Cat Cora hopes to ease Haiti's plight
By Patrick Cole
Bloomberg News Service
The televised images of weeping Haitian children searching for their parents jolted celebrity chef Cat Cora.
She joined actor George Clooney's early fundraising drive, and within weeks of the quake she helped the United Nations' World Food Programme launch One Million In 1 Month For Haiti, which aimed to raise $1 million in 30 days for Haiti's earthquake victims.
"Seeing those children crying and not knowing where their parents were and just sitting in the middle of the rubble broke my heart," said Cora, 43, by phone from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she lives with her partner, Jennifer, and four children. She was the first female member of the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" program.
Charity work has become a part of the Jackson, Miss., native's life since launching her nonprofit Chefs For Humanity. Modeled on Doctors Without Borders, it has donated food and time to victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami relief effort, and provides educational programs on nutrition.
About 300,000 people died and more than 1 million were left homeless by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, on Jan. 12.
Cora traveled to Haiti last week to work with the World Food Programme and the Washington-based Share Our Strength in setting up a long-term relief plan. One of her goals is to establish a central kitchen that will feed earthquake victims.
She has also been watching Clooney's fundraising moves. Cora was the only chef chosen by the Academy Award winner to work the telephones onstage during his Hope For Haiti Now telethon that raised $66 million. She'd like to regularly bring together chefs such as fellow Food Network stars Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri and Tyler Florence when a disaster strikes a nation.
Cora knows raising money on a deadline even with a strong network of boldface names can be tough. As of last week, only about $100,000 had been received in her drive to raise $1 million in a month, but Cora said she will continue to press for pledges.
"The thing I noticed about George (Clooney) was that he was relentless, he was so persistent," Cora said. "He called all his friends in the industry, and he never gave up. Those of us in the food industry need to be organized like that."
Cora, the daughter of a restaurant owner and inspired by the Greek cuisine served at home, in her 20s became friendly with Julia Child. Cora followed her mentor's advice to go to New York, where she studied at the Culinary Institute of America.
She apprenticed at restaurants in New York and California. The bubbly 5-foot-1 Cora made her television debut in 1999 as co-host of the Food Network's "Melting Pot" beside Italian-American fusion chef Rocco DiSpirito.
Cora operates Kouzzina, which serves Med-iterranean cuisine on Walt Disney World's boardwalk in Orlando, Fla., and CCQ (which stands for Cat Cora's 'Que), a barbecue joint in Costa Mesa, Calif. She's also the executive chef of Bon Appetit magazine.
In Haiti, Cora and the other relief organizations will work on food logistics and assess other needs, such as building shelters and providing nutritional advice. She'll also go to the village of Cange on Haiti's central plateau to visit a hospital funded by Partners in Health, a nonprofit co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer.
"What I really want to do is create a movement and a buzz in the culinary world the way the music and acting worlds have," she said. "These people in Haiti need so much help. This effort is a marathon, not a sprint."