Cat Cora on serving up competition on "America's Best Cook"

Chef, TV personality and author Cat Cora.

Cat Cora's no stranger to competitive cooking -- she's an Iron Chef, after all -- but on her new show, she had to keep her hands (and knives) out of the kitchen.

Cora is one of four Food Network stars serving as mentors for home cooks from around the country on "America's Best Cook," premiering Sunday night. Each mentor represents cooks from a region of the U.S. -- the North (Michael Symon), East (Alex Guarnaschelli), South (Cora) and West (Tyler Florence) -- as the competitors on their teams face off in challenges for the chance at winning the title and a $50,000 prize.

"We're doing something that's so unique and really changing the landscape of competition shows. Food Network has always kind of been the leader in that, starting with 'Iron Chef,'" Cora told CBS News this week. "I got some fantastic home cooks that came out of the South -- which I had no doubt that we would -- and there was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of good competition."

And just because the contestants here are home cooks, and not professional chefs, doesn't mean they're not competitive. "These cooks, they came to win," she said. "We were really surprised at the level of how fast they caught on to what we were trying to teach them. And a lot of the dishes they put out were restaurant quality."

Being a mentor and not doing the actual cooking was a challenge in itself for the 46-year-old chef, TV star and author.

"It was so hard!" she admitted. "For us to stand up there and basically have our hands tied and not be able to get down there and cook -- we got a really quick second to get down there and help them if it was necessary, but it was seconds, maybe a minute, to go down and really help them if we felt like they were in a bind. But other than that we had to stand there and basically just cheer them on and couldn't touch the food, couldn't help cook, couldn't get in there. It was harder than I thought it would be."

Guest-judges like Bobby Flay, Anne Burrell and Geoffrey Zakarian will critique food in each week's challenges, and if both of a mentor's selected cooks are sent home then they're out of the game, too. When asked if things got competitive between her and the other mentors, she laughed and said, "Oh yeah, totally! There was some smack-talking, a little bit of finger-pointing, take-you-down kind of thing...You want to stay in the competition as long as possible for your home cooks, for your home state, and for yourself. There's a lot of pride riding on it. You want to make your region proud. "

Originally from Jackson, Miss., Cora knows a thing or two about representing the South -- and about Southern food. She said she loves the "great, rich types of ingredients" that embody Southern cooking, like black-eyed peas, grits, bold flavors like "cayenne and good cracked pepper" and classics like cucumbers, corn, watermelon and tomatoes. Onions, too. "My mom never made a dish without sauteing onions first," she added.

Now that it's spring, Cora says she's looking out for seasonal ingredients like fava beans, baby beets, artichokes, ramps and asparagus. And she's got new projects on the horizon -- launching a new restaurant in Atlanta and working on a memoir that's due out next year. Not to mention being excited for viewers to tune in for this new twist on a TV cooking showdown.

"It's like 'The Voice' meets cooking and food competitions, so it's an exciting show," she said. "I think people are going to be really, really happy with it. And excited to see it."

"America's Best Cooks" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Food Network.


  • Jessica Derschowitz

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