Cat Cora shares stories of struggle and triumph

Cat Cora’s speech was a part of Women’s History Month and featured stories of healthy living and her approaches toward life. ORACLE PHOTO/THOMAS PRETTYMAN

“Even when you have doubts, take that step. Take chances. Mistakes are never a failure — they can be turned into wisdom,” are words by celebrity chef Cat Cora. Cora was the ULS speaker for this month to promote her collaboration with USF Dining to give students an opportunity to eat healthier on campus.

Cora spoke to approximately 100 people in the Oval Theater as a part of Women's History Month to share her knowledge on healthy lifestyles and living an optimal life.

Cora was adopted by her Greek parents at 10 days old in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. She said her name was originally Melanie, but it was eventually changed to Catherine. Cora’s friends in culinary school insisted she needed a nickname, which was how her television name was created.

Through her struggles with bullying, Cora learned the difficulties of life at a young age, but it ultimately taught her to be fierce toward her dreams.

“What it taught me in life was that life isn't fair,” Cora said. “It’s not sugar coated and no one can do this life but you. I had to find my purpose.”

Cora experienced a short stint in the pre-med track before she realized how long the schooling was going to take.

“It was going to take too long to start making money,” Cora said. “In my heart, I had to ask myself what do I want and that was when I went to the Culinary School of America.”

Following her culinary schooling, Cora experienced sexist attitudes when she applied to kitchens in France.

“I got 10 rejection letters telling me that they do not accept woman in the kitchen and those words were actually written in the letter,” Cora said.

Eventually, Cora overcame the prejudice and was able to study in France. A couple years later, she became the first female Iron Chef and was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame.

“One thing I learned is to always pay it forward,” Cora said. “I was taught no matter what you do always pay it forward to the next female chef.”

Cora admitted she gained the Freshman 15 in college and the following year she slowly made changes in her lifestyle. Cora lives by the 80/20 rule, which is eating healthy foods 80 percent of the time and indulging 20 percent of the time.

“We are all bound by food,” Cora said. “There isn’t a business meeting, a sporting event, a social event on campus, funeral, wedding or birthday that we don’t eat at.”

Cora partnered with Aramark to create Olilo to share her Mediterranean dishes, which she said she believes are the healthiest on the planet.

“When I was in college, I didn’t have healthy options like Olilo. All I had was hamburgers and fries,” Cora said. “Now you can walk down to Juniper and it's all right there.”

Cora shared memorable behind-the-scenes moments on the Iron Chef that were never released on television.

“Crazy stuff happens all the time, one episode Bobby (Flay) got electrocuted, which I wasn’t so upset about,” Cora said.

The environment on Iron Chef was described as fast-paced by Cora, but she said that’s what added thrill to the chaos.  

“In Michael Symon’s very first battle in Iron Chef, he sliced his finger straight open,” Cora said. “They could take you out on a stretcher and the clock will still be ticking.”

With six kids, being a newly married wife, numerous television appearances, five books and 18 restaurants, Cora balances her life through what she calls optimal living. Cora shared her key steps and tips for college students to implement into their routines.

“Manifest your life, you got to dream and put it out into the universe,” Cora said. “Strive for it, go for it, grab it, live your dreams.”