We Create Birmingham: Katherine Cobbs

Photo Credit: Ambre Amari
"Moving here and immediately being immersed in the food scene with local chefs allowed me to really get to know Birmingham, Alabama, and the South through this culinary lens. It was indoctrination by food!"

Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photos by Ambre Amari

There’s a saying that a kitchen is the heart of a home. For cookbook author, recipe developer, and editor, Katherine Cobbs, it’s the heart, laboratory, and office. Katherine’s illustrious career in publishing took her across the country twice — from the National Geographic offices in D.C. to Weldon Owen Publishing in San Francisco, and landing at Time Inc. in Birmingham. Here in the Magic City, Katherine has cemented herself as a key culinary contributor — co-writing cookbooks for some of the south’s most influential chefs and publications. The founding partner of Blueline Creative Group, a collective of publishing professionals who produce content for media companies and lifestyle brands, Katherine is set to release her latest collection of recipes titled Pantry Cocktails this May with illustrations by a local artist and bits of her personal stories. Over coffee at her kitchen table, Katherine reflects on the experiences, inspirations, and influences that are the key ingredients to her work.

You have authored and developed a vast amount of recipes throughout your career. Our relationships with food usually begin early in our lives. Where did your love for recipes begin?

I grew up in Oklahoma City. My dad was a Presbyterian minister, and my mom was a schoolteacher. I have to credit my parents for encouraging my curiosity and love for food. Oklahoma, in those days, was kind of a wasteland when it came to cuisine. I believe it was the fast-food capital of the country during the late 70s and 80s. My mom and dad were big foodies, but restaurant options were limited. My mom collected cookbooks. She was really into Julia Child, James Beard, and Pierre Franey — all of those French Continental chefs. My parents loved to host wine and cheese parties — that was a favorite way for them to entertain!

Dinners in our house were always sit-down affairs, sometimes formally set with complete place settings and even finger bowls for fun. Because Dad was a minister and had this congregation of people, my parents entertained a lot — especially older people who didn’t have any family nearby. So, it was rare that it was just the four of us at the dinner table on the weekends.

My folks really loved to travel. My older sister studied abroad in Vienna. So, we went and ate our way through! My parents really got the travel bug after that and just started going everywhere — Oregon, San Francisco, a sabbatical at UC Berkeley, and abroad. Travel expanded their tastes beyond traditional fine-dining fare. Dad started buying Vietnamese and Thai cookbooks, and he had a huge vegetable garden in our backyard where he’d plant obscure seeds and grow uncommon things. This was pre-Internet, so he’d tear out pages from my mom’s cooking magazines or watch cooking shows on PBS and write down the recipes. And special occasions were always marked by culinary experiences. When my sister graduated, we loaded up in our wood-paneled Datsun station wagon and drove from Oklahoma City all the way to Manhattan to eat at Tavern on the Green, Sardi’s, and the 21 Club.

How about your work in publishing? What led you into editorial work?

After college, I moved to D.C. where I was a conference planner for the Smithsonian. It was like being a wedding planner over and over and over again. After a year, I was completely burned out and I wanted to travel. I went to France and worked Le Vendange — the annual grape harvest in Bordeaux. My sister had married a Frenchman, and he helped me find a place to stay. A childhood friend who was fluent in French went with me, and a family friend of hers was on Lance Armstrong’s team, so he wanted to go too and ride. So the three of us lived in a little house on the grounds of the chateau, picking grapes during the day, riding bicycles, and eating too many croissants. I moved on to Aix-en-Provence to be a nanny for a time and then went to Paris until my money ran out. Overall, I was there about eight months — not a long time, but I loved every minute.

When I left France, I moved back to D.C. and took a job with National Geographic. That’s really where my publishing journey began. While I was there, I worked for five magazine editors. To help them prepare for story assignments, I would spend hours in the research library pulling information about the places they were headed, and, just for fun, I would come up with lists of places they might want to eat too. The Washington Post was delivered to my office daily and I couldn’t wait for Wednesday’s food section. This was before media was online, so I would spend my lunch hour typing up the recipes that looked good and soon had filed away quite a collection. My roommate and I hosted lots and lots of dinner parties in our tiny Capitol Hill apartment.

It often takes a risk to yield a reward. What was a moment of risk in your career that paid off? 

I’d gotten tired of D.C., and I decided to pack up and move across the country with my roommate to Austin, Texas. We had everything we owned packed in a big moving truck and drove to Dallas to stay with some friends one night on the way. That truck was hot-wired and stolen in the middle of the night, and everything in it was lost. When we got to Austin, I remember having this woe-is-me moment where I thought, “What have I done? I had a great job at National Geographic! And now I have nothing.”

My former boss in D.C. reached out because people had heard about what happened and had collected some funds to help me out. During the call, he mentioned that a former photographer at the magazine had started a publishing house in Sausalito, California and was looking for an editor if I was interested. It dawned on me that I had absolutely nothing to lose by taking this risk — I didn’t even have a suitcase! I flew to Sausalito and crashed with friends of friends who were chefs. When I arrived, their roommate opened the door. He was this tall, blonde, good-looking, really polite guy from Alabama. He’s my husband now. So the risk paid off right out of the gate.

I interviewed and got the job and worked there for about a year editing beautiful photojournalism books, but it wasn’t really a perfect fit. I wanted to work on subjects that interested me. One day in a Williams Sonoma store I was flipping through all of their cookbooks. I noticed many were published by Weldon Owen Publishing in San Francisco. I called the editor, told her my story, and asked if I could come in and talk to her about what she did. She told me that they weren’t hiring, but she’d be happy to have me come in for an informational interview. I did and we talked for hours. The next day, I got a call. They created a position for me as an assistant editor working on cookbooks for Williams Sonoma, Time Life, and Sunset magazine. It was a dream job and that editor ended up becoming one of my closest friends and the godmother of my first child. Another risk taken that resulted in a big reward.

After a couple of years, I took a leave from the job to go to culinary school in San Francisco. After I graduated, Weldon Owen asked me to come back to head up the editorial side of a new Internet startup that they had partnered on called Cooking.com. I was there until the birth of my first child. I was a freelance restaurant critic, recipe developer, and food writer for about a decade after that.

You moved to Birmingham and adapted into a new city with an expanding family and were immediately immersed in the culture and food of the deep south. Much like your own early epicurean experiences with your parents, how has your work influenced your daughters?

We had two of our three daughters in San Francisco before we began to consider a move. Schools were expensive, and real estate was expensive. Raising young children away from family and pushing the stroller up the hills in the fog was wearing on me, and I found myself having the blues a good bit. So, we started looking at Santa Fe (where my parents had moved) and Birmingham. I had visited my husband’s family in Birmingham many times and always loved it. Eventually, we made an offer on a house here that we found online, and when we didn’t get it, we felt so dejected! That was a big indicator that Birmingham was where we wanted to be, so we found another house and made the move.

As we were driving cross-country to move here, I got a call from Pardis Stitt who had gotten my number from my brother-in-law, Charles. They were neighbors and had been chatting about a deadline that the Stitts were facing to deliver a Highlands Bar & Grill cookbook to their publisher. Charles mentioned that I was a cookbook editor and as luck would have I was actually moving to Birmingham that week. I met with Frank and Pardis the day after I arrived in town. To say it was serendipitous would be an understatement.

I helped Frank get the restaurant recipes written, edited, and in order, often shadowing the cooks in the kitchen. We would meet on Mondays when the restaurant was closed to discuss a particular topic or we would hit the road to interview a purveyor or farmer, and then I would go home and transcribe the taped conversations and write up an essay. Frank would revise, and we’d go back and forth until he was happy. During that time, I made a lot of the recipes from the book at home. My girls were little then, but they loved the food. They especially loved dining out back at Chez Fon Fon. My four-year-old (now 22!) ended up falling in love with escargot there!

My girls have been the beneficiaries of amazing and unique epicurean experiences. Starting from a young age, my oldest loved to try anything exotic and got a kick out of bringing interesting and bizarre foods to school for lunch to freak out her friends! I would take them to Asian markets and give each girl a few dollars to pick out something that they’d never tried before. Then, we’d come home, look up recipes for the ingredients that they’d found, and then cook and eat it. Sometimes it was good and other times awful, but it was always fun!

Your time in Birmingham has been marked with some incredible accomplishments and disappointment too. Your experience has led you to continue to foster creative freelancers in your new venture as the founding partner of Blueline Creative Group.

I worked with Chris Hastings on his cookbook and went on to co-author Bottega Favorita, Frank Stitt’s second book. Moving here and immediately being immersed in the food scene with local chefs allowed me to really get to know Birmingham, Alabama, and the South through this culinary lens. It was indoctrination by food! During that time, I continued to write and develop recipes for Cooking LightSouthern Living, and Oxmoor House. I developed 75 recipes for the Garden & Gun Southerner’s Cookbook. In 2015, I was brought on as Executive Editor of the book division at Time Inc. It was a job that I would have been happy to stay in forever really, but the division was shut down four years later when Meredith Corporation acquired Time Inc. I knew I wanted to continue creating books as I’ve done for two decades, so I hung my own shingle as Blueline Creative Group in early 2019.

All along, food publishing has been my passion and there are so many talented folks in Birmingham who share that passion, so I wanted to find a way to keep the projects we love coming and continue to work together. Blueline Creative Group is a “creative collective” of freelance talent. When Blueline Creative Group lands a new book deal, I put together the team—photographer, designer, illustrator, stylists, writers, copy editors, indexer, and proofreader—to produce it. Sometimes the work is a soup-to-nuts concept to printer-ready files and other times it might just be the recipe development or photography.

In your upcoming book, Pantry Cocktails, you acknowledge the shifts and silver linings of the past year. What were your own silver linings during COVID?

Other than the unexpected pleasure of having all my kids under my roof again, my silver lining was the increase in work, specifically the production of photographic content for Simon & Schuster. When all the New York studios shut down early on, we were able to jump in and shoot content for a handful of titles—book covers or complete cookbooks. Since I launched the company in early 2019, we’ve had a hand in the production of nine titles.

I am excited about my upcoming book, which really was the perfect Pandemic project and a fun one to work on with so many taste-testers back in the house. Pantry Cocktails is a nod to being innovative with ingredients that you have on hand and to finding ways to connect and be entertained at home. Food and drink really can do that in a way that few other things can. The dedication I include in the front of the book sums it up pretty well: I raise my glass to all who hunkered down, stayed home, and got innovative in the ways they worked, lived, connected, and cooked when it mattered most… and that made all the difference.

You can preorder a copy of Pantry Cocktails at your local independent bookseller or at bookshop.org.