ORLANDO — Opa!
With a shot of ouzo and the traditional Greek toast, celebrity chef Cat Cora opened the newest restaurant at Walt Disney World Resort.
Cora was at Disney's BoardWalk recently to introduce Kouzzina, her spin on the family-style Greek cuisine of her childhood. Kouzzina (pronounced koo-ZEE-nah) is in the space formerly occupied by Spoodles. Cora, one of the mainstays on the Food Network's Iron Chef America, grew up in Mississippi in a family of restaurateurs.
And family was the theme of last month's event, which helped set the stage for the opening of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. As a trio played traditional Greek music and Cora introduced the menu (a few highlights: the fiery oak-grilled lamb burger and the sauteed Brussels sprouts), the scene resembled a homecoming. Cora's partner, Jennifer, their four young sons, her parents, Virginia and Spiro, and members of the Coras' extended Southern family were all there. Virginia and Spiro were Cora's biggest cheerleaders, proposing toasts, working the room and dragging staff and guests alike onto an impromptu dance floor.
After the festivities, Cora, 42, sat down with the St. Petersburg Times to discuss how she manages to be a parent, TV personality, restaurateur and culinary brand (Kouzzina serves her new line of wine, Coranation).
How do you find time to do everything?
It's a struggle, I mean it really is. Honestly, I have an incredible partner who is a stay-at-home mom. We did, finally, with the four kids, hire someone to help us a little bit. It helps to have a great foundation at home, and then I have an incredible professional team that helps me juggle and balance everything. . . . It allows me the freedom to be creative.
How did Kouzzina come about?
We had done a travel on-demand show called What's Cooking With Cat Cora. And I had been doing the Epcot Food & Wine Festival — this is my sixth year. So I've been here a lot, doing that and doing various other small projects with them. And they . . . asked me what would you think about doing a restaurant? I thought, "That's fantastic — let's do it. When do you want to start it?" We figure this is a great launching pad to more exciting projects with them. We started talking about the restaurant two years ago. So when I said it's been a long time coming — it's been a long time coming.
How did you choose Kouzzina's chef, Disney veteran Dee Foundoukis?
They knew that I wanted someone — it didn't matter, male or female — that had some knowledge of Greek cuisine. It's not a cuisine you can just hop off into and start doing. Just like you can't really just hop into Moroccan cuisine or Ethiopian cuisine or what have you. That doesn't mean you have to be Greek to have a passion for Greek cuisine, but there has to be a passion for it and a knowledge of it. And she did, and she had that. . . . I think she was the natural selection.
Are women more accepted in restaurant kitchens now?
I think so. I mean I definitely think it helps. That's one of the great things about my doing Iron Chef America is that it does break down a barrier. . . . Julia Child broke down many barriers (as did the) other female chefs that came before us. So, I think any time that can happen, it's a great thing for women in the industry, or in any industry.
So, have you seen the movie Julie & Julia?
I have not. I hosted the James Beard Awards with Stanley Tucci and Emeril (Lagasse) right before the movie came out. And so I saw . . . clips of it. I've been on the road, so I haven't had a chance to see it.
Do more people know you for Iron Chef America than for anything else?
I think so. That show is the highest-rated show on Food Network. It's a huge hit. It's now international as well. It's playing in Spain and Portugal and all Central America and Latin America. It's playing all over. It's a huge cult following. When they talk about pop culture down the road, I think Iron Chef will be part of that.
Do you watch any food shows on TV?
Not really. I'm a news junkie. So I've always got it tuned into CNN and Headline News. I occasionally flip around to see some things and I'll watch some of the other (Iron) Chefs battle and watch some of my other friends occasionally. I don't really have enough time.
You must be a master of time management.
That I am. I think that is one of the reasons why I'm successful at balancing so many things. I love to meet the challenge of multitasking. . . . I make lots of lists and notes to myself.
Peter Couture can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.