The crumbling walls of Pigeon Island’s destination ruin were bursting with excited fans of Food Network’s first female Iron Chef on Saturday afternoon at the Saint Lucia Tourist Board’s Health and Wellness Symposium: Elevate Yourself. The thunderous reception which welcomed petite, blonde Chef Cat Cora to the podium seemed to surprise the Mississippi native, who perhaps didn’t realize that her shows are run regularly down here in the islands. Genuinely pleased with the applause, Chef Cora launched into her Healthy Cooking demonstration by sharing some of her life story and experiences, food philosophy and culinary point of view.
Initially a little shy in the company of such coolness, the crowd were soon throwing questions and witty banter at the celebrity chef whose cooking roots are southern with a surprising fusion of Greek from her immigrant family. Cora tells fascinating tales of growing up eating artichoke hearts with lemon and olive oil instead of fries, and home-cooked moussaka instead of fried chicken. Meals at the Cora house often combined spices from the South with fresh cheeses and home-cured olives sent by relatives from the island of Skopelos. Her first cookbook, Cat Cora’s Kitchen was inspired by her Greek and Southern heritage and contains many of her family’s favorite recipes.
Her family lived the Mediterranean diet long before extra virgin olive oil became the condiment of choice for every health nut, and Chef Cora’s love of Greek flavours, combined with French culinary techniques inspired by legendary mentor Julia Child, became the foundation of her brand as she forged a career in the male-dominated world of Michelin-starred kitchens where the rule was women-non-grata.
From the late ‘90s, the burgeoning new landscape of TV cooking and rock-star celebrity chefs beckoned Chef Cora and her first foray into hosting was the appropriately-named ‘Melting Pot’ with co-host Rocco DiSpirito. In 2005 she made history as the first female Iron Chef to take on the competition in Kitchen Stadium, and in May 2012, Cora stepped out of her chef’s jacket into a new role as co-host alongside Curtis Stone for Bravo’s series, Around the World in 80 Plates, travelling with 12 chefs in a culinary race across 10 countries in 44 days.
So with all that experience and awards out the wazoo, how could Cat Cora cause such controversy in the demo-kitchen?
Well, there was a sharp intake of breath from a few of the Saint Lucian home cooks when Chef added a spoonful of mayonnaise to bind her chunky crab cake together, then coated it in panko and threw it in the pan of coconut oil to shallow fry. Someone explained to a clearly perplexed Chef Cora that here in Saint Lucia we couldn’t do this recipe as we must use our mayo cold out of the fridge because heating it up can make you sick. The crowd murmured their agreement and indeed remained skeptical as Chef explained that mayo is commonly used as a binder, and that cooking it actually makes the raw eggs safer to eat (all the while with eyebrows raised thinking “WTF?”).
Still visibly flummoxed by the topic, Chef Cora asked the crowd for an example, and was regaled with a horror story of a beach party, green fig salad sitting out in the sun, salmonella etc, at which point the penny dropped that the Saint Lucian audience was confusing rancid for cooked, and the Iron Chef had an aha moment. After a brief explanation of the difference between leaving your salad in the sun for four hours to fester and shallow-frying in a hot pan and serving immediately, the crowd reluctantly agreed to give mayo a try in their crab cake recipes and no longer to fear the threat of digestive damage from a salad dressing.
A small culinary breakthrough for nation’s cooks, who salivated over Chef Cat Cora’s locally inspired healthy recipes including Watermelon Gazpacho, Crab Cake with Avocado Salsa and Mango Coulis.
Next issue: The Coconut Oil Controversy, or why the Iron Chef has never seen our yellow version in her entire life!!