Cat Cora dishes on mentoring 'America's Best Cook,' Southern cuisine

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Image Credit: Emile Wamsteker/Food Network

Like any great athlete, Cat Cora is ready for competition with the new Food Network show America’s Best Cook.

Premiering Sunday night, the show, hosted by Ted Allen, is The Voice meets food with four renowned chefs leading individual teams of home cooks divided by their home regions. Cora mentors the South, Michael Symon the North, Alex Guarnaschelli the East, and Tyler Florence the West. “We’re all friends and all known each other for years, so it makes it kind of a fun competitiveness,” Cora tells EW. “But there was definitely a lot of trash talking on the show between us!” What’s unique about this competition and what gets Cora most excited is the opportunity to work with home cooks and not just professionals. When it comes to cooking, it’s all about passion first and technical skills second, Cora contends. “I definitely think someone can be taught to be a great cook and even go on to be a very good chef, and we see that; there are a lot of people with a passion for cooking but not a natural flow or gift.”

And that’s where the mentors come in. Sunday night’s premiere starts with 16 cooks divided into their four regions in a timed culinary challenge competing for only two spots on each mentor’s team. After a series of challenges, the last cook standing wins $50,000, and the mentor earns immediate bragging rights. The show is filmed in the same studio as Iron Chef America and though that may make some nervous, it’s just another day at the office for these guys. “When you have three Iron Chefs on the panel as mentors, it’s definitely going to be competition and a lot of fun!” (Sorry Tyler – I’m sure you’re competitive too!) Cora made history as the first female Iron Chef and is more than aware of the stigma against women in professional kitchens. Now that she is working with home cooks, she hopes to change the bias in the food (and many other) industries by having men and women competing equally against each other. “I never had a doubt in my mind, way before I was Iron Chef or on television, woman could cook just as hard and good as men.”

Something that not everyone can do though is cook Southern food well, or “the soul food of America” as Cat refers to it. “The passion that Southerners have always put into their foods takes on a deeper meaning.” Hoping for home town fans to cheer on her team, Cora admits that there are great styles of cooking from each place, but sometimes you just can’t beat what a little nice weather can do! “The heat and humidity of the south makes tomatoes and corn and watermelons and things we grow there just richer.” If Cora had to pick another region to win, it would probably be the West since that’s where she currently lives. “You cannot beat the fact that you can put anything in the ground in Southern California and it grows!” Cora also emphasized the healthy aspects of California cuisine and now wants to “make great Southern cuisine healthy and still delicious.”

For those at home who want to up their own home cooking skills, Cora says it’s important to add a personal spin to each dish. “Like anything else in life, we are all individuals, so we each have our own style, skills and finesse, and passion for what cuisine we love.” Noting that anyone can be a great cook with just the basics, Cora suggests every home cook should have at least one sharp knife, a good blender to make sauces with, and a good “but not the most expensive” set of pots and pans.

Another tip Cora gives to home cooks is having a bowl of citrus handy to add a bit of zest or juice to anything quickly. “I can always cut a piece of lemon off and squeeze it on a piece of fish, easy.” As for the show, Cora is excited to bring together two of America’s favorite pastimes: food and competition. “Chefs are like athletes. We have to prepare physically and mentally to compete on a high level in a quick amount of time.” The audience will also really be able to related to these “people of their caliber going against each other” as opposed to highly trained chefs creating dishes no one can pronounce. “Most people have someone in their family who is a fanatic home cook and loves cooking and is absolutely passionate about it.”

We don’t know whether or not she will be able to mentor America’s Best Cook , but Cat Cora definitely gets my vote for America’s most passionate judge, hands and utensils down.

America’s Best Cook premieres Sunday night on Food Network at 9 p.m. ET.

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