The Interviews | Episode 1: Catie Cohen

As promised, here is my first career and life decisions interview. I hope you enjoy and learn something new; I know I definitely did. Catie is a great conversationalist and a very insightful individual!

I first heard of Catie through one of my college best friends, Katia. After my junior year of college, most of my close friends landed internships in Houston, TX while I was alone interning in Ohio. Katia and Catie met that summer. Upon the return to college for senior year Katia constantly talked about how interesting and funny Catie was and how much I would like her.  Originally, I was jealous that she was usurping my title as the “funny friend”, but then I met Catie myself after moving down to Houston post-grad. She was everything Katia had described and instead of being jealous I was just excited I got to be her friend too!

Catie currently works as the Front of House Manager at Pondicheri Bake Lab, which happens to be one of my favorite restaurants in Houston serving Indian Fusion cuisine.  As manager, she’s involved in all areas of the business. She has worked the food preparation for both the Savory Shift and the Pastry Shift. She coordinates and assists with teaching the cooking classes offered by the restaurant. She also asked me to plug the restaurant’s food blog that she is responsible for, India1948.com. While Pondicheri has been her main focus in recent months, the rest of her time is involved with other food related side projects including teaching her own cooking class (primarily plant-based) and personal catering.

Catie is impressive, talented, courageous, generous, funny, empathetic, and ambitious.   But the main motive for choosing Catie as an interviewee for this project revolved around her massive career change. I genuinely admire the grit and courage that she needed to have to shift from the engineering world into the culinary and health world.

The juxtaposition of these two fields had me curious about her childhood aspirations and what motivators in her life led her to engineering. Like most kids, I’m sure the answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” changed a few times. Catie confirmed that her dreams jumped around a lot. Her earliest career goal was to become a veterinarian due to her love of animals; however, her parents pointed out the significant amount of schooling required for the profession.  Next, her thoughts shifted to zoologist; however, by the time college applications were due she instead toured schools as a business major.  Ultimately after her math and chemistry teachers highlighted her aptitude in these subjects, she landed on chemical engineering. Catie cites both her love of approval and the desire to take on a challenge (chemical engineering is often referred to as the hardest engineering) as the enticing factors that solidified her decision.

In an attempt to parallel her life to my own, I asked if her parents had encouraged her to go into a specific field.  Catie’s dad works as an MRI technician while her mom works in the financial world. She emphasized that both of her parents never imposed expectations on her. They always let her explore her own interests without suggesting the stereotypical “smart kid” careers of doctor or lawyer. In general, her parents only wanted a career that would enable her to support herself.

Catie’s dad often thought she would delve into a creative field given her love of jigsaw puzzles at a young age.  Her parents had to train her to say “good morning” before she would consume herself with a puzzle immediately after waking up.  With her dad’s assumption in mind, I asked if she ever seriously thought about going into the creative field early on. She summed it up as not really, “I went where people said I would be good.”  Many of us have been there—forced to “choose a path” at 18 years old with very little life experiences to reference.  We don’t really know what we want to do and everyone else seems to know more, so we do what they tell us sounds like a good idea. You only know what you see—what your parents do, what your neighbors do, what the doctors, pharmacists, and other local professional do.

After a few chemical engineering internships and one year of full time work in the oil and gas field, Catie questioned if engineering was everything she thought it would be. She describes originally believing that you weren’t supposed to like work. She quotes a saying her grandfather would say, “If it was fun, they’d call it fun but it’s work.” At first, she was captivated by earning money, being independent, and living in a new place, but once the enthusiasm for those things faded, she starting asking herself other question about what she was doing for 8-10 hours a day. That’s when she realized she needed something else but didn’t have any idea what that could be.

While the mentality of believing work should be fun is often associated with entitled millennials, I like to look at it from a different perspective. Yes, our parents and grandparents likely had a harder time financially and were often happy to have any job to provide for their family. I know this is especially true with my dad who grew up fairly poor. He didn’t have time to worry about “do I love my job?”  He was worried about making a life for his children that was better than his own life (for which I am extremely grateful).

Allow me to be pedantic for a second and reference the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Many of my peers grew up with lives better than their parents and grandparents. Worrying about getting by was never a concern. With that need satisfied we are able to focus on the next tier in the pyramid, the more existential concerns of being fulfilled by our work. It’s not the new trope that millennials aren’t willing to work, they just want to work for something that’s worth it.

Catie combatted her lack of direction, by diving into her other interests. She soon discovered a new way of plant-based eating and loved the way it made her feel. She wanted to share what she had found with other people. She explored multiple avenues within this interest.  Trying all these new things gave her the confidence to believe there was something out there for her besides engineering.

Many people get to the idea phase, “maybe I’ll do something else”, but they struggle to act on the thought.  Not Catie.  Catie executed.  She made it look easy; she explains that it wasn’t.

The whole process from idea to execution was about 2 years of figuring it out. It required a lot of exploration and an investment of some money, which she acknowledges that she was lucky to have. She first looked into becoming a nutritionist or registered dietitian, but was deterred by the fact that those routes would require her to leave her secure job, a leap she wasn’t willing to make at that time. Among the things she did pursue was receiving her Holistic Health Coach Certification through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. This was a one-year online program that teaches different dietary theories through a blend of psychology and nutrition. This year of studying reinforced her love of all things health. She also wrote blog posts and enrolled in personal development classes.

Step 1 was exploring her interests. Step 2 was being more money conscious. She had to come to terms with that fact that the new career path was less lucrative than her current career path.  It’s definitely hard to separate from the idea that money is not the only (or a good) measure of success. Transitioning from the academic world of high school and college where all achievements are assigned a numerical grade, it seems natural that another numerical ranking (salary) tends to take its place as a measure of accomplishment.

However, once the decision was made to make the jump, there were still some other struggles to overcome. This is the one time she remembers having contention with her parents about her career. They were proud of telling people that their daughter was an engineer. They were relieved to know she was going to retire with a good sum of money. Naturally, as parents do, they were initially worried about their daughter not being able to live on her own. Catie explains how she was gung-ho to accept the very first job offer she received after deciding to leave engineering. Her parents understandably thought this was rash. However, once they could see she had put in a lot of thought and done a lot of homework, they slowly came around to the idea but still encouraged her to wait for the right job offer.

Then there’s the pesky idea of being judged that I think most of us deal with. Catie describes that engineering used to validate the need to look smart. She enjoyed looking smart. Who doesn’t? By saying you’re an engineering, it was an easy way to appear smart without people having to get to know you. To be clear, Catie is still very smart but she says it’s only been about the past 5 months where she’s finally felt okay to stop telling people, “I work at a restaurant but I used to be an engineer.” She also enjoyed the aspect of engineering that made her feel unique—being in a man’s world. It felt like she was helping to bring women into this uncharted territory.  Approval from others shouldn’t be a reason for doing things. Obviously, easier said than done.

Another trait I admire about Catie—the fact that she was willing to be flexible and let her new journey change. She started out with a vision in her mind that she was going to be in her words “Catie Cohen, the health coach, changing women’s lives, helping them love their bodies and not fight with food.” She also somewhat thought that she would be paid really well to do it and not have to worry about money. She talks about gaining her first few clients. It didn’t go as easily as she had hoped. Charging money for her services always felt awkward and she always had a nagging insecurity that she wasn’t being as effective as she wished.

Slowly, she started spending less time on her own wellness business and more time at Pondicheri. At first, she told people she was leaving engineering to start her own business and her job at Pondicheri was something to pay the bills.  She progressed from counter server to someone taking ownership over tasks using organizational skills and leadership. She literally enjoyed going to work, something she hadn’t thought possible before. Based on this new enthusiasm, she shifted to give more energy to the restaurant and less on things she found she didn’t like as much—yoga teaching and health coaching. She realized she didn’t need to desperately overload her plate to prove something to everyone skeptical of her job transition. She could slow down and focus on the one or two things that interested her.

She was able to discover that working at a restaurant or café was a great way to insert yourself into people’s health routines—the goal she was looking for all along. The idea of being part of people’s day and getting to show them good food that also makes you feel good, really tied it all together.

What went from a very clear thought of become a health coach has turned into a go with the flow career that is all things food. There’s so much that she wants to learn about food and new things that she wants to do all the time. She describes it as “dabbling”. She recently has been into bread, she even brought me some homemade sourdough during our interview! Lately, she’s just been trying new things as they come up if they sound interesting—like the catering—but she’s also not necessarily seeking things out. One day I’ll have to ask what it’s like to be go with the flow.

My final discussion point is around work-life balance because it’s something that I’m fascinated and conflicted by. I think there’s two ways to look at it and the pendulum swings on which way I feel. The first way is that “work” and “life” are two separate entities. You have a career that you can at least tolerate and maybe find somewhat interesting. But mostly, it’s just a means to be able to do the other things you enjoy in life.

On the other hand, there’s the type of people I’m often envious of that seem to have found their one passion in life that they can dedicate everything to (musicians, CEOs, doctors, etc.). They don’t need work-life balance because they are okay with their work being their life because it’s something that contributes to society in a way that fulfills them. I can feel jealous of these people at times because it seems that it’s very clear how their work is beneficial and they don’t have to go through the existential crisis of “does what I spend most of my time on even matter.”

After a long essentially monologue of a question, I finally let Catie answer. I’m curious as to her take on the topic of work-life balance. I want to know how she feels about potentially having to sacrifice a lot of her time and other interests for her new career, since it’s very self-made at this point. Does she feel as if she’s found her passion?

She expresses that she can also see it both ways but that her perspective has evolved since first entering the work force. When she was working as an engineer she definitely saw the need for a balance. She wanted more life and less work. But now in her new career, she’s so excited to be doing what she’s doing, she says she doesn’t think about it as much and more just thinks about rest. She’s also really thankful that what she does for a living, complements what she enjoys doing outside of work. She doesn’t view her career as one specific thing but more as a broad interest –food.

“I enjoy bringing food to people in some way shape or form that feels good to them. To me there’s so many facets of that I don’t feel like I’m going to dedicate my life to this one thing and it’s going to be this solitary one thing and I’m never going to stray. I feel like there’s all these little branches. To me it feels very broad and exciting and I really like the idea that my work and my life fold in together.”

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Bonus Content: Volunteer Work

While this doesn’t necessarily go with the theme of the piece, I’d like to quickly highlight the volunteer work that Catie is involved in. This is just another way that she takes her passion of food and demonstrates another facet of it.

She started an outreach program called “Spread the Health” originally as a project for her personal development class. The initial mission of the program was to teach people in low income situations how to cook plant-based food in a really delicious way. Through her Houston running group, she met Theresa who founded the organization Bel Inizio. According to their website, Bel Inizio “helps disadvantaged women develop self-confidence and life skills through fitness and nutrition. Participants train to complete a 5K, which helps prepare them for the ultimate race — the race for a better life.”

Through Theresa, Catie was introduced to the organization Brigid’s Hope which serves low income women who are transitioning from incarceration for non-violent crimes to self-sufficiency. This group of women experienced the first Spread the Health program cooking class. After the success and interest in the first class, Catie started to expand the organization’s reach by teaching more classes for Brigid’s Hope as well as yoga, nutrition, and cooking classes at Santa Maria another Houston based recovery center.

Catie describes her outreach as not having one specific focus, she just wants to help women who have had other circumstances in their life have access to all of the beneficial things holistic health has to offer. I’ve had the privilege of helping out during some of the Spread the Health events and it’s amazing to see Catie in action. Her enthusiasm and ability to engage with these women is really remarkable. It’s always interesting to see the skeptical looks of the women when they hear the food will be prepared without any animal products. By the end of the evening though, everyone is having a fun time, asking questions, and pleasantly surprised at how good the food tastes and how affordable it can be. Despite the hardships that these women have endured in their life they are always very friendly and very engaged. I ask Catie how she thinks she’s able to connect so well with these women especially since she’s introducing a foreign concept that’s bound to garner skepticism. She’s a little uncomfortable that I’m forcing her to compliment herself but she attributes it to the fact that she’s able to introduce humor and make the atmosphere light-hearted and fun. She also emphasizes how much she respects what these women are accomplishing. She realizes when comparing her “hardships” to what they’ve been through, it’s nothing, but they’re still able to be very happy and grateful people. “Their mentality is amazing. I think that they know that. I’m not there looking down on them. I admire what they have and I want it.”

 

 

 

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