Cat Cora is Cooking with Cannabis
And she’s quite relaxed about it
The first female Iron Chef, Cat Cora is back breaking barriers — this time bringing cannabis into home cooking.
We’ve already seen non-hallucinogenic, THC-free CBD (Cannabidiol) oil, which is derived from cannabis, go mainstream. It’s making its way, legally, to grocery store shelves in conservative Indiana and themed “CBD cocktail parties” in suburban New Jersey. It’s a hot topic not only for cannabis-friendly newspapers such as the Denver Post, but also the Wall Street Journal and Food & Wine.
According to surveys from Gallup, support for legalization rose from 12 percent in 1969 to 31 percent in 2000, to 64 percent in 2017. A Civic Science poll and the General Social Survey found similar levels of support in recent years.
Cat Cora came of age as a chef in the ’90s during one of the last big culinary movements, when cooking with creams and heavy sauces was losing favor to a healthier approach. Cora carved out her niche “showcasing how the healthiest food on the planet, Mediterranean food, can live in the same space as delicious food.” (A new study reported in the journal Nature suggests a link between a Mediterranean diet and lower rates of depression.)
When Cora began, there were no female executive chefs running their own kitchens. It would be 10 years before she opened her first restaurant. Even today, when women represent 47 percent of the workforce, the statistics in the restaurant world remain unbalanced, with only 19.7 percent of restaurant kitchens run by women, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
CoveyClub spoke with Cora about shattering glass ceilings, her history, her transitions, and her latest adventure, cooking with cannabis.
TheCovey: You’re on the cutting edge again in your cooking story, integrating cannabis into your health and wellness platform. What prompted this latest twist?
Cat Cora: My dad was a big Greek guy who loved food and loved life … [but] he battled cancer [at a time when] medical marijuana, which could have helped him at the end of his life, wasn’t available to him. He was in a lot of pain and had [lost] his desire to eat. [Now] my brother has multiple illnesses and my mom is battling cervical cancer. She can barely eat without being sick. Seeing that happen in front of you is the most helpless feeling and a horrible way to live.
So, I am really advocating for people like that, for the merits of medical marijuana, a plant-based product. As a chef, it’s exciting because [cannabis] is so versatile, with true health benefits. And so I can do so many incredible things to help people, and I can do it with food. It can give people a quality of life at a time when they are very ill.
TheCovey: You are on the forefront of this new food revolution that goes beyond edibles to cooking with cannabis. What does this new movement look like for consumers?
Cat Cora: There are a few styles of cooking with cannabis. My style of cooking is purely medical, a nutritional style of medical cooking [with] dosages in foods to help people with specific illnesses. You can put cannabis in with a type of extraction through olive oils, dressings … through leaves, using it as an herb. The chefs I have been learning from are bringing something science-based and measurement-based to the food world — much like baking and pastry — as a winemaker brings to the wine world.
TheCovey: You are a proponent of non-THC CBD, the non-hallucinogenic form of cannabis. You’ve mentioned that it helps you with your PTSD.
Cat Cora: From age six to 11 I was sexually abused and was too scared to speak out. I struggled for many years to love myself and my own skin. I still get scared, and I struggle with it to this day. There are many ways I balance myself, including working out, meditating, and talking to my wife. But there are times CBD gives me a quality of life when I start feeling that way. Like vitamins, you add CBD in doses, whatever the packaging tells you to take. Even though they are derived from the same plant, CBD is different from THC and you need to follow the recommended dosage carefully.
TheCovey: Is cooking with cannabis something that will be coming to home kitchens in the near future, the way Julia Child brought fine French cooking into our homes?
Cat Cora: There are companies and brands [including mine, which is not yet named] working on safe, health-focused, foolproof meal kits … for the chef at home. They have not come on the market yet, [but it’s] a seed that is being planted to eventually give people the ability to grow and cook with [cannabis] at home, safely and responsibly. We [are at] the forefront of this. As of now, the safest way to have cannabis in your food is to have an expert do it. There is definitely a space and need in the marketplace for meal kits with cannabis. Kits and delivery meals are on trend and this would be no different, especially for medical cannabis and people with various illnesses who aren’t able to leave the house or need more help in meal preparation. But also busy folks who want convenience.
[That said], it’s going to happen. [Right now] it’s the new prohibition. We have to talk about how many positives there are over how many negatives. There should be regulations, but I think it should be legalized for everybody. Cannabis is something that can truly help people.
TheCovey: Do you see a future where there are cannabis restaurants where you order cannabis dishes off the menu?
Cat Cora: There are chefs in LA who are already serving CBD-infused menu items at Café Gratitude, Gracias Madre, and Pattern Bar. There [will be more] restaurants that are solely dedicated to cooking with cannabis. There is no doubt in my mind that that’s going to happen. If they are done right and deliciously and responsibly, they could be a great attribute to the industry.
TheCovey: From the outside looking in, it appears you’ve woven a seamless transition from one space — physiology and nutrition — into your life as a chef focused on healthy cooking. Was it as easy as it looks?
Cat Cora: My degree in physiology and nutrition … is really where I got into fitness and wellness. [But] cooking was one of [my] first loves. [So,] when I got out of college my plan was to … open up a restaurant in [my hometown of] Jackson, Mississippi, [like my] godfather [and] my grandfather who had restaurants.
Remember [though], there were no “celebrity chefs,” yet. [In 1993 the] Food Network was just starting. Cooking was really still a blue-collar career and no one, I mean no one, would invest in me. [Even after] I cooked for them [to show them] my vision! It could have been a female thing, but I never let that [cross my mind]. I just thought they were all crazy. Some of them have called me since then and said, you’re right, we were all wrong.
[Around the same time,] Julia Child came to Mississippi for an event with Robert Mondavi and Marion Cunningham. I went up to Julia and told her I was an aspiring chef. And she took time with me. I was different than the other women there to see her because I wanted to lead a whole restaurant at the time when women were still more about baking and pastry. Julia told me, “you have to go to the Culinary Institute of America, it’s the Harvard of culinary schools. I believe in you … Pay it forward.” It was a lightbulb. A huge transition moment. I [applied] the next day. I took a year and prepped for CIA working at a local private club. I left the dream of a restaurant in Jackson behind and got a French classical cooking foundation [at CIA] … the complete opposite of health and wellness: heavy creams, sauces, truffles. There were six women in my graduating class of about 200.
TheCovey: What did you learn through all these transitions?
Cat Cora: When the square peg isn’t fitting in the round hole, that’s when you really have to reflect that maybe this isn’t [your] purpose. I reset my dreams and goals. When I look back on all the years, it really is as powerful as that. If you can let go a little bit and let it manifest and really dream big, those transitions will unfold in front of you in really interesting and profound ways.