Cat Cora is changing the way we eat in airports.

Last April the Iron Chef opened her full-service tapas and cocktails concept, Cat Cora’s Kitchen, in San Francisco International Airport, and last month she opened a second in George Bush International Airport in Houston.

The goal of Cat Cora’s Kitchen is to provide “crafted, healthy, and delicious food,” Cora says.

“We serve some higher end comfort food but the foundation is it’s healthy and local, and organic as much as possible. That’s what traveling diners deserve.”

Dishes on the menus include Greek Fisherman Stew, Chile-Lime Flank Steak Soft Tacos, and Chimichurri Chicken Skewer. Many of them change seasonally since so much of the food is local, and almost all are a far cry from standard airport fare.

“It’s fairly simple to make changes seasonally but it’s also simple to make changes when I have something I really want to create and I want to showcase,” Cora says.

“We’re not afraid to change the menu but we’re not going to take away favorites. But in December, for example, I’m not going to have a fresh Caprese salad.”

The restaurant menus don’t feature nutritional information on the menu but the staff is very knowledgeable about what’s in the different dishes. Plus, says Cora, “I think people know just from my reputation alone that I cook healthy food. We do make mention when customers are interested that the food is local and we say that on the menu when we can.”

Cat Cora already runs two other restaurant brands—CCQ, in Costa Mesa, California, and Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Running an airport location is not that different from running those traditional restaurants, however, she says.

The main difference, Cora explains, is the logistics “as you have to go through security, just to make a drop-in or a surprise visit. It’s a little harder to do that in an airport. And getting things in—you can’t just run out to a store when you’re in an airport.”

It also takes a lot longer to make any changes, she adds, “as you have all the people at the airport to go through.”

Cora came up with the menu for Cat Cora’s Kitchen by working with Atlanta-based Hojeij Branded Foods (HBF), a company with expertise in airport dining.

“It took a bunch of us sitting down together,” Cora says. “I feel as a chef I’m not going to serve the status quo. That’s the whole point of me coming in here.

“I’m bringing in new dishes that are going to raise the bar. But we have to work with the local stuff too, like we have to have a steak on the menu in Houston. [HBF has] the experience and knows what works and what doesn’t so we strike a balance.

Cora also put a lot of thought into the pricing structure at Cat Cora’s Kitchen.

“You have to price a little differently in an airport. But we don’t want to charge an arm and a leg for a soup and a sandwich. We’re charging what we think is a reasonable cost and we’re not increasing it because we’re in an airport.”

Airport rents and the logistics of getting product into an airport do make costs higher, she points out, “plus it’s been part of the norm for so long so we have to take a step back and take a look at that. We don’t want to take advantage of people. It’s a captive audience and they have to eat. I want people to come back. I don’t want them to say it was too expensive.”

Food isn’t the only focus at Cat Cora’s Kitchen—the bars also do good business.

“It’s really important in an airport, especially if people are waiting for a flight,” says Cora, She created many of the cocktails herself, such as the Cucumber Martini with fresh cucumber juice, and there are also four of Cora’s own wines—under the brand CoraNation—and her own beer, a locally-brewed beer, Cat Cora Pale Ale.

Cat Cora isn’t stopping with two airport restaurants but she is taking it slow. “You have to make sure each location is dialed in before you move onto the next property otherwise you’ll implode, you’ll crash and burn,” she points out.

Later this month she’ll open Cat Cora’s Gourmet Market in Salt Lake City airport, followed shortly afterwards by the third Cat Cora’s Kitchen.

The Gourmet Market will be all take out food, focusing on fresh salads, sandwiches and Cora’s own products such as olive oils, spreads, tapenades, hummus, and yogurt. “It’ll be fun and very fresh and high quality,” she says.

An Atlanta restaurant is slated for later this year, and Cora expects more to follow, each with a slightly different menu, tailored to local tastes.

By Amanda Baltazar

Chef Profiles, Industry News, Cat Cora's Kitchen