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Teacher Spotlight: Lora Downie

Teacher Spotlight: Lora Downie

Words and photos provided by Olivia Bauso

Lora Downie is an identical twin, but she can’t feel it when her sister burns her hand on a hot pot. This makes life easier for her sister, considering Lora works as a full-time health coach and cooking instructor.

Food shaped the development of Lora’s childhood, and she now works to create healthy habits around traditional family favorites through her company, Wholebytes.

Meet Lora…

Tell me about yourself.

Growing up near Buffalo, NY, all of my fondest memories involve food. My heritage is mostly Mexican, Spanish, Italian and Irish. As you can imagine, every gathering happened around a table filled with gobs of deliciousness. My non-Italian Gram grew up in a neighborhood with immigrants from Italy and Poland and she learned to cook from them. So in addition to the traditional favorites from Mexico she learned from her mother-in-law, she also made the best damn sauce I’ve ever tasted and rolled pigs in the blanket like a boss. She and my Grandpa were both phenomenal, instinctual cooks - both from watching knowledgeable, confident hands. In the same way, they have passed on their knowledge to my mom, my sisters and I. Cooking is certainly a family affair. We have cook-offs just for the fun of it. We are food nerds, for sure.

I attended Rouxbe, a web-based culinary school that supplements curriculum for culinary schools around the world. They offer a plant-based cooking instruction course that helped me understand the fundamentals of making plants the focus and bringing balance into the every day.

What does a typical day look like in the life of Lora?

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen! When I’m not cooking up new recipes for myself, my family and my clients, I’m meeting with clients to support them in creating healthy habits. I’m also writing up healthy meal plans personalized to my client’s needs and cooking with them in their homes.

I love personal instruction in someone’s own kitchen environment. It’s empowering for someone who feels they can’t do something to prove themselves wrong in their own space, with their own tools. I’ve had many clients who at the end of a session will say - “Wow, I can’t believe I just did that!” Action is more powerful than words. Anyone can read a recipe or have a desire to purchase more vegetables. But actually purchasing the produce and then creating something delicious from them is far more powerful. I’m there to support them through those experiences.

How would you describe your cooking style?

I am a no-frills, technique based, home-style cook. My greatest meals have come from using what we have on hand to make a meal. I love simple one pot meals. I love having a table full of people, a huge salad and a big pot of something aromatic to serve from the center of the table. That’s how Gram did it. I love preparing something easy that is satisfying and comforting. There is a stigma around the term “emotional eating”. It really bothers me when I hear women say they need to stop eating emotionally. Eating is emotional. It should be pleasurable and comforting. But if food is your only source of pleasure and comfort, things become challenging. I believe that you can feel loved, cared for and comforted through food, but it’s all in the approach. That’s why I work with my client’s to shift that mindset of emotional eating to a healthy one.

What made you decide to make the switch from marketing to the health and food field?

I worked in Marketing for over 10 years. I learned so much and met some wonderful people, but I just felt disconnected in the end; I needed to move in a different direction. I’ve always been interested in learning about connection,  how people connect with one another, their environments around them, their spirituality. I considered becoming a philosophy, sociology or even a theater major at one time, but my grandpa told me to stick with something that pays the bills — which may or may not have been good advice. As I’ve developed as a cook, that connection point with people has come back time and time again. If you really want to get to know someone, cook with them and share a meal with them.

At the time, I was also living through an interesting phase in my life where a few challenging things were impacting my health. I decided I needed to connect these points and learn to help my body, mind and soul heal, and then decided I could live my life guiding others to do the same.

What sparked the inspiration for Wholebytes? Where does the name come from?

My health coach training focused on viewing a person’s health from a holistic perspective. Someone can eat vegetables all day but have a high stress lifestyle that is completely obliterating their health. Food habits are only a piece of the equation. One needs to look at their life holistically to experience true health. That’s where “whole” comes in, in addition to increasing whole foods, which every human can benefit from. “Bytes” is obviously a play on “bites,” but I also have a vision of soon creating an online cooking course for my clients, leveraging the power of technology to create more sustainable habits and behaviors.

How has your background in marketing helped with your new career?

Ha - funny you should ask! I feel like that’s the area I never have time for! It’s constantly falling to the bottom of the list because the food is now my focus. My website needs a complete overhaul at the moment. I love food/lifestyle photography and have used Instagram to create a photo library of my food, business and life. Whenever I meet someone new I ask them to connect on Instagram since I don’t think my website gives a clear view of who I am and what I do. I think pictures can tell a powerful story.

How would you describe your own diet and eating patterns? Do you follow a specific diet?

I think it’s important to be open minded when it comes to our food choices. Evolving with each phase of our lives and experiencing new things with food is important for our health. How do we know how we will feel or how our body will respond without trying? I’ve experienced vegetarian, vegan, paleo and gluten-free phases.

I’m currently focusing on a more Mediterranean style of eating and I find that’s working best for me right now. I do notice when I focus on 80-90% whole, Mediterranean style foods my body thanks me for it. Sadly, I don’t always achieve that! I also think that eating fresh, whole foods is a luxury in today’s world, which is absolutely ridiculous. All humans have a fundamental right to have access to fresh food. I am grateful I can purchase and prepare fresh produce and wish that was true for everyone. Food policy is something I’m passionate about and plan to do more work with in the coming years.

How has health and wellness specifically influenced your life?

I’ve lost two grandmothers to type 2 diabetes. I’ve seen how disease can impact your wellbeing and the lives of those you love most, first hand. I want to do what I can to feel well today and into my future. Do I have complete control over my health? Absolutely not. But I do know that some behaviors can impact my quality of life, so I’m choosing to prioritize those the best I can. 

I also have a 9-year-old daughter who is watching what I do. Food habits, exercise, stress management, self-care, all of it. I am responsible for giving her a solid role model. Not only for when times are good but mostly for when times get tough. How we care for ourselves during challenging phases can make all the difference.

Do you follow a specific fitness regime?

I don’t typically like regimes for the same reason I don’t like recipes: they don’t allow for creativity and flexibility. I used to force myself to go to the gym and run because I thought I “should.” There is nothing more counterproductive than doing something you hate because you think you should; it creates a miserable existence. Taking time, looking deeper and asking myself what types of movement I actually enjoy doing has worked for me.

Sadly, I also need external motivation from time to time (like, everyday), so my sister, Tracey Austin, who is a personal trainer, fills that role for me. It’s all about knowing where you need support, and getting it. She helps in the strength training department and actually makes it fun and enjoyable.  I also love to walk, I love yoga, and I really want to try Tai-Chi. I think trying new things, exploring what feels right in this moment of life is as important here as it is in the food realm.

What lead you to start teaching?

Even before I graduated from my health coaching certification, people started asking me to teach them how to cook, how to make vegetables more enjoyable, how to make more meatless meals. It was one cooking lesson after another. And I loved it. Then I started teaching classes for Cooking Matters, a program facilitated by Foodlink, and I was hooked. I teach both adult and children through this program, and the connection is like nothing I’ve experienced. We teach cooking skills and healthy lifestyle habits.

After my first class at the Rochester Brainery, I fell in love all over again. I've found the students curious, fun and so kind.

Cooking has become a life skill no longer taught. And being in the kitchen just isn’t happening as often as it needs to for American’s to be healthy. I want to create ways to make it accessible and fun.

Have you had experience teaching before becoming a Cooking Instructor?

Other than little things here and there - nope! I’m so sad I waited this long! I enjoy it so much and I learn more from my students than I ever imagined possible. I’m 40 this year, so I have some time to make up…

Lora Downie

How does teaching children and adults differ? What do you do to overcome challenges that arise with either group?

They are both very similar and very different. Style, tone and obviously content vary greatly, but the same foundation of being open and relaxed is important in both settings. I find an authoritarian style of teaching to be a complete turn off myself, so I try to create a more relational environment -  making people feel comfortable and open, and I think that sets the tone for a positive learning environment. I love teaching children because they remind me that cooking should be fun and playful, and I love teaching adults because cooking together makes your feel connected - reminds us we are not alone in our struggles or our victories.

I see you’re currently on the road… How do you think your current travels will influence your coaching and instruction in the future? What have you learned so far?

I’m finding I feel the most grounded when I’m on unfamiliar ground. Travel can be challenging and beautiful. And I think the world is our best teacher if we are open to learn. We’ve recently started a new traveling adventure “road-schooling” with our daughter, Violet. We want to expose her to different cultures and experiences so we are taking the year to move through new places, meet new people.

Everywhere I travel I try to absorb every detail of their local cuisine, not only the history and ingredients but what people think and feel about food, their everyday food habits and how they build community around food. America is such an anomaly when it comes to food relationships. We don’t have one traditional way of doing things so I think we feel scattered, confused and often afraid we’ll make a mistake with our choices. I like to learn how being rooted in certain traditions can makes us more confident and relaxed around food. We are currently in Spain and I love the lingering, late dinners that involve everyone: babies, grandparents, friends, etc. Their meals are about so much more than the food, and the food is pretty spectacular as well.

What are your best words of advice for those who are new in the kitchen?

Cooking can be frustrating when the outcome doesn’t match the effort; I completely get it. However, I’ve found it’s true that the best way to learn is by doing. Think about something hard that you enjoy doing. How did you get to where you are now? My guess: practice.

Do something, anything and do not judge yourself or the results. Read a recipe and visualize the outcome, learn from mistakes. Think about the techniques you are using and focus on getting those right. I see so many people who are so afraid of making a mistake that they become paralyzed. Turn on your favorite music, open the windows, create space for a mistake or a big success, and don’t give up. You are feeding your life as well as your body. Create something beautiful for yourself and those around you, and you will feel whole.

Want to practice your knife skills? Catch Lora’s next classes at the Brainery in January and February! You can also learn to make your own risotto in February!


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