Meet Iron Chef Cat Cora

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This Iron Chef has been in the kitchen and out of the closet for over three decades. Cat Cora, who recently opened her new Fatbird restaurant in Manhattan, caught up with QLife for a very personal and inspiring interview. Cat Cora hasn't broken the glass ceiling for women, minorities, and LGBT, she's shattered it. With a business that encompasses television shows, cookbooks, and restaurants, Cora lives a life that defies the odds and proves that anything is possible. 

QLife: How did you start your entrepreneurial life?

Cat: I started very young, from having Easy Bake Oven cookie sales to lemonade stands. My brothers and I would always find something to sell. I always knew I wanted to own my own business. I knew I wanted to have my own restaurant when I was fifteen. The restaurant business was in my DNA—my father, my grandfather, my godfather. That love of cooking was given to me by my family. I grew up with a lot of great cooks in my family. I knew I wanted to be independent and work for myself. I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit, from college to culinary school to internships in France, 

QLife: What was your first restaurant?

Cat: It was Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney World, right on the boardwalk. It was my first restaurant, but I had been doing television since 1999.

QLife: That's different. Don't most celebrity chefs end up on TV after they open their restaurants?

Cat: I did it the opposite way that most chefs go into creating their own companies and restaurants. I was lucky enough to get a break in television. I wanted to be an actress at a young age and it's still a passion of mine that I'm pursuing now. My way into entertainment was through cooking. I had a love for it and a passion, but it wasn't until 9 or 10 years after I started my career that I opened my first restaurant.

QLife: How do you feel that being a woman and an out lesbian has impacted your career? Has it created hurdles or opened doors?

Cat: Coming out at 19 in Mississippi was tough. It wasn't a time or region that accepted gays and lesbians at all. Growing up in the 70s, going to high school in the 80s in Mississippi—or even New York or LA—was still not accepted. I really enjoyed working hard on my career. For me, it created a few more hurdles. Today is very different and I think it opens more doors for lesbians than when I was growing up. At that time it was unheard of and yet another obstacle that I had to conquer to live the most authentic life. It was challenging but I always had a drive to be me and I'm always constantly evolving and trying to be the best me I can.

QLife: You just opened a new restaurant in New York. Tell us about Fatbird.

Cat: I grew up in a Greek-American home and I really loved both cultures and cuisines, but I really grew up more around the Mediterranean diet. Where a lot of kids would have fried okra, I was having steamed artichokes with olive oil and lemon. We did cook some southern food, but most of my restaurants were Mediterranean cuisine. Fatbird came along at a really sweet time. I had an opportunity to do cuisine from my roots in Mississippi, so I jumped on the chance to do that. I'm able to bring family recipes and recipes from the deep, deep south to light. Phenomenal biscuits that my grandmother and great grandmother and great great grandmother made. Fried chicken and bread pudding the way they made it. It's been such a great full-circle moment to bring some respect to my southern roots.

QLife: How many restaurants do you currently have open?

Cat: I currently have nine open. I'm opening my 10th in Brooklyn in September. We have 300 popups of OLILO and we're opening 700 by Spring of 2018. 

Some of my partners that I love include HBF, which I work with for all my airport restaurants,  Aramark for all my corporate dining, catering, and stadiums, and I have my special teams at Ocean, Mesa Burger & FatBird.

I am all about collaboration. It's always about a team and I love being a leader of what I'm an expert in for my teams. I'm always surrounding myself with the most qualified, honest, motivated, passionate, team players. It is so important to see top leaders in the culinary, entrepreneurial, philanthropic, entertainment, political, and working mom atmospheres to shift the paradigm and I always plan to be there and use my platform to support, be a role model, and a reminder.

QLife: We have Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsey, Guy Fieri, and Giada, just to name a few in Vegas. In fact, Giada was our first female celebrity chef—might we get a second?

Cat: Yeah, you're definitely going to get a second! That's definitely on our radar big time. I can't talk too much about it, but there will be a second. We were almost the first. We were in talks with Caesars in 2008 before the economy went crazy. But I'm so excited about a second chance to get into Vegas. I love Vegas so it's going to be phenomenal when we rock it.

QLife: When you're not working, what do you do for fun? What do you do to relax?

Cat: My fiance Nicole and I love to travel. We do a lot of travel for work. We make work fun. It's amazing to be able to travel and work with your life partner and work together as business partners and be head over hills in love, have fun, be lovers. We love to go away and spend time together. That's one thing we really thrive on. We have down time together and re-connect. I think that's so important. 

We have four boys in Santa Barbara and two in LA. We have 6 sons altogether. I brought 4; she brought 2. We spread love and peace and show people that you can have this incredible, beautiful family together. We spend time surfing with them, we do everything outdoors, we play sports together, we camp, we travel together. We took 6 boys to the Hamptons and had the time of our lives. I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life.

QLife: What are the challenges of working with your life partner as your business partner? 

Cat: The challenge is always finding the balance and not letting it get away from you. We can all get in work mode. There's so much for us we can do it all day and all night, so we have to schedule a day off together and focus on each other, laugh, and have fun, do something that's enriching for us as a couple, and always communicate what you need.

QLife: What advice would you give to a 22-year-old millennial that wants to open their own restaurant today?

Cat: Make sure you have experience. Find out what it's like to work 16 hour days, weekends, Saturday nights. The whole weekend. The restaurant scene looks so glamorous. It is if you know what you're doing and what you're getting into. If you go in blind looking at the romance of it, you'll fail. A lot of people go in not understanding business Not understanding a Profit & Loss statement. You have to understand how investing works, how renovation works. There's a lot of numbers and a lot of experience you need. I'd say to them on a positive note that if you go get experience, if you know what you're getting into, and you look into it straight on, get people around you with experience. 

QLife: When did you first realize "OMG I'm a celebrity chef"?

Cat: I honestly still don't realize it sometimes. I tell Nicole "there are people staring at me and want a picture." I still have to remind myself. I love what I do so much, but sometimes that part of it gets away from me. I still love that I get to do exactly what I want every day. When I started doing television and became an Iron Chef and started walking down the streets of New York and random people calling out my name, that's when I realized it. That was pretty cool.

QLife: What are your favorite restaurants in Los Angeles and New York that are not yours?

Cat: That's a tough one. Ummm... that are not mine? That's so hard. Ummm.. 

Nicole: [interrupting] Babe, we just went there in New York for our anniversary. 

Cat: Marc Forgione!

As for Los Angeles, I'd have to say Maude. 

QLife: What about Las Vegas?

Cat: I'd have to say Blue Ribbon Sushi at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. I go there every time I go to New York. It's still one of my favorites. Eric and Bruce, the Bromberg brothers are such good friends of mine. Blue Ribbon is my go-to when I'm in Vegas..

QLife: What does being an entrepreneur mean for you?

Cat: Being an entrepreneur to me is about making dreams come true.  That's the business I am in and that's why I love what I do even in the most challenging situations.  It's about never giving up, momentum, sometimes changing direction or even reinventing to make things better BUT if you believe, do your diligence, find your team, and have fun ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Russ White