If you’re familiar with the Orange County restaurant scene, you’ve likely seen one of Cathy’s restaurant articles or chef videos where she is sampling the newest menus or happily observing an acclaimed chef whip up a signature dish. As an award-winning food writer, columnist, and teacher for more than two decades, Cathy has always believed that part of the fun of cooking and entertaining is creating delectable dishes without spending hours in the kitchen. Her recipes focus on quick preparation, robust flavors, and making full use of fresh fruits and vegetables. She has written three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.” She has also starred in countless videos alongside some of the top chefs in the industry (which you can view on Cathy’s YouTube Channel).
Orange Coast is proud to have Cathy Thomas as part of our team with a featured blog on Orangecoast.com, ‘Cathy Thomas & Friends‘ exclusively devoted to her newest articles and videos. We had a moment to ask the accomplished food writer a few questions about her inspirations and the best meal she ever had.
Tell us about your background.
I started cooking at 4 or 5, when my mother taught me to make Roquefort vinaigrette. I fell in love with the magic of combining flavors and textures. Although I would have loved to become a chef, when I graduated from high school, there was no place in America for women in professional kitchens. So I went to USC and got a degree in political science with a minor in Italian. While at the university, I met and married a Frenchman. That led to time spent in French family kitchens in Paris and eventually courses at culinary school. I taught cooking for 20 years, during which my classes were attended by the food editor at the Orange County Register. That eventually led to a job at the paper as food stylist and food columnist. Years later I became food editor.
I think the “teacher” in me appreciates sharing the love of food with others. I am always hungry to learn more about food and the people who cook it. Everybody has to eat, right? Why not make it a delicious adventure?
What do you enjoy most about being a food journalist and writer?
There is always something new to learn. New-to-me ingredients. Unusual cooking techniques. Chefs with interesting insights and innovative ideas. I couldn’t have imagined that some of the world’s best chefs—Thomas Keller, Jacques Pepin, and Marcus Samuelsson—would come to my home and cook with me while taping culinary videos. And imagine the thrill of being named the top food columnist in America by the Association of Food Journalists.
What do you find most challenging about it?
I love my work and feel very lucky to have made a career out of it. Keeping up with the culinary scene in Orange County is a bit challenging; there is a lot going on.
What is your take on today’s O.C. restaurant scene?
Oh the changes I have seen since I started at the Register in 1987! The county is bursting with culinary talent and innovation. The ethnic diversity of our county has changed the choices we have in what we can eat. At the top of the list is Little Saigon whose eateries have given us lessons in new ingredients and Southeast Asia’s aromatic blends of sweet-sour-salty and spicy flavor profiles.
What do you think it takes to be a great chef?
A clear understanding of technique and ingredients, teamed with a palate that has a clear understanding of how to balance flavors. Palate memory is also important, remembering and identifying flavor profiles is essential. Also, a great chef needs to know how to run a kitchen—how to delegate, how to gain respect, and how to create a well-functioning team.
Is there anything we don’t have in Orange County that you think we should, food or drink wise?
For me, I wish there were more informal little cafes that serve French favorites—croque madame, onion soup, salad Lyonnaise.
What is the best meal you ever had?
I’ve been at this a long, long time. There are too many great meals to settle on just one. But recently I participated in a cassoulet dinner put on by the Academy of Cassoulet in Carcassonne, France. It was luscious.
What is one of your most memorable culinary experiences?
Knowing and dining with Julia Child. She was so encouraging, telling me over and over again how important it would be for me to write books. Happily, I took her advice and wrote three cookbooks.
Someone you’d love to cook with…
Chef-Restaurateur Jose Andres. He is so innovative and talented. I love and admire his spirit.
Your ideal Sunday supper:
Cioppino with a subtle edge of spiciness, just-baked French baguette, a beautiful mixed green salad, followed by a cheese course and warm apple Tarte Tatin.