Meet Cathy Strange, the Person Behind Whole Foods’ Unbeatable Cheese Selection
Name: Cathy Strange
Location: Austin, TX
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 2 (Cathy and her partner)
Avoidances: Cathy is allergic to crabs.
Cathy Strange, the Vice President of Specialty Product at Whole Foods (including cheese, olive oil, and adult beverages), has the kind of job most people only dream of: eating cheese for a living. (Um, where do we sign up?) As part of the gig, she travels the world in search of the best cheeses (and much more!) to stock in stores around the country, so shoppers like us can try them too.
We got a little taste of what life is like for Cathy in her Austin home, conveniently located right near Whole Foods HQ. Read on to find out her favorite cheese to snack on, the one cheese no cheese board is complete without, and her secret weapon taco filling (hint: It’s cheese).
You have held various roles at Whole Foods — including “global cheese buyer,” which sounds amazing. How would you describe your role now?
I’m the Vice President of Specialty Product and Innovation at Whole Foods, so I handle a lot more than cheese — but cheese is a big part of it. On a normal day, I’m at my desk at 7:15 a.m. and ready for a day of conference calls with Italy about prosciutto, or working on our world-class olive program, or figuring out pairings for our adult beverage program. Other days, I’m traveling to other countries for events like the World Cheese Awards. We’ve got a lot going on, so I’m never bored. It’s all so exciting.
In your experience, is there such a thing as too much cheese?
I eat cheese every day! It’s funny, though, I think my partner loves it even more than I do. (I didn’t think that was imaginable.) We’ve definitely had cheese for dinner before, but in that situation it’s more of a cheese board, with nuts, honey, salami or cured meats. You can even have cheese for dessert. We’ve done that too.
Speaking of cheese boards, is there one cheese no cheese board is complete without?
I’ve found that consumers just love soft-rinded cheeses. And that doesn’t only mean Brie! It can be a goat’s milk cheese or some other soft-ripened cheese. Super tasty.
What kinds of things do you eat during the day (other than cheese)?
Since I’m at work pretty early, I have a macchiato. I like just a little bit because I love the flavor of coffee, but the milk needs to be perfectly steamed. (I’m a bit of a perfectionist in that way.) Then for lunch, I’ll have a salad. Always arugula because I love bitter. For dinner, I don’t like to dine alone, so I’d probably go out somewhere locally with friends. I like to support women chefs and restaurateurs and say “We have your back.” (I’m a former president of Les Dames d’Escoffier, Austin.) Eating out is an opportunity for me to keep up my social life beyond work partners. But I also love to cook at home when I can.
On weekends, I love to make eggs with cultured butter and Boggy Creek Farm eggs. I’ll put in some sautéed spinach, onion, mushrooms, San Marzano tomatoes, and have it with buttered Easy Tiger French Bread and Quadrello di Bufala, which is a semi-soft water buffalo cheese from Italy.
- Biggest challenge in eating? Not enough time to eat everything I want to! I have a busy schedule and travel quite a bit for my job. I prefer to enjoy nutritious foods that give my body energy while also sharing, relaxing, and talking with friends. Traveling so much makes that difficult.
- How much do you cook at home every week? I cook at home every weekend. During the week, probably 3 or 4 times.
- 5 things on your grocery list every week? There’s always some kind of cheese on my list! I also always shop for arugula, onions, sunflower seeds, and yogurt. My partner loves to start her day with blueberry or raspberry yogurt.
- Where do you shop, primarily? Whole Foods, always. My office is right above it! I also go to Boggy Creek Organic Urban Farm Stand on Saturdays.
- What’s the last food thing you splurged on? I just got back from the 2019 World Cheese Awards in Bergamot, Italy, and the winner, Rogue River Blue, is definitely a splurge. It’s only made one time per year, it’s hand-wrapped, and it’s delicious. I came back and bought some. Also, when fresh truffles are in season, that’s definitely something I splurge on. You shave some on pasta, along with some first-press olive oil and Maldon sea salt flakes. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
- Top 3 default dinners? Since I live in Texas now, tacos for sure. I also love a super salad (always with arugula). And pasta. It’s the number-one convenience food.
- Favorite kitchen tool? Cheese knives.
- Favorite tea? I’m really digging some of the island fruit teas from Whole Foods. I like hibiscus, hot or cold. It’s really refreshing and it has a personality.
- Best underrated snack? This is going to sound funny, but Parmigiano Reggiano is my perfect snack. It has protein and is easy to digest! I also like an avocado for a quick snack or roasted and salted sesame seeds.
- Favorite thing to eat while watching TV? Have you ever had Siete chips? They’re incredible. I like to have those with a fresh salsa. I cut up a tomato, some onion, cilantro, olive oil, and make my own.
- Best cookie of all time. When I travel, I like to try what’s unique to the area. I had these melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies in the Czech Republic. But I grew up eating chocolate chip cookies, so they’re an all-time favorite.
- Cookbook you actually cook out of? I’ve always enjoyed The Silver Palate Cookbook. I also love the Cowgirl Creamery Cooks book. Their pancake recipe is outrageous — the best I’ve ever had. I also love, of course, The Joy of Cooking and everything by Julia Child.
- Who does the dishes in your home? I clean as I go! I’m the perfect host, cook, and cleaner! [Laughs.] When I’m through with the pan, I immediately wash it. Within 10 minutes of dinner, the dishes are done too. I grew up in that kind of environment — take care of it now and don’t worry about it later.
What’s your cooking style?
I like to create meals out of whatever’s is in the fridge, so we eat super seasonally. I don’t really make a plan unless we have other couples coming over to have dinner with us. I’ll just create something I’m in the mood for depending on time. A lot of the time, that means tacos — we do live in Texas! I love to take a whole-wheat tortilla shell and fill it with whatever I have in the fridge.
I used to cook in a restaurant, so I’m not used to making things for just two people! And that’s a problem because unfortunately, I don’t eat leftovers. I grew up in a military family with a lot of sisters and brothers, so we never had them! My partner will eat whatever leftovers we have throughout the week, though.
What’s one of the wackier taco fillings you’ve concocted?
I’ve grilled halloumi (cheese) and put it in tacos along with arugula, fresh figs, and mushrooms.
Cheese tacos! So as a Whole Foods employee, does it feel blasphemous shopping in other grocery stores?
That’s my life! When I travel, I love to visit other grocery stores. I’m very curious in general. I go into retail environments just to see how things are merchandized and presented. I love to get off a plane and drive to the closest market I’ve read about or heard good things about from friends. I’m just always inspired by that.
What I love about Whole Foods, though, is how passionate the team members and community are about food and quality. People just love what they do here. I’m really proud of our cheese mongers and certified cheese professionals. Their level of expertise is pretty amazing. For me, even if I think I know a lot about cheese, I’m not afraid to ask and learn more.
Are there any special cheeses we should keep an eye out for during the holidays?
We just started 12 Days of Cheese at Whole Foods! We work with our certified cheese professionals to pick our top 12 favorite cheeses of this past year and every day a different cheese is 50 percent off. And these cheeses are the best of the best — not pedestrian.
Thanks so much for sharing, Cathy!
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.