“I was writing like I’d write a letter to a friend”
It all goes back to waffles.
Earlier this fall, Renée Kohlman (Culinary Arts ’99) earned national acclaim by bringing home a gold medal from the Taste Canada Awards for her debut cookbook, All the Sweet Things: Baked Goods and Stories from the Kitchen of Sweetsugarbean. But Kohlman’s entry to the food-writing world came back in 2011. After months of hungry friends drooling over the pictures of food she would post on Facebook, the Saskatoon-based cook finally decided to give blogging a try.
A tech-savvy friend showed her how to set up her account, and in January of that year the first post on Sweetsugarbean appeared, along with the first recipe: waffles with caramelized pecans.
When she started, Kohlman didn’t have much experience as a writer. And while she did get a master of fine arts from Concordia in the ’90s, she didn’t have any formal training in photography, either.
When she started, Kohlman didn’t have much experience as a writer.
But once she got going on blogging about her take on everything from sweets to soups to salads and pretty much anything else a reader might want to make, she was surprised at how naturally the whole process came to her.
“It sounds corny, but the words just started flowing out of me,” Kohlman says. “I invited people into my kitchen, and into my life. I was writing like I’d write a letter to a friend.”
Rather than worry about technical things like maximizing her search-engine optimization to draw in the highest traffic possible, Kohlman wanted to preserve the personal touch. She wanted her blog to feel just as inviting to strangers around the world as it did to the friends who inspired it in the first place.
From blogs to cookbooks
It didn’t take long for word to spread. In spring 2012, Kohlman was contacted by the National Post for an article they were publishing about Canadian food bloggers.
At the time she was still working full time as a catering chef, so Kohlman took the call before starting her shift – not realizing that the ensuing story would declare Sweetsugarbean one of the best food blogs in the country.
“My photo for breakfast tacos was gracing the cover of the arts and life section,” she remembers. “It was a full-page, colour photo. I was so happy.”
From the beginning, Kohlman has seen her blog as a jumping-off point for other opportunities in the food world. She still works as a part-time pastry chef for a café in Saskatoon, but now writes regularly about food for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Culinaire magazine, and does recipe development for a variety of commodity groups (lentils and flax, for examples) around Saskatchewan. Most of these, Kohlman says, were a direct result of Sweetsugarbean.
“The blog changed my life.”
“Honestly,” she says, “the blog changed my life.”
One of the people who read about Kohlman in that National Post story was Taryn Boyd, publisher of the Victoria-based press TouchWood Editions.
“I was completely drawn in by her honesty, her vulnerability, and of course her recipes,” Boyd says. Not only were the recipes well written, “but her aesthetic was gorgeous: romantic and pretty food styling that was also totally down to earth. I just couldn’t help but really like her.”
Boyd also noticed that Kohlman was one of the few bloggers mentioned in the story who hadn’t published their own cookbook yet. So she sent Kohlman an email to see if she might be interested. A few years later, in April 2017, All the Sweet Things was born.
Standing out on the shelves
If the world of food blogging is crowded, that goes double when it comes to cookbooks, which flood the market with new titles every year.
Luckily, Kohlman was able to fall back on the same thing that had allowed Sweetsugarbean to thrive in the first place: her personal style, both as a baker, and as a writer. The book stood out as a result, with Canadian Living calling it “an essential addition to our list of must-have cookbooks.”
All the Sweet Things is full of stories from Kohlman’s life, from losing a parent at a young age to belting out U2 songs in her 20s to scare off bears in Yukon. Even the photos have a personal touch, as she took them all herself – on her iPhone.
“I always want it to sound like the reader is in the kitchen with me,” she says.
"I didn’t want readers to feel any pressure to be perfect."
“A lot of people find baking challenging, and I want to be there cheering them on. I didn’t want readers to feel any pressure to be perfect. Especially when it comes to things like pie. Go in there and do your best. People don’t really care if they have horrible pie – they care that you’re making them pie!”
Now, with a national award under her belt, Kohlman is posting a little less often at the blog and starting to look ahead to future projects. She’s already covered the sweet stuff. So for her next cookbook, Kohlman is thinking savoury.
Renée Kohlman's brown butter spelt brownies
"I’ve been baking brownies since the days of big hair and bigger glasses – back when the AM radio station in my town played a lot of REO Speedwagon," writes blogger and author Renée Kohlman.
She's refined her recipe in All the Sweet Things, the debut cookbook that earned her a gold medal at the 2018 Taste Canada awards in the category of single-subject cookbooks. Kohlman was kind enough to share it, assuring us, that they're "ever so fudgy."
It's a simple recipe: nine ingredients and four steps. Give it a try and enjoy!