. But we want to grow old together."

In an effort to spend more time with each other, Cat is trying to reduce her travel by 50 days next year, and Jennifer to increase her work with Chefs for Humanity, the organization Cat founded to combat hunger and provide nutrition education in poverty-ridden countries like Honduras and Zambia.

With the backyard bathed in an orange-blossom-scented, late-afternoon glow, Cat now calls her guests and the boys—who are motoring around the yard accumulating grass stains—to a picnic table set with artfully mismatched dishes and little jars of lavender.

She sets out a platter of the chicken skewers along with the grilled corn, slathered with ancho chili–lime butter, and two healthy sides: a broccoli slaw with a garlic-cilantro vinaigrette, and a citrusy asparagus and snow pea salad with roasted pumpkin seeds.

"How loud are the neighbors' dogs?" observes Jason, one of the adult guests. "I'm immune to noise," says Cat with a wry laugh.

Jennifer slides onto the picnic bench next to Cat with Nash, who is gnawing away at a spicy jalapeño-Jack muffin, and Cat raises her wineglass. "To good friends, family, love...," she begins. Then she pauses. "Kumbaya!" As everyone digs in, there is a moment of sweet silence.

Get the menu for Cat Cora's backyard party

Summer Recipes from Cat Cora


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