Putting Austin on the culinary map
Award-winning news journalist to food writer. Cooking-school director to culinary consultant. Public-relations specialist to community-relations analyst. Food-community volunteer to president of a pre-eminent international culinary organization. Cathy Cochran-Lewis does it all and never breaks a sweat. And via her various roles and enterprises, she's been instrumental in putting Austin on the global culinary map.
Cochran-Lewis grew up in the Houston area and received a journalism degree at the University of Houston. From the mid-1980s, she has reported for Texas and Colorado dailies, garnering numerous Associated Press and state awards while covering education reform, courts, and prisons, as well as writing human-interest features. "I learned never to be afraid to ask questions," she says of her news-beat days. "People like to tell their stories."
A turning point in Cochran-Lewis' life came in 1996 when she took a solo journey to Italy, writing stories about people she met and food she experienced. "I never published those stories," she says, "but that was when I realized what I loved best – people and food." Determined to steer her career in that direction, Cochran-Lewis moved to Austin in 1996. Though lacking culinary experience, she convinced Nona Evans, then marketing director at Central Market, to hire her for food demonstrations. "I did it for three weeks," she recalls. "It was really hard work, but I loved the interaction. It was food and people."
She became editor of the store's newsletter and wrote its advertising copy. But she didn't stop there. "The Central Market Cooking School was set up but wasn't working too well. I saw that it just needed some organization and marketing. I had zero experience, but I said: 'I can do it; let me try. I can learn about cooking schools.'"
And she did. As school director, she contacted the country's best avocational cooking schools for guidance and joined the International Association of Culinary Professionals; this gave her access to the country's premier chefs, including Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Martin Yan, Charlie Trotter, and Lidia Bastianich. "In 1997, we got every single Food & Wine Top 10 Chefs to teach at Central Market," she says. "This was pre-food-television days, and cooking schools were the primary platforms for chefs. I figured out what they needed, and Central Market provided it; that's how we were so successful in getting chefs to Austin. Between 1997 and 2001, we had more celebrity chefs here than in any other small city."
Ultimately, Central Market opened six more culinary schools serving more than 100,000 students yearly, and Cochran-Lewis was director over them all. Visiting chefs learned to love Texas, and Texas chefs got valuable national exposure. And they all got to know Cochran-Lewis. Seeking expanded experience, Cochran-Lewis worked two years as an independent culinary consultant to cooking schools, chefs, cookbook authors, and food businesses. But new challenges appeared. In 2004, she moved to Whole Foods, becoming community relations coordinator for its Southwest Region and then marketing coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region. In 2008, when a position opened in Whole Foods' global public relations in Austin, she jumped at the chance to return. "I missed the food culture here terribly – ethnic foods, fresh foods, abundance of enthusiastic foodies. We take for granted what we have here, but believe me, it isn't everywhere. We're so fortunate in Austin."
Meanwhile, Cochran-Lewis served as 2008 president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, perhaps the most far-flung, influential, and complex food organization in the world, with a membership of 4,000 food professionals in 45 countries. As this demanding role ends, she looks forward to throwing her considerable energy back into local food organizations. She's a founding member of the Austin chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier and has worked with the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, Share Our Strength, the Texas Book Festival, and the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.
"From the days when I was at Central Market Cooking School, I knew part of my mission was to help Austin become a culinary center. I'm proud of the role I've had in that." And Austin is very proud of Cathy Cochran-Lewis.