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Lesbian chef eyes SFO Milk terminal lease

by Matthew S. Bajko

Six years after opening her first Cat Cora's Kitchen at San Francisco International Airport in Terminal 2, the celebrated lesbian chef is looking to expand into the aviation facility's under-renovation Terminal 1.

Doing so would have special significance for Cora, 50, should the city rename the departure and arrival area in honor of the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. In June the city's Airport Facilities Naming Advisory Committee unanimously recommended not only naming Terminal 1 after Milk, who 40 years ago became the first out lawmaker in San Francisco and California, but also the airport's access road so its address would be 1 Harvey Milk Way.

The idea of having the airport facility named in honor of a gay icon "is monumental," Cora told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview last month.

As it happened, she was speaking via cellphone from a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport where she had just landed with her fiancee, producer Nicole Ehrlich, whom she plans to marry next year in Santa Barbara where they live. Asked if she would want to locate one of her airport-based restaurants in SFO's Terminal 1, Cora disclosed that she and her business partner HBF are "in talks" about doing so.

In July District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced legislation to name the terminal after Milk, while gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy has pledged to push for the street naming idea in addition to the terminal honor. This week Ronen told the B.A.R. she expects the board will take up the naming in early 2018 and expressed excitement at learning that an out chef is interested in opening an eatery in the terminal.

Just this week the Airport Commission signed off on the process to seek nine food and beverage leases for Terminal 1, which is undergoing a $2.4 billion remodel that will be unveiled in stages. SFO spokesman Doug Yakel told the B.A.R. that the new food offerings in the terminal would also open in phases, the first batch in July 2019 the next in February 2020.

An additional 10 other food and beverage locations in Terminal 1 will become available for lease over the next two years, with anticipated openings in 2021 and 2022.
"All leases will be awarded through a competitive selection process, and base terms for each lease are expected to be 10 years," said Yakel.

In addition to expanding at SFO, Cora told the B.A.R. she would like to some day open a stand-alone restaurant in the Bay Area, where she came after graduating from culinary school in New York.

"If anyone wants to open a restaurant with me, let's do it, because I love the Bay Area," said Cora, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi.

Cora's rise to fame began in 1999 when she started hosting television cooking shows. She then made history in 2005 as the first-ever female Iron Chef on Food Network's hit show "Iron Chef America."

Open Hand luncheon
The B.A.R. spoke with Cora as she will be the keynote speaker Thursday, December 14, at the 25th anniversary of Project Open Hand's Hand to Hand Holiday Luncheon. The theme of her remarks will be about giving back, said Cora, who 12 years ago launched her own nonprofit Chefs for Humanity as a way to help feed people during times of natural disasters. This summer she helped raise funds for employees of her Houston airport restaurant who lost their homes to flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

"Health and wellness is a big part of my platform, as is hunger and how we can come together on hunger domestically and globally," said Cora, who years ago contributed a recipe to a cookbook Project Open Hand sold to raise money but has never seen its Polk Street kitchen.

For the luncheon she will also be preparing a halibut dish. She chose the recipe because it is a light and healthy entree "seemingly people could also make at home," said Cora. "It is a good dish for the holidays coming up. You can have a giant halibut for Christmas or Hanukkah."

Project Open Hand CEO Mark Ryle, a gay man, told the B.A.R. he invited Cora to take part in the fundraising luncheon because of her work with Chefs for Humanity. It is the first time, he said, the event has had someone of her star power be the keynote speaker.

"While we are not a hunger relief organization, we are about trying to get people to a better place with their health. She embodies what we are about," said Ryle, whose agency feeds people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as other life-threatening illnesses, in San Francisco and Alameda counties. "Her work is about helping vulnerable people and that is what our work is, so it is going to be a perfect match."

For Adrian Barrow, who has cooked at the agency for a decade, the last two as its executive chef, this will be his first time meeting Cora. She is one of five chefs who will be preparing dishes for the event; Barrow will be making roast pork loin rubbed with Ghirardelli cocoa and regular coffee.

"Hopefully, we will have Cat come in during the week and do something with us," said Barrow, 46, a gay married man.

This is the first time since 2013 that the holiday fundraiser is being held during the daytime. In previous years the agency held a nighttime event called Taste of the City but wanted to return to the former format.

"Hand to Hand has been a tradition to our supporters for many, many years," said Barrow. "The fact we are bringing it back, I am excited about and along with Cat to be involved."

Tickets are $350 and can be purchased at .


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