The Big Cheese

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Meet Cathy Strange, Whole Foods Market Global Cheese Buyer

While you were chowing down on boxed mac and cheese as a kid, Cathy Strange was eating her mom's homemade macaroni and cheese made with New York Cheddar and fresh tomatoes. Cathy, a former president of the American Cheese Society, thinks this was her first foray into the irresistible world of cheese.

You'd think that delving into grad school while coaching sports would leave little time to ponder Parmigiano, but Cathy was bitten early by the food bug. After school, her passion for cheese and wine took hold and Cathy ventured into the restaurant business, working for a restaurant owned by a friend in Durham, North Carolina. After eight years, the restaurant was sold and Cathy took a brief job with a nonprofit before returning to the food world to sell wine at Wellspring Grocery, a North Carolina specialty store acquired by Whole Foods Market in 1991.

Cathy's time with Whole Foods Market has been marked by myriad achievements. She worked as a Specialty Team Member in three regions before becoming a Team Leader, then a Regional Coordinator. In 2000, with more than 20 years of food industry experience under her belt, Cathy became the Whole Foods Market Global Cheese Buyer and an expert at detecting international food trends while traveling the world to find cheeses that meet our quality standards. Cathy is also proud to be Chair of the Cheese of Choice Coalition for the American Cheese Society and a member of the Cheese Importers Association.

Thanks to Cathy, you can ask any regional domestic cheese producer in the US if they have a relationship with a Whole Foods Market store and the answer will be yes. "We're not so large that we've lost track of the smaller cheese makers," she says. We like Cathy's priorities.

Q & A: Ask Cathy

Have you ever made cheese yourself?

I've made everything except for sheep's milk cheeses. It's important to understand the chemical progression and what cheese makers go through. Making cheese is a very sensual experience — true cheese masters can touch a curd and tell you if it's ready. They can smell the sweetness in the milk and explain why one cheese may become a better product than another. While it's a very scientific process with a certain acid profile and chemical reactions, if the thermometer isn't working you must be able to use your senses to make the cheese.

What's so special about the cheese department at Whole Foods Market?

The passion of our Team Members and customers is outstanding. I take great pleasure in honoring their passions as well as those of the cheese makers producing the high quality cheeses we bring to our stores. Cheese takes a wonderful journey to get to our stores and our Team Members do a great job in honoring that journey. Truly natural foods like cheese should be a part of everyone's joyous experience.

What's your favorite type of cheese?

Every day it changes. When it's colder, I like heavy, creamier cheeses. I buy Parmigiano and great cheddars from all over the world. I am a typical shopper like that. I love Tallegio and Italian cheeses as well as the American artisanal selections.

What's your favorite way to enjoy cheese?

With friends! You can appreciate cheese on your own, but being able to get together and talk about it, making food a communal type of experience — that's the important part of food. There are two common languages in the world: food and music.

What's the most versatile cheese?

Cheddar. People like it on different levels. Some like mild, young flavors, and some like extra sharp English Cheddar. Gouda is also versatile, especially since you can use it as an ingredient or have it as dessert.

What's the biggest cheese myth out there?

I have a couple of favorites. 1.) American "cheese" is cheese. It's not cheese at all! It's a processed product that's not made in the customary cheese making tradition. 2.) Beer does not pair with cheese. Beer pairs deliciously with cheese! Because cheese has a rich creaminess, the beer's effervescence lifts the cream off of your tongue.

Are Americans embracing artisan cheeses more today than 5-10 years ago?

Absolutely. Americans are well-traveled and exposed more to the well-developed culture of food that other countries, especially Europe, have in place. Activities are about sharing meals with friends and business partners through long lunches and dinners. There's a different attitude about food and more of a connection about where raw ingredients come from. There's an awareness of the farm down the street. In the United States, we're a bit removed. A lot of family farms are disappearing and many children have never even seen a farm animal. Certainly our grandparents had it. Thanks to the Slow Food Movement, the awareness of natural and organic foods and the Food Network there's a culture of food starting to develop.