Cheese Head

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Cathy Strange is a rock star in the cheese world. She is an internationally recognized cheese judge and expert and is one of only a few Americans who have been inducted into the international Guilde des Fromagers de Saint-Uguzon, a distinguished guild of cheese trade professionals. Although she humbly describes her job as “travel and excel spreadsheets,” her position as global cheese buyer for Whole Foods market requires her to travel the world creating and maintaining partnerships with cheese and specialty food producers that meet the store’s strict quality standards.

Born in Queens, New York, Strange was fortunate to grow up eating New York cheddar, which her mother would use to make an amazing home-cooked macaroni and cheese with stewed tomatoes. Yet it wasn’t until working in a friend’s restaurant after college and being exposed to Italian specialty cheeses that she was hooked. She worked in the restaurant for more than seven years and “loved every second of being around food and the people associated with food.” Strange loved that there was so much history and tradition behind the food culture.

When the restaurant closed, Strange worked for three years at a nonprofit health organization that ran a hotline for communicable diseases when AIDS awareness was just beginning. She realized that she missed keeping up with wine vintages and the latest food trends and went looking for a part-time job to keep her finger on the wine pulse. A friend pointed her to Wellspring Grocery, which was acquired by Whole Foods market the month she joined. While working in the specialty foods department, she started to embrace cheese.

“People don’t understand that cheese is kind of cool and unique,” said Strange, who has become a real passionate purveyor of the milk-based food. Through Whole Foods Market, she’s visited farms that have been producing cheese longer than America has been in existence. You can still sense her awe when she describes Roquefort cheese, one of the most expensive cheeses in the world. For a cheese to be labeled Roquefort, it can only come from a little mountain village in France (less than four blocks long) and aged by the natural humidity in the local caves.

“The opportunities provided through working with Whole Foods market have been dynamic, not only in terms of my job and where I get to visit on a regular basis, but just the opportunity to learn every day,” said Strange. She loves discovering new ways to reach out to people and marvels at advances in technology. She keeps up with it very well, sharing knowledge in her blog on the Whole Foods market website. She even co-hosted a live Twitter tasting that ended up crashing the Twitter page.

Her taste for cheese seems to change with the season. “Asking a cheese person what their favorite cheese is– is really asking them what their favorite kind of cheese is today,” said strange. Her cheese du jour is the rich and creamy feta from the Pure luck dairy in Dripping Springs. “You can really taste when people care through the cheese because it tastes great.”

When Strange started with Whole Foods market, they were opening store number 11 and, 20 years later, they just opened store number 304. Part of what drew Strange to work for the purveyor of organic groceries was the team mentality. “That’s what really hooked me into this company–that sense of shared fate and working together toward a common goal. i like that type of partnership, whether it be with a producer or a community, you start out to do the same thing.”

It’s no surprise that Strange likes being part of a team when you learn that she comes from an athletic background. She played sports in school and wanted to be an athlete when she grew up. She taught tennis professionally and has attended every U.S. open for the last 25 years. In her youth, her role model was Billy Jean King, the U.S. professional tennis player who later became the first prominent professional female athlete to come out as a lesbian.

Asking Strange about her favorite sport is like asking her about her favorite cheese; there is not a sport that she does not like. She loves the exhilaration of people pushing them- selves to their physical limits. “I appreciate and respect people working hard to accomplish their goals,” said strange, a strong supporter of women’s athletics.

Like the variety of cheeses at Whole Foods Market, her interests are diverse. Strange loves living in Austin with her partner of 17 years. She loves the burgeoning food culture with its highly talented young chefs, as well as the creative people who make up the arts and music scene.

She grew up mostly in North Carolina, and returns to visit her family. Sea kayaking out to the barrier islands to look for fossils is one of her favorite hobbies. Her prize fossil is a shark’s tooth that’s about four inches long, which she demonstrates by touching the thumb and index finger from each hand together to form a large triangle. She also collects scrimshaw, which are carvings on whalebones.

Drawing inspiration from nature and the outdoors, Strange hopes to one day travel to New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Alaska. She also looks forward to writing about the history and stories that she has picked up from her travels.

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