Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods Market, Reflects on her Career
This summer, culture editor Elaine Khosrova sat down with Whole Foods Global Cheese Buyer Cathy Strange and asked some great questions about Cathy's long and successful career in cheese. Here are the highlights of the interview, and stay tuned for video footage of the conversation!
I grew up and went to college in North Carolina, wanting to be involved in professional athletics. But the opportunities for women were mostly in teaching, so I went down the road of getting a degree in education. I’m certified to teach K through 12.
After college I workedas a tennis coach for a university in Tennessee. It was fantastic—I really enjoyed being around young individuals during an exploratory part of their life.
My mother became ill, so I went back to North Carolina to help take care of her. One of my friends was running a restaurant there and asked if I was interested in a job. Working in the restaurant, food and wine became a new passion of mine, just like sports was. Everyone there had very definite beliefs about [food] things, they read voraciously, they loved sharing things...that was really inspiring to me. It was like being among athletes who are passionate about their physical skills, about winning games. In the restaurant business, it’s a game every night.
When the restaurant was sold eventually, I went to work part time at Wellspring [market] to keep up with my interest in wine vintages. The month I went to work for Wellspring, Whole Foods Market bought them. I started working in the Specialty department, and that’s where my passion for cheese began. I couldn’t get enough of it—any cheese event, I was there...I met every cheesemaker possible, I learned whatever I could.
I’ve been with Whole Foods Market now For 22 years. Working with our team members [employees] and producers is the most exciting part of my job. It’s a mutual sharing that’s really inspirational...and mentoring is like coaching, it’s a transferable skill from my earlier career. Just because I have a title doesn’t mean my goals and our team members’ goals are not the same.
When people ask me, “What’s the best cheese?” I say, “Show me the healthiest animal. And someone who respects and takes care of the land.”
I think that consumers should have the option to choose raw-milk cheese.
We do know that there are pathogens that potentially can be harmful if good sanitation and manufacturing practices are not followed. But cheesemakers are intensely dedicated individuals—they follow pH, they time things, they’re acutely aware of the protein balances or when the milk is off. Just being able to make a cheese from fluid milk takes a lot of dedication and understanding of microbiology, so they are avid cleaners...I don’t think you find that as much everywhere else in food production.
I love all sports cars. But years ago I found a ’97 XJL6, and re- storing it became a great project of mine...baseball stitching, leather seats, all the details.
As a kid I used to wonder who owned these cars.
My dad was a paratrooper, and as kids we’d watch him jump and we’d find things in the military fields. There were sharks’ teeth everywhere. Ever since then I’ve been hunting fossils. I have about a thousand in my collection. I don’t just go to quarries, as most people do...I like to sea kayak out to the barrier islands in North Carolina and actually sift through the sand. Every time I find a fossil it feels like a treasure. Touching a fossil that’s eight million years old puts so many things in perspective. It’s really peaceful and satisfying.