Cat Cora: I've Experienced More Harassment As A Woman Than As A Lesbian

The first-ever female Iron Chef speaks out about sexism in the food industry, COVID-19's impact and more.

“The restaurant industry attracts misfits and sometimes, that is the only family you have,” the first-ever female Iron Chef Cat Cora said to Anna Rahmanan in this Voices in Food story. Her own cast of misfits — which she employs across the 10 restaurants and more than 500 pop-ups she runs with her wife and business partner Nicole Ehrlich — has been stuck at home throughout the past few months while riding out the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they will return to work and in what capacity is yet to be determined, but Cora hopes that the virus has an equalizing effect that can change things for the better. Here, the chef talks about being a lesbian woman in a male-dominated industry, the changes she hopes to see at the federal level and the importance of finding a mentor as a guide through the system.

On Navigating The Culinary World As A Woman

It was definitely a struggle to come up, even through culinary school. As far as instructors go, they were old-school types that still believed that men should be the ones cooking in the kitchens and not the women. I faced harassment and discrimination and [was told], “You shouldn’t be here, you should be back home in Mississippi, barefoot and pregnant.”

Obviously, we made progress but as far as equal pay and equal promotional opportunities go, we still have work to do. I think that in this industry, as far as minorities and being a part of that clout goes, women face all kinds of various forms of discrimination and harassment.

Only 7% of owners or executives at restaurants in this country are women. It’s a huge gap and trying to get bank loans as a woman versus a man to open your own restaurant is also a struggle.

On What Consumers Can Do To Help Women Get Ahead

It’s really about supporting female-owned businesses. It doesn’t mean you can’t support men-owned ones, but I think that we have to amplify [the voices] of women and minorities in this country, which we don’t do enough of. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision: when we decide to go out to dinner, a lot of the time [we ask ourselves] where do we love to eat? And obviously, with only 7% of the restaurants being owned by females or being run by females, your pool of choices is smaller. But I think that we have to really seek that out and look to support minority-owned and female-owned restaurants and businesses in this industry and every industry.

On Her Advice For Female Chefs Trying To Break In To The Industry

It’s about finding a mentor. We do a mentorship program every year for female chefs: they stay with us and we take them through running a restaurant, running a business. Women need to seek out mentors. I was lucky enough to have a great one like Julia Child and I actually worked for several female-owned companies, shops and chefs. Seeking out those mentors is going to help magnify your skills and your talent.

On COVID-19′s impact on the restaurant world

Business disruption insurance has to change, because we’ve seen that not having loopholes is devastating to a lot of restaurants. I also think that delivery is bigger than ever and here to stay. The social part of restaurants is also going to change. There is definitely going to be, and I believe should be, federal regulation on restaurants. Every state is different and it causes a lot of confusion. It needs to be federally regulated. And until we have a new administration, that is not going to happen. I think we need laws that go across state lines and ensure the safety of the diners and the patrons and the staff, because the staff is just as vulnerable when people come in from the outside. How are they being safe?

“There is definitely going to be, and I believe should be, federal regulation on restaurants. And until we have a new administration, that is not going to happen.”

There is definitely going to be a situation where — and it has to be like this — we need to socially distance to an extent. Maybe there won’t be six feet [between us], but there needs to be some sort of distance. I also think that in the foreseeable future there is going to be mask wearing, for sure.

On Starting A Daily Cooking Show On Instagram During Quarantine

I didn’t realize how many people were not used to cooking three meals per day, seven days a week. I wanted to do simple recipes that people could [try at home] and, of course, in the very beginning of COVID we had a lot of food shortages so I was trying to do things that were inexpensive but still put a healthy spin on it.

I think social media is a hugely important tool and the great connector between all of us, because this pandemic has been an equalizer. We’re all on the same flight, struggling to make ends meet in so many ways and all of our businesses and industries are shut down for the most part. Social media has been a wonderful tool for us to be able to just be open, real and share.

“All that is important now is how many followers you have, and that is sad to me because I think that they are missing the point of having true talent.”

Instagram wasn’t important when I was [coming up in the industry]. You didn’t have to have a million followers to get an endorsement deal and now companies only look at how many followers you have. They don’t look at the fact that I worked in three Michelin-starred restaurants. They don’t look at the fact that I’m the first female that made it to the Culinary Hall of Fame, that I got a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama, that I’ve been on TV since 1999. All that is important now is how many followers you have, and that is sad to me because I think that they are missing the point of having true talent. There is something wonderful about people that are seasoned. I think it’s a real shame because they’re missing out on so much wonderful talent, women who are hugely creative and have a seasoning that a millennial is not going to have. They have an understanding and an experience of the world that someone who is 20 years old isn’t going to have.

On Being Part Of The LGBTQ+ Community

I’ve always been really strong in who I am and confident in who I am as a lesbian. For me personally, I have experienced more harassment and discrimination as a woman than I have as a lesbian. It is very interesting and I think one of the reasons for that is that I don’t really care what people think about me. I grew up in a place, in Mississippi, that wasn’t easy to grow up in. I was out to my family at the age of 19 and once they knew, I really didn’t care what anybody else thought. Of course, there were times when I had to be more cautious but that’s changed, we are a much more accepting society — although not always.

Unfortunately, that’s not everybody’s story and that’s really sad and it’s why we fight for gay rights and speak out for the LGBTQ+ community. We just had a major victory for LGBTQ+ employees around the United States and I think it’s important for us to speak out, because the youth doesn’t have our story [necessarily]. They are committing suicide and that is tragic and we can’t let that happen.

Look at where we are with gay marriage. We look back right now and say, “Wow, I can’t believe gay marriage wasn’t legal.” I think it’s about never giving up and finding a mentor, a positive influence in your life, whoever that might be. Because it only takes one person to believe in you.