Flipping through Renée Kohlman’s cookbook ‘All the Sweet Things’, I stop and begin reading about ‘Gilbert and the Pear’. Here, Renée tells the story of a summer spent working in the Yukon at a fishing lodge, falling in love with a boy, a fellow co-worker – Gilbert. When shipments of fruit would arrive at the lodge, Gilbert would save her a pear, knowing her fondness for the fruit.
In ‘All the Sweet Things’, Renée emphasizes the connection between periods of time and phases of life and specific foods or ingredients. These stories of love, friendship, heartbreak, and confusion that are so interlinked with flavours and tastes. In fact, Renée says that in the process of writing ‘All the Sweet Things’, she started first by thinking about what stories she wanted to tell.
Reading about Gilbert and pears, I’m reminded of a Taiwanese boy I met while living in Taipei. He would buy me pork intestine soup when I was sick and bring me bags of Taiwanese fried chicken from down the street when he came to visit me at my apartment. I can’t pass by a fried chicken restaurant without thinking fondly of the Taiwanese boy now.
Likewise, Renée finishes her story of Gilbert and the pear by saying, “And that is why whenever I eat a pear, I think of Gilbert.” It’s the nostalgia that permeates throughout ‘All Sweet Things’ that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. And it’s Renée’s gift for conversational writing that pulls at my heart strings and makes me instantly like her.
The story of Gilbert and pear accompanies a recipe for Pear Custard Pie with Star Anise. As the cookbook name would suggest, ‘All the Sweet Things’ concentrates solely on desserts, pastry, and baking. When thinking about what her first cookbook would be about, it only made sense for Renée that it would focus on her first love, baking. She states, “Thinking about the stories I wanted to tell, the common thread was sweet things.”
The cookbook is filled with recipes like Chocolate Marshmallow Pie, Chocolate Smartie Cake with Fudgy Cream Cheese Icing, and Raspberry- and Cream-Filled Eclairs with Chocolate Glaze each combined with a story of its significance in Renée’s life.
Recipes like these, combined with the cookbook’s defined aesthetic deliver a warm and inviting message. I can picture myself sitting down with Renée over a pot of orange pekoe tea and a slice of her Carrot Cake with Maple Pumpkin Seed Brittle and Brown Butter Cream Cheese Icing. Renée Kohlman’s ‘All the Sweet Things’ is a refreshingly genuine-feeling cookbook.
In addition, recipes like Strawberry and Basil Shortcakes and Sour Cherry and Mascarpone Perogies with Farmstand Cream flesh out the cookbook for a comprehensive and cohesive narrative.
Renée wrote, art directed, and shot (on an iPhone no less) the entire cookbook by herself – an impressive feat. It also makes sense considering Renée’s background in art. After high school, Renée enrolled in the Fine Arts program at Concordia University in Montreal. Although an artistic flair has clearly followed Renée (as evidenced by ‘All the Sweet Things’), it was during university, that Renée discovered her passion for cooking.
She (along with her roommates) would host dinner parties for friends with recipes sent to her from home, and from vegetarian cookbooks such as The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. The joy of food and eating, and the idea of sharing this joy with friends and family, was instilled in Renée at a young age. Family time was spent in the kitchen, cooking and baking. Growing up,
Renée Kohlman was surrounded by good food made from scratch, with love. As she puts it, “My mom is a great cook, we ate really well.”
After graduating from Concordia, Renée attended Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) for their cooking program before moving onto her stint in the Yukon (enter GIlbert) in the summers, and as a chef at Rutherford House, a tea room on the University of Alberta Campus. Making her way to Saskatchewan in 2008, Renée worked as a catering chef. It was on the side of her day-to-day of cooking that Renée began to blog.
The desire to share her love for good food is what prompted Renée to begin posting photos of her dishes on Facebook. Though, she admits laughing that, “they weren’t great pictures.” Seeing these photos, friends encouraged her to start blogging her cooking and recipe adventures and from this, her blog, ‘Sweetsugarbean’ was born.
Just as cooking came naturally to Renée, so did writing. “I fell in love with writing on the blog,” Renée explains, “it was like a journal that I wanted people to read; like I was writing to a friend who lived far away.”
Renée Kohlman humbly says that what surprised her most in the blogging process was that “anyone else was reading the blog at all” and she that she had assumed that “only friends and family would be reading my blog.”
In 2013, Renée began to focus on pastry, still blogging away her delicious creations. In February 2015, Renée received an email “out of the blue” from a publisher asking her if she’d like to pursue writing a cookbook. The proposal came at the perfect time, as Renee had recently left her full-time pastry chef position and was at a crossroads in her career.
In 2017, ‘All the Sweet Things’ was published and would go on to win the Gold for the best single-subject cookbook at the 2018 Taste Canada Awards. The win felt amazing for Renée who states that it was “one of the best nights of my life, I was over the moon!” To be received so warmly and in such high regard by her peers and food writers from across Canada was an honour.
The win has helped to propel Renée’s career who excitedly shares that she has begun working on a proposal for a second cookbook – this one to focus on savoury dishes. The accolade is especially meaningful for Renée, who highlights the importance of celebrating Canadian authors and cookbooks. “There are so many talented food writers and chefs in Canada,” she says. “Awards like these will encourage more people to write and to have their voices heard.”
While garnering a prestigious award, ‘All the Sweet Things’ is anything but pretentious. It’s approachable and welcoming. Appropriately, when I ask
Renée who she says this cookbook is for, she says, “Anyone who is interested in baking. And anyone who loves to read a good story.”