As you may know, I recently launched a live chat series with CookieCon 2018 instructors, which debuted with cookie and pie phenom Chris Taylor on May 18. (BTW, you can check out his chat transcript here.) Well, I’m extending that chat series into our Cookier Close-ups with in-depth interviews with these same folks. Today, we’re back with Chris Taylor, picking up where we left off in his live chat.
During that chat, we learned a lot about Chris. When Chris is not working full-time as a public health researcher in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Chris is running Flour Sugar Butter, where he plans to begin making and selling cookies, pies, and other sweets later this year. His cookie sets often feature an assortment of techniques, including piping, stenciling, and handpainting, as well as playful, tongue-in-cheek designs. (To see what I mean, take a look at his pathogen and royal family cookies, directly below, and his birthday cake and other cookies later in the post!) In addition to decorating cookies, Chris is a competitive maker of all things sweet, including cakes, candies, and especially pies. Chris has earned more than 300 awards for baking at local, state, and national baking competitions, including the 2017 Best of Show Award at the National Pie Championships. He and his husband, Paul, are looking forward to the publication of their first cookbook, The New Pie, which will be released by Clarkson Potter in March 2019.
As always, our hour-long chat felt like mere minutes, and raised even more questions than it answered. So, without further ado, let’s move on to our deep-dive into the decorating life of Chris Taylor!
JMU: Welcome back, Chris! I appreciate you spending even more time with us! I want to pick up on your book once again. You mentioned in the chat that, after you won the Best of Show Award at the National Pie Championships, the New York Times wrote a story about you and Paul and your pie baking adventures. After that story came out, you were approached by a few publishers and literary agents who wanted to know if you had ever considered writing a cookbook. Why did you ultimately decide to write a book? Did you hesitate at all, or just take the leap? I ask, because book writing is a lot to tackle on top of a full-time job!
CT: I don’t know if we really hesitated at all to write the book. We both love baking and spend a lot of our free time baking and developing recipes anyway. A cookbook was a logical step for us. Besides - you only live once!
JMU: So true! I'm glad you seized the day! It’s wonderful to have had a pick of publishers and literary agents out of the starting block. Most authors (myself included) have had to search for their agents and publishers; these people typically don’t come knocking. You mentioned you ultimately worked with a literary agent, who then helped you sell the book to Clarkson Potter. Why did you decide to work through an agent rather than directly with one of the publishers who first reached out to you? What are the pros and cons of working through an agent versus on your own?
CT: While Paul and I love baking, writing a cookbook is an entirely new experience for us. Our agent (who is fabulous!) really helped us develop a great proposal and explained the publishing process to us. She gave us the background we needed to help us decide if writing a book was for us and to know if we had ideas that would make a successful book.
JMU: In the chat, you also offered up three tips to those who might want to write their own sweets or cookie books. You said: "1) know WHY you want to publish the book and what you want out of it; (2) know WHAT you want in the book and know the book market to understand how your book will be different than others like it; and (3) get an agent!"
In reference to tip #3, I searched Publishers Marketplace to find agents who represented my type of work, and ultimately interviewed a few interested agents after showing them my book proposal. But it was a long and painstaking process with several rejections along the way. What additional tips can you provide to aspiring authors for finding an agent?
CT: That’s a great question, but not one I have a great answer to! One place to start is by searching for literary agencies online to see if any agents are currently taking on new clients. Another place to get started is in books themselves. Many authors will name and thank their agents in the acknowledgements section of their books. Finding those agents might also lead someone to more literary agents.
JMU: What do you mean?! That was a great answer - I really like the tip about looking in books, especially similar books or books that you like. Very helpful! What part of the book writing process has been hardest for you and Paul? And how are you dealing with that challenge?
CT: Trying to write a clear, easy-to-use recipe can be a challenge. It’s one thing for us to write a recipe that we can follow, but there are a lot of things to think about when writing a recipe that will be used by bakers and non-bakers with varied levels of skill in baking and pie making. There’s a fine line between being clear and comprehensive and being encyclopedic and pedantic. That’s where having a great editor is such a value, because editors can help guide you through these challenges.
JMU: You’re juggling a lot with this book. How do you do it all? Can you tell us what your typical work week looks like right now? For instance, how much time are you spending on your research job versus book writing versus making and selling cookies?
CT: It depends on where we are in the process! We both work full time. When we were writing the first draft of the book, Paul would sometimes get up early to write before work. I would write as soon as I got home from work. We spent a lot of time on our Christmas vacation writing the book! We generally test recipes on the weekend - sometimes multiple recipes, because then we are able to give the pies away to friends and take extra into work on Monday to share with coworkers.
JMU: Once your book manuscript is delivered, do you envision your life changing at all? Will you be investing more or less time in cookie decorating, and why? How involved will you be in the marketing and promotion of your book?
CT: Because of the book, cookie decorating has taken a backseat at the moment! We still have a few steps to complete with the book before the draft is final and we start to see galley proofs. After that, we’ll talk with the publisher about marketing and promotion. Then comes the book release in the spring. Of course, before the book comes out, I will be at CookieCon in September where I will be focused solely on cookies! My next step is to finalize my CookieCon session to make sure that I’m ready and prepared.
JMU: We'll come to CookieCon in a bit, but one more book question . . . with your first book nearly under your belt, do you have aspirations to write another one? Or to write a cookie decorating book? Why or why not?
CT: Maybe - who knows?! I think a lot depends on our experience with this book once it's released, and if the world is ready to hear from us!
JMU: Well, I certainly expect it will be, judging from your pie expertise! Now, let’s turn to some cookie questions. You’ve tested scads of pie recipes in the process of entering all those competitions you’ve won, but what about cookie recipes? Are you also an avid cookie recipe developer? If so, what are some of your favorite cookie recipes that you’ve developed, and why?
CT: I have developed some cookie recipes, mostly drop-style cookies, but I have not tested a lot of recipes to be used for decorated cookies! I have my standard vanilla shortbread recipe that is pretty modifiable. But from a commercial point of view, I don’t plan to offer many flavors of cookies. They often can cost more money and result in less flexibility because leftover dough can’t be used as readily in successive orders.
JMU: How do you go about testing a recipe for a competition? What’s your general process, and how do you decide when a recipe is good enough to call it done? Is the recipe development process any different if you’re testing a recipe for a book instead of a competition? If so, how and why?
CT: I always start with a flavor idea. Once I have the flavor, I think about the “matrix” or how I want to deliver the flavor - is it best [delivered] as an all-fruit pie, or is it more amenable to a pastry cream or a cheesecake base, for example? After I have the idea figured out, I write a draft recipe and try making it. Generally, my rule is that if I don’t have it by the third or fourth try, I move on to something else. If I am happy with the result, then I consider it worthy of entering into a competition. For competitions, I consider things like mobility, because the competitions often involve travel or baking in kitchens that are not our own.
JMU: Why so many competitions? Are you just a seriously competitive guy, or do you have some other motivation for doing them?
CT: I honestly don’t think that I’m a competitive person! Competing is really great fun! It gives me a reason to keep creating and coming up with new ideas and recipes. Plus, we’ve met so many great people over the years at competitions, and we all share the same passion for baking. It’s a great community.
JMU: In your bio, you mentioned a few cookie decorating techniques that you tend to use most often: handpainting, stenciling, and piping in general. Which of these techniques is your absolute favorite, and why?
CT: Probably handpainting! It really gives depth to a look that is not easily created with other methods. It is time-consuming, though. Stenciling is great because a good stencil can give a clean, crisp look that’s so much faster than piping by hand.
JMU: Yes, I love the depth you achieved with your Oscar cookies, above. Just wonderful! Assuming you’ll have more time on your hands after your book is published, what particular cookie decorating techniques, if any, are you dying to explore, and why? Do you have any new cookie projects or designs percolating in your head that you’re also hoping to develop?
CT: Actually, I bought a Cricut cutter a few months ago, and I’m looking forward to trying to design and make my own stencils. I’m not looking to go into business, but I have a few ideas, and I want to challenge myself to see if I can turn my ideas into reality.
JMU: Do you have a cookie Achilles’ heel? And, if so, how, if at all, are you working to overcome it?
CT: I think we all do, and I think mine changes over time! My current shortcoming is overfilling my cookies with flood icing. When the icing sets, I get a humped ridge near the edge. I use tipless bags now, and I have to constantly remind myself to adjust the pressure that I’m using to squeeze the icing from the bag.
JMU: Now, onto CookieCon. This year will be your first year teaching there. Have you taught cookie decorating before? If so, where and what was the nature/format of those classes?
CT: Sort of. I’ve been fortunate enough to teach as a Visiting Professor at McGoo U, Arty McGoo’s online cookie decorating school. I’ve done three instructional classes with Arty. Those sessions are shorter than a CookieCon class, less than 15 minutes, so you really have to think through exactly what you want to feature.
JMU: Having a time constraint is always great motivation for cookie class prep! How else are you preparing for your CookieCon teaching debut? And can you give us a glimpse into what you will be teaching there?
CT: I plan to cover handpainted cookies, with a focus on light and shadows. (I won’t say any more!) I’m working on my ideas, and the next step is seeing what all I can reasonably fit into my 45-minute session.
JMU: Well, you've piqued my interest! I'd love to see you teach something like your cosmo cocktail cookie, above. It's got so much dimension and interest because of your highlighting and shadowing!
Now for a couple of more abstract, forward-looking questions. If you could change one thing about the cookie decorating community, what would it be, and why would you like to make this change?
CT: Hmmm, a tricky question. One thing I would like to change with the cookie community is maybe something I would like to change with the world in general. I wish people were nicer to each other, especially online. It’s difficult to be a member of some online cookie communities. For instance, people will post something like, “I need ideas for Mothers’ Day cookies, and GO!” I know they’re not trying to be rude, and maybe it’s a generation thing, but I find that to be off-putting. Especially since there are so many ideas already available as inspiration on the web and in groups, that sort of demanding that others share their ideas, without (seemingly) doing any research of one's own, is something I would like to see change.
JMU: I hear you. I too feel that compassion and understanding are sometimes lacking online - and not just in the cookie world. It's too easy to forget that there are real people, with real emotions, receiving whatever we toss onto the internet. A little more thinking before posting would probably serve us all well. But time to get off my soapbox and back to you!
Last but not least, my usual parting question: Where do you see yourself in the cookie world three years from now? Do you have any cookie dreams and aspirations that you would like to share?
CT: I would like to have a successful baking business where I’m making and selling cookies in designs that I like and that people have a demand for - my personal definition of success.
JMU: I certainly look forward to seeing you shape that dream into a business success! In the meantime, I can't wait to try some of your pies when your book comes out in the spring. Your raspberry-lemonade one, below, looks especially decadent! Best of luck with everything, and thanks again for sharing with us so generously, both here and in your earlier chat!
All cookie and pie photo credits: Chris Taylor
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!