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Ways We Work

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Charmian Christie

Cookbook author, food writer, recipe developer and blogger

Charmian describes herself as a failed playwright and recovering journalist. Her more recognizable titles include cookbook author, food writer, recipe developer and blogger. Her book, The Messy Baker: More than 75 Delicious Recipes from a Real Kitchen was published by HarperCollins in August 2014. It was named one of the Top 10 Cookbooks of the Year by The Toronto Star and the Calgary Herald. Canadian Living named it one of the Top 11 Cookbooks for Foodie Friends. Her writing has appeared in national and international publications including The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, More, Edible Toronto, and Relish. She's also made appearances on CBC’s Steven and Chris, CTV’s Canada AM, and been featured on various websites such as, Saveur and Lifehacker.

What do you do?

I’m the author of The Messy Baker — both the book and the blog. This means I develop recipes, take pictures, write how-to articles, review cookbooks, and generally get my hands dirty on a daily basis. My aim is to take the intimidation factor out of cooking and baking, and replace it with enthusiasm. Baking is not as precise and finicky as many (most of them cookbook authors) would have you believe. There is leeway for adaptation, creativity and mistakes. By focusing on taste, not looks, I try to remove the barriers that keep people out of the kitchen.

What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?

The most rewarding part of my work is seeing people get excited about cooking. I try really hard to make recipes approachable without tasting bland. Easy doesn't have to mean boring. My best moment so far was when a young boy, about 10 or 12, bought a copy of my book for himself. It was his first cookbook. What an honour!

The challenges? It’s exhausting trying to keep up with the tech side of running a website. I’m also a one-person operation so I do the social media, the writing, the SEO, the promo and come up with the editorial calendar. I love being in charge, but there are days when I would love to have someone there to bounce ideas off and help with the non-creative aspects.

How do you stay up to date with trends in your industry/field?

For me, networking is key. I join relevant food- and blogger-focused organizations at both the local and international levels. When possible, I go to conferences and press trips for a behind-the-scene look. If timing and money work out, I try to go to one international conference a year and a small event every month or two. Reading about trends is just the start. You don't get a sense of how the trends fit into real life until you swap stories with colleagues, hear different points of view and talk to people in jobs across the industry.

On a daily basis, I read newsletters from organizations and articles/blog posts on my iPad. I use Zite mainly but it’s merging with Flipboard so won’t be around much longer.

What are your top five applications or programs?

I use a lot of programs, but my top 5 are:

Evernote: This is my electronic brain. I keep client files, clip online articles, store PDFs of articles I want to read, scan in those warranties I never know where to file, create my checklists and generally store notes that would otherwise clutter up my desk. Thanks to it’s ability to read PDFs as text, I have reduced my five bursting file folder drawers to one. I love that it syncs between my iPhone, iPad and desktop.

Dropbox: I use this to share files with colleagues and clients. I love that I can email a single link that leads to a folder full of documents and/or photos without worrying about clogging other people's inboxes. I’ve started using it whenever I want to attach a photo since my Mac sometimes spontaneously embeds images, which leads to a lot of confusion and lost time.

Scrivener: This is my writing studio. I write almost everything here. If needed, I can export it to Word — a program I loathe with a burning, irrational passion but can’t escape. I love that Scrivener allows you to be as creative as you want. You can store research and images, cate outlines, summaries and corkboards, or simply write. You can organize folders in any order and keep multiple drafts if need be. It’s truly amazing. I wrote The Messy Baker in Scrivener, and found it not only reduced the amount of time I’d spend searching for files, it also reduced my stress levels. If you write, I can’t recommend this program enough.

MarsEdit: I used to draft my posts in Wordpress itself but lost several part way through due to internet issues. MarsEdit keeps me sane. This offline editor provides an uncluttered, distraction-free writing environment that doesn’t require Internet access. Once my post is written, I send it in draft from to Wordpress, where do one more edit, and perform the extra back-end work like formatting recipes and entering SEO.

Paprika: This is my recipe database. I have a version on my Mac as well as on my iPad, which sync seamlessly. While I store my favourite recipes in it and do menu creation for personal use, it’s invaluable for recipe development. Once I have my draft version entered via the Mac, I sync with the iPad and head into the kitchen. As I cook, I adjust ingredients, record precise timing, jot down crucial visual cues that don’t occur to me while writing, and note tweaks I want to try the next time. I’ve tried doing this on paper but it ends up so splattered and smudged I can’t read my notes.

Best way to stay on top of email?

Filters and Smartboxes get me to the elusive Inbox Zero. Yes, it’s doable. Family emails and newsletters are filtered to an “After Six” inbox to be read outside work times. All potentially work-related unread emails land in the main inbox. When it’s email time, I read each email and delete it, reply right away, or flag the email “Action Required”. Action Required are emails I can’t answer right away for any number of reasons, most of which involve research or collaboration. Flagged emails are automatically moved to the Action Require inbox. I deal with them during scheduled time later. All other read emails are automatically archived. Voila! Inbox Zero.

What is your best time-saving trick?

My treadmill desk. I’m writing this walking at 1.7 miles per hour. The walking treadmill wasn’t cheap, but I rarely visited the gym, so my membership fees were being wasted anyway. Since we have no space for a traditional treadmill, this is the perfect solution. I ditched my office chair, slid the treadmill under my desk, and jerry-rigged a customized standing desk from old cupboards that had been gathering dust in the basement. Now I make 10K steps just answering email or making phone calls. I easily reach 15 to 25K when I’m writing a lot. I believe this is the only case where multi-tasking genuinely makes you more productive. The rhythmic walking actually helps keep me on task.

One non-tech thing you can’t live without?

Other than my husband and cats? My family and friends. They keep me grounded. And very humble.

What does your workspace look like?

I have two workspaces. One where I write, research, and do the mind-numbing admin tasks. And that's just half the books in my cookbook collection!

The other is where I cook, bake and get downright messy. I did clean up for the photo, but I assure you, once I've been baking there’s a fine film of flour on all the counters and drips of butter in places you have no idea it could reach.

Structure of your typical day, how do you divide your time?

I have no typical day. Sometimes I’m up early to do a TV segment, sometimes I’m home late from doing a live dinner demo, and sometimes I’m at home for days on end writing and developing recipes for a big project. Whether I’m at home or on the road, I am reading about food, tasting food and thinking about food. Thank heavens for my treadmill desk!

What is the greatest piece of career advice/wisdom you've ever received?

Pay it forward! We’re all in this together. If you view colleagues as competition you won’t go far. Generosity of information, time, and resources is the key. I’m always astounded at the generosity of the food community.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

Donna-Marie Pye and Marie Burjoski of Relish Cooking Studio