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Conversations with Cathy Cochran-Lewis

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cathy Cochran-Lewis.

Cathy, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was a daily newspaper journalist with a big passion for food. During one of those life transition moments, I took on the “follow your passion” mantra and walked into a new grocery store concept that was getting national attention and happened to be right here in Austin — Central Market. I was ready to do what it took to get a job in food and I was fortunate that the marketing director there saw the spark in me and although I didn’t have any experience, hired me to work on a demo table in store — so handing out samples and talking to people about food. It was fun and hard! After a few months, I began doing some writing and marketing work for the store and soon was fully on the marketing team. Although the cooking school was open, it wasn’t really a success and they were offering free classes and it hadn’t really taken off. I had an idea that I could make something of it and at one point, when they were considering closing it, I made a pitch to take it on. I became the cooking school manager and I’m very proud to say that our team worked hard to make Central Market Cooking School a success — it was named the top cooking school in the country. It was just before Food Network and everyone was hungry to be close to chefs and cookbook authors and learn from them.

We had all of the best….from Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters to Lidia Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Barbara Tropp, Deborah Madison, Christopher Kimball and many, many more. We expanded across Texas opening six more Central Market Cooking Schools. After more than 6,000 cooking classes, I left Central Market and later started my career with Whole Foods Market. I was the company’s first community relations coordinator and in my 16 years with Whole Foods, I worked in marketing, public relations and then as Communications Director for Whole Kids Foundation. A year ago, I transitioned to become Marketing and PR Director for an incredible plant-based brand, Wicked Foods. I’m loving the work and the mission. Along the way, I’ve been very much involved in the culinary community and help to start Austin’s chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, started and co-founded the Austin Food & Wine Alliance which is now the Texas Food & Wine Alliance (this is my last year as president); served on the board and was president of the world’s largest culinary professionals organization, International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), and currently serve on a James Beard Foundation Award Committee.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Following your passion always sounds good but it’s not necessarily easy. Sacrifices have to be made along the way. I was fortunate that I was so determined that I could take a chance on prioritizing passion over higher pay when I started out in the culinary field. When you leave one career to start at the bottom of another, you just can’t expect the same pay compensation. Additionally, I was a single mom and my drive to succeed meant that my family sometimes suffered.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I’m Marketing and PR Director for an incredible plant-based food line called Wicked Kitchen. Two chefs & brothers, Derek and Chad Sarno, who I worked with at Whole Foods Market, saw the need for bold-flavored and delicious plant-based foods and Tesco launched the brand in the UK to huge success. This last summer, we launched in the US in 2,500 stores nationwide (Kroger & Sprouts) creating the largest plant-based brand launch in the US with 25 products. We’ll soon launch in Finland and grow to more stores in the U.S. I love working with a company that has as much focus on mission as quality! I would like to think what I am known for is connecting great people, supporting my community, creating strong relationships and doing what it takes to support those in my world.

I’m most proud of my daughter, who also works in culinary currently on the exclusive brand’s team at Whole Foods Market. After that, I’m most proud of the people and teams that I’ve been able to help to grow and create to support our community. The Austin Food & Wine Alliance & now, Texas Food & Wine Alliance will have given more than $400K in grants to the culinary community over the last ten years. That makes me very proud.

If there is anything that sets me apart, I hope that it’s simply that I do what I say that I’m going to do. I’m very conscious of honoring commitments so that others can trust and count on me.

So maybe we end on discussing what matters most to you and why?
What matters most to me is giving back and helping to support our community. We have so much culinary talent in Austin and in our state and it’s pure joy to help provide an avenue to foster that talent. The grant program that we have created for the Texas Food & Wine Alliance provides funding to support culinary innovation and community giveback projects. We have helped fund the state’s first organic apple orchard, the first-USDA salumi produce in Texas, the state’s first locally grown and malted barley, a volunteer program teaching farming skills to diverse populations and culinary students…and the list continues.

Additionally, each year we host the Culinary Arts Career Conference, which allows 800+ high school students in culinary arts programs each year to attend a full day of free programming to meet and gain inspiration from culinary professionals and top chefs to food editors to butchers to food truck owners…all eager to share their knowledge to inspire the next generation.

All of this is what matters to me!

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