Cathy Cochran-Lewis takes pleasure in savoring the true nuances and flavors in food while also caring about where it came from and who created it. She also knows food is better when served to share.
Because Cochran-Lewis is a program coordinator of the Global Marketing team at Whole Foods Market, her life and work revolve around food. From her days developing Central Market cooking schools to her involvement with food-related organizations like the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, she continues to play an integral role in boosting Austin in the culinary world.
Cochran-Lewis graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Houston, which led her to a career working at daily newspapers in Texas and Colorado.
One pivotal story made Cathy think twice about her journalism career. When she was a weekend reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, she was assigned a story about a man who died in the crash of an experimental plane. Her editor ordered her to call the man’s family for a comment. She reached his teenage daughter, who broke down over the phone. “I felt like I was intruding in such a private moment. I realized I didn’t want to do this anymore.”
Cochran-Lewis’s passion for food began with her grandma’s southern cooking, and she has always loved to cook and eat. When Central Market opened in 1994 in Austin, she fell in love with it and was determined to work there. In 1996, she landed her first job in the culinary field doing food demonstrations at Central Market. However, her job dipping guacamole onto sample chips was very short-lived. She started working in the public relations and marketing department but had her sights set on developing the cooking school.
As the new cooking school director, Cochran-Lewis wanted to elevate the whole experience, so she helped bring in renowned culinary icons like Alice Waters and Lydia Bastianich to teach and give food demonstrations. At the time, the Food Network was catching on and people were becoming more engaged with food. Chefs were becoming celebrities, she noted.
For more than a decade, Cochran-Lewis was involved with the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine Festival, which brought popular chefs and food-lovers together to learn, eat and drink for a few days. In recent years, the 26-year-old festival was taken over by Food & Wine magazine, creating the Austin Food & Wine Festival.
“Austin has become such an amazing mecca of talented chefs and people who are committed to eating and cooking good food, not trash food. I’m so proud of that,” she said.
Founded in early 2012, the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, the giving arm of the festival, raises money to give culinary grants to community projects and programs. As board president of the nonprofit, Cochran-Lewis and her team raised $20,000 to fund projects like Argus Cidery, Texas’ first organic apple orchard, and Tecolote Farms, a new program that will give low- income families locally grown produce and pork from heritage breed, locally raised hogs.
One of the proudest moments in her life was presenting the grant-winners with checks. “It was amazing to hand those checks and say, ‘Here, go live your dream. Thanks for letting us help you out.’”
When Cochran-Lewis was a baby, her military father was stationed in Japan. She learned Japanese, before she learned English, from the family’s housekeeper and from her playmates. The four years she lived in Japan might have influenced her present-day palate for Asian cuisine. “I’m an extreme Asian food addict,” she said, as she happily rattled off a list of her favorite Asian restaurants in Austin: Din Ho Chinese restaurant, Dong- Nai for Vietnamese food, and Sway, Chef Renee Ortiz’s recently opened Thai restaurant.
Cochran-Lewis is a great supporter of people who are happy being themselves, no matter what their lifestyle choice. She can’t pick just one person specifically, but the gay and lesbian community has had a definite impact on her life and work. “It’s hard separating a population of your friends and colleagues, because I don’t define them by their sexual orientation,” she said. “I have quite a few friends who are part of the L Style G Style community that have brought so much artistry and creativity to the culinary world.”
In addition to being involved with the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, Cochran-Lewis makes time for other professional culinary organizations, like the Austin chapters of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a group dedicated to helping women enter the culinary field, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she’s served as president in 2008. Without a doubt, she is committed to building Austin’s culinary community.
“I want people to know that they can help build this community in a very strong and profound way by giving their time and their passion to it,” she said. “I think that’s what I hoped to have done and what I continue to do. This city matters to me.”