Photo by Rick Watson.
0311 Katherine Cobbs
Mountain Brook’s Katherine Cobbs.
Katherine Cobbs is living her dream. “I pinch myself daily because I feel so lucky to get paid for doing what I love,” she said.
What the Mountain Brook resident loves is food, and writing about it. She is food editor for Oxmoor House/Time Home Entertainment Inc. at Southern Progress Corporation in Birmingham, and has worked with chef Frank Stitt on two books.
Food played an important role in Katherine’s life even from an early age. She said her parents when she was growing up in Oklahoma City were “competing cooks.” Her mother specialized in more traditional dishes, and her father leaned towards ethnic fare. “Everything was always a production, and that was fun for me.”
After graduating from Austin College in Sherman, Texas, she moved to Washington D.C., and took a job as an event planner for the Smithsonian Institution. Her favorite part of the Smithsonian job was working with the caterers and helping plan menus for events.
She loved the work there, but it was exhausting. She decided it was time to travel. “I flew to France and took a short-term job at an amazing vineyard in Bordeaux called Domaine de Chevalier, picking grapes with the laborers during the day and living at the chateau at night,” she said. “I met so many interesting people, and every night we cooked up simple, but always fabulous, meals.”
After the grape harvest, she worked as a nanny in Aix-en-Provence for a while before heading to Paris where she stayed a few months with her sister and her new French brother-in-law. “It was a wonderful experience that impacted me in many ways,” Cobbs said.
When Katherine returned to the U.S., she landed a job as an editorial assistant at National Geographic. “It was a phenomenal two years of learning the ropes of magazine publishing.” She did research for the magazine and wrote captions and blurbs, which she said was exciting at that stage in her young career. “It was a fun place to work--the sort of place it’s easy to get too comfortable in and never leave.” A wise editor encouraged her to get as much experience as possible with different publishing outlets, and she moved on. As it turns out, the advice helped to move her a little closer to Birmingham and her dream.
She was in the process of relocating to Austin, Texas—which would put her nearer to her parents—but something strange happened on the way to the Lone Star State. The rented moving truck was stolen, along with everything Katherine owned except for the clothes she was wearing.
The loss threw her for a loop, but it also changed the course of her life. She remembers “being down in the dumps for a while and thinking, ‘What have I done? I just gave up this great life and job to move here, and now I’ve got nothing.”
Then she received a call from one of the editors at National Geographic who had learned about her loss, and told her about an editorial position at a new publishing outfit in Sausalito, California.
She flew to the West Coast and quickly landed the job. Nowadays she wonders how different things would be, had the truck not been stolen, but friends have pointed out that life often throws curves and pushes us in one direction or another. This particular curve was especially fortuitous for Katherine because she met her future husband, John Cobbs, a native of Mountain Brook, on the day she landed in California. “Serendipity, for sure!” she said.
It was during her time in San Francisco that her dream began to take shape. “Eventually, I knew I wanted to somehow fuse my love of food and writing into a single job,” Cobbs said. She took an editor’s position at a cookbook publishing house in San Francisco and began working on cookbooks for Williams-Sonoma and Time-Life—then left that position to attend culinary school there. After graduation from culinary school, she helped launch the website www.cooking.com that still exists today. She also freelanced as a food writer and recipe developer.
It was during this time that Katherine and John began to look for a place that was less expensive to live, and better suited for raising their two young children. They considered Austin, near Katherine’s family, and Santa Fe, N.M. But then, with the help
of his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Glenn Cobbs, they found a house for sale in Mountain Brook—John’s hometown.
They made the move in 2003, and in their first week here, through a set of coincidences, Katherine was asked to meet with chef Frank Stitt, who hired her as ghostwriter for his first book, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.
“We’d meet weekly over coffee, pick a topic or two, and then talk,” Katherine said. She audio-taped their conversations and later wrote essays based on them. “Frank is so eloquent and passionate about what he does, it’s infectious.” Katherine “loved working with Frank, his wife Pardis, the cooks in the kitchen, and the other folks there.” For Stitt’s second book Bottega Favorita, he made Katherine his co-author. The success of those books helped land her next gig as co-writer of Chris Hastings’ book, the Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook.
During the seven years of writing chefs’ books in Birmingham, Katherine also wrote for Portico and Birmingham magazines, eventually becoming Food Editor of the short-lived magazine Thicket. Last January, with the faltering economy, she decided to return to a full-time, salaried position and took on her current job at Southern Progress.
Her current role is to help conceive, develop content, and see projects through the editorial process each season, mostly for the Southern Living brand. She has several pots on the stove, editing-wise, including an upcoming book with Todd English, a chef from Boston, who owns restaurants in New York and internationally.
Katherine does have interests outside of writing about food. She loves to exercise and when they first moved to Mountain Brook, she spent time running on Jemison Trail to acquaint herself with her new surroundings. Lately she’s become interested in CrossFit exercise which has a food component. She also enjoys preparing meals with family and friends. For that, she says she never cooks from a recipe, but may use one as inspiration. “I like to use a recipe as a jumping off point,” she said. She usually goes to the grocery store or farmer’s market to see what’s fresh and appealing, then builds her menu around that.
If the guests are from out of town, she leans toward fresh seafood, but if they’re local she often does ethnic food—which might be Vietnamese, Thai, or Indian. “I love it all. First and foremost, it depends on what I have access to, and secondly, my audience.”
Katherine says she not only loves her work but also loves living in Mountain Brook with John, a web developer with Luckie & Company, and her three girls, Parker, Ella, and Adeline. “I almost feel like I’ve moved to Mayberry,” she said with a laugh. “When my parents, John Ed and Jean Withers, visit us here they feel like they’re back in 1955 when people dressed up to go to church. They love that our children say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir.’”
In fact, she says Mountain Brook is such a well-kept secret that she’s hesitant to tell outsiders just how enjoyable it is to live here.