Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cat's Kitchen

I met another Southern belle in Santa Barbara yesterday. This is noteworthy because (1) there aren't too many of us, and (2) it happened to be Iron Chef Cat Cora!!!

Yes, I totally lucked out and got to sponge off a promotional shoot for Santa Barbara involving local celebrities. 

I arrived at her modest but tasteful home near the beach. The first thing I smelled was salmon, which had clearly been cooked for lunch. I liked that. A chef's home should smell like someone's been cooking. I was a little nervous walking in. I didn't know what to really expect. I've always been a huge fan of Cat (Can I call her that? It seems so informal, like I'm hanging out with her — but wait, I was!), and a part of me didn't want her to be one of those self-involved celebrities who's lost perspective of where they fit into the world. But as soon as I heard her call out, "Hey, come on in. We're over here. And please excuse the salmon smell," I could feel her Southern warmth oozing out. 

Like most homes, everyone was in the kitchen. But instead of pots and pans, here were lights and cosmetics. The crew was busy setting up the shoot and taking care of Cat's hair and "putting on her face." That's what Southerners call applying make-up. I didn't want to disrupt anything, since I was essentially crashing the shoot, so I chatted with Jennifer, Cat's wife, who was nursing baby Thatcher (born in April). For a mother of three children under the age of five, she was remarkably relaxed and pleasant. They'd just returned from a family visit to Jackson, MS, where Cat grew up. It was Thatcher's first flight and Jennifer said, "He did great! The only issue was the smoke coming out of the cockpit, but he was the only one who didn't seem to mind it." Apparently, there were some mechanical issues onboard, which were swiftly fixed, but the traveling may have to subside a bit since Cat is delivering her first child next month. 

Cat was wearing a colorful empire-waist blouse that camouflaged her bump but matched her palpable charisma. You just want to be around her. I guess that's why she's so successful. She commands attention but her 1000-watt smile and easy-going nature put you at ease. There are no pretenses or attitude, although there certainly could be. Her accomplishments are numerous and enviable: She is the first female to receive the title of Iron Chef America; she's the Executive Chef for Bon Appetit; she is the Founder and President for Chefs for Humanity; and she juggles successfully a marriage and family. I was curious how this larger than life Southern belle found her way to Santa Barbara. As the shooting wrapped, I got my chance to find out. 

Cat's culinary talents took her out of the South and in fact around the world. But when it came time to settle down, she was looking for the right place to call home. "At the time we were living in the Napa Valley, but work required me to spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. We wanted to find a place close to the water and more centrally located." For the occasional respite, they'd often come to Santa Barbara. She was smitten in no time. Yes, it's a uniquely beautiful place, but it was the hospitality and sense of community she was drawn to. "It has a small time feel with a big quality of life. We love the hip vibe, its openness, all the different festivals, great public schools, and it's central to everything. When we started to seriously consider moving here, people were so genuine and happy to offer us a helping hand. That was really different. It just fit like a comfortable pair of shoes. This is where we're putting down our roots."

Cat is clearly passionate about food. Her eyes brightened when she started talking about all the fruits and vegetables making their way to the Farmers Market these days. "Summer is my favorite season. Corn, tomatoes, watermelon and stone fruit! I just grill it all." Interestingly, Cat received a degree in Exercise Physiology and Biology before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America so she really liked the concept of this blog when I introduced it to her. "I like to bring together all those things: family, food, and health. People should look forward to a meal and food can really rejuvenate you. Living here makes it really easy to bring together the whole self." Aside from eating local and healthy food, Cat leads an active lifestyle. "I love to get up and go swimming in the ocean. There's nothing like it." Except maybe waterskiing. "I do wish there was someplace to go water skiing! We had to sell our boat when we moved down here. I recall spending entire summers on a boat when I was young. And the rivers and lakes, where I'm from, have nice, sandy shores like beaches. It was the best."

While you may be able to take the girl out of the South, you can't take the South out of the girl. I asked her what she missed the most. "The food!" It was an expected response, but I think you have to be Southern to really understand it. Yes, Santa Barbara is a foodie paradise, but as Cat said, "You can't find a good biscuit! And there are no pickled pigs feet here." She admitted that wasn't her dish of choice but it's a part of the culinary landscape she holds dear. We talked about how our mother's and grandmother's food tastes better than ours (a shocking revelation considering she's a world famous chef!). "It's the pans," she explained. They're often relegated to a specific food. For instance, there is the gumbo pot and the biscuit pan. I want the biscuit pan when my grandmother passes on. I'm convinced it's the secret behind their melt-in-your-mouth texture. How can one possibly replicate 70 years of seasoning?!

I cracked up when Cat shared a funny story about giving her boys boiled peanuts for the first time during their most recent visit to Jackson. Some of you may be wondering what on earth a boiled peanut is. Well, first off, it's pronounced "bowled," and they're green peanuts, meaning they're young and haven't dried, boiled in salty water over an open fire. Usually from May through November, you'll see roadside stands or convenient marts ("totems") selling this addictive snack. "They're best when accompanied by either a coke or a cold beer." She was excited for their first tasting and was looking for a way to explain what they were eating. People love sushi out here and kids often grow up eating edamame. Cat's family is no different. "I told the boys it was Southern edamame!" 

By the end of the visit, both our accents had blossomed and I felt like I'd made a new friend. Someone who really understands why a buttermilk biscuit is lust worthy, what the difference is between dinner and supper, how fun it is to drink a Bud with some good old boys, and why we wave to passing cars from the front porch — even if we don't know the people in them. It's true, she's famous. She's Cat Cora! But to me, she emerged as one of the members of the sisterhood of Southern belles. It was great to chat with a bona fide celebrity, but the best part of being in Cat Cora's kitchen? 

It felt like being home again. 

1 comment:

  1. excellent, lovely, wonderful, thanks for letting me into the sisterhood, even if I'm just a visitor