Unique Culinary Careers: Claire Tansey

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote "Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food," they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book's release, they have been discovering even more interesting culinary career paths. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature: “Unique Culinary Careers.”

A well-written recipe is no small undertaking. When it comes to creating reliable, readable recipes, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of careful and thorough recipe testing. Readers and cooks quickly figure out when a publication or website isn't testing its recipes enough. Creating delicious and trustworthy recipes is the job of Claire Tansey, the food editor at Chatelaine magazine.

With her team, Claire produces a bevy of recipes for every issue of the lifestyle publication. From start to finish, the process involves careful attention and measurement to develop recipes anyone can make at home. We asked her about how she manages it all and what it’s like to work in a magazine test kitchen.

How would you describe your job?

I am a food editor for a magazine. I run our test kitchen, developing and testing every recipe. In every issue, there are about 30 pages of food content, and there are 12 issues a year. There are 50 new recipes every issue, so that’s about 600 recipes per year. I oversee the development of the recipes.

I have a team that I work with to do everything from purchasing ingredients to final copy edits. I do tasting and approving, brainstorming recipes, writing drafts, and troubleshooting recipes to see food stories completed through from concept to shelf. 

I work with a team of five recipe testers and developers who work on drafting, cooking and tasting every recipe. All of our recipes are triple tested so they are foolproof and delicious. Three different people read and cook the recipe to make them perfect. We do have an in-house photographer who does some of our food photos, but we freelance food stylists and work with photographers outside the building as well.

What are people surprised to know about your job?

One thing that people are surprised to hear is that we develop every recipe ourselves. We aren’t buying them or taking them from books. We start with a blank piece of paper. We do that for the integrity of our recipes — both in the creativity and control, we have so that they are usable and user-friendly. We’re not there when people cook it, so we control everything. That includes selecting ingredients so we can take into account health and nutrition, as well as availability so people don’t have to drive all over town to make our recipes.

It also gives us control over the wording of the recipe, which I think is a subtle art. In a recipe, you have to make sure all the info you need is there — is it a medium pot? Is it high heat? Is it uncovered or covered? And it has to be done without leading them by the hand too much. I think people are surprised by the amount of resources that go into every word in a recipe in a magazine.

What has your career path been like?

Well, it was slightly crooked. I loved food. I grew up in one of those families that loved food. I did an undergrad degree in drama, all the time working in restaurants. I found that restaurant work was not only boring but also very difficult, particularly for a woman, to get anywhere. So I did a master’s degree in English literature, again, all while working in restaurants. Eventually, I realized there was such a thing as a test kitchen, so I moved to Toronto to get into the business of recipe developing.

I freelanced for years doing everything from recipe development to teaching classes, from writing restaurant reviews to catering. And then I landed a full-time gig with President’s Choice, a line of grocery store foods in Canada, doing product development. From there I went to House & Home before I started working here. It took a while, but eventually, I realized that all the jobs that I thought were getting me nowhere, actually ended up taking me somewhere.

What inspires your recipes?

Everyone on the team loves to cook at home. So it might be, “Hey, I had some sweet potatoes in the drawer and I threw some curry paste on them. It was great we should put it in the magazine.” Sometimes we focus on seasonality. We’re always gleaning – trolling the web, reading books, and out in restaurants. We absorb all that and it trickles down into concepts we develop. Also, our palates guide us. Once a recipe has legs and we have it on the plate, we can taste it and say that it needs acidity, so we’ll add capers, or it needs crunch, so we put it on matzo.

What are some unexpected challenges?

Having to eat a lot. It’s true we love it, but we sometimes have palate blowout where you’ve tasted as much as you can. Or you’re really hungry and you approve a recipe because anything would taste good. Sometimes it’s the end of the day and you’re thinking the last thing you want to do is taste another shrimp cocktail. So you kind of have to separate tasting from your brain. It’s a weird job when your critical faculty is eating. Plus, then there are personal preferences. For example, I don’t like Chinese five spice. So I have to stop myself and ask is it right for the recipe even though I don’t like it. Another girl or the team doesn’t like raisins. We all have our own bugaboos. So it’s strange to have to be hungry all the time yet eating critically.

What qualities does someone need to succeed in a test kitchen?

It’s important to have a keen and developed palate to say this needs salt or this needs rosemary. You have to focus in and hone in on what it is that the recipe needs, not just that you don’t really like it. You need to be very specific and taste carefully. Also valuable is the ability to think like a reader and say, “You know I made this and it took me three pots. Is it really an easy weeknight recipe? Now I have three dirty pots and my cutting board is dirty.” We do all our own dishes in the kitchen so it’s part of the process to see what it’s like to cook the recipe. It also helps to have eaten over a broad spectrum and tried a wide variety of food. You have to have a natural curiosity to be trying and tasting new things.

Do you have a story about a particularly interesting day?

Last year, we wanted to do homemade marshmallows. We do a feature called “10-minute gourmet” where we feature one thing that you probably didn’t think you could make at home, but not only that, you can do it in ten minutes or less. So we’ve done things like pesto, lemon curd, almond butter, and ricotta. We wanted to do marshmallows. On the first test, it came out beautifully — light and fluffy, and they took only 8 1/2 minutes. It was perfect. Then two more people tested and it was a total flop. It wouldn’t taste as good and it would take up to 30 minutes. So we were very stubborn and we forced it. It took 27 tests to get it right. Sometimes you have to say it’s just not worth it, but because of the first test, we knew we could get it. Finally, we got it to a place where it worked. When I gave it to the food stylist, I didn’t want to tell him anything. Then he said it worked perfectly on the first try, so I knew he had it. What a relief!

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

Personally, the most satisfying thing is getting to make food and cooking both fun and easier. I think people labor under the misapprehension that it’s a chore and it’s something they should do more of but it’s so hard and they don’t have time. People really are super busy. I love providing them with super easy options and bringing joy and pleasure into cooking. Food is supposed to be fun. In 15 minutes you can make something that is delicious and nutritious, plus enjoy chopping the carrots or making the pasta. So it becomes something you view as a pleasure. And I think that makes everybody happier. If I could save the world, that’s how I would save the world.

What is your advice for anyone looking for a similar career?

Be a voracious reader. Look at every place where recipes are printed. And that’s not just in magazines. They are everywhere: newspapers, flyers, promotional items, the grocery store, online, weeklies, local papers, etc. Educate yourself on the options for you to pitch and reach out to. And when you are coking at home and inventing something, if you’re the type that doesn’t really cook with recipes just makes it up as you go, take the time to write out a draft recipe and actually measure everything. If it says a tablespoon of salt, measure it. If it says two minutes, set a timer. Because those are the measurements and standards you have to get used to when you are writing a recipe. I can eyeball a tablespoon of olive oil, and you can too, but we if we do it differently those could be make or break differences for a recipe. I think you’ll get the discipline to write it down and then follow it.

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