Charlotte Mei: Champion for Healthy Cooking and Banana-Fig Cake Extraordinaire

Charlotte Mei’s banana-fig cake is moist. It is “moister than moist”, as its YouTube video title reads. It’s also gluten-free, lactose-free, and only needs 8 ingredients and a bowl for it to come together. This is much of what Charlotte’s philosophy revolves around — to bring sustainable, healthy living to everyone in the simplest of ways.

Her vast experience isn’t simply confined to the YouTube scene, though. At 23 years old, she came in second in Eat List Star, a local culinary competition hosted by Mediacorp in 2016. She’s since hosted, produced, and written for various talk shows and series, providing her expertise as a certified nutritionist. Below, she shares her food ethos with us, and also a little more about herself as a person, like how she can’t sit around and nua (do nothing).

Charlotte, what do you do and how did you get started?

I’m a nutritionist, host, and presenter. How did I get started? It’s quite strange — I never thought I would be working in media. Growing up, my parents were very strict. Whenever I was approached to model or participate in any sort of show, they would always tell me that education comes first. I never intentionally chose my path. I mean, looking back, you can sort of connect the dots … but, when I was making my career decisions, I didn’t know where it would lead me!

Right around the time I had to apply for uni, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. I spent a week asking myself questions and reflecting. By the end of the week, I realised that most of my questions had to do with food. I was at an age where I was worried about body image and health, and I didn’t know how to navigate that. There wasn’t a lot of information (on nutrition), like there is today. So, I went to the UK to study nutrition.

When I graduated, I had my first dream job of working as a nutritionist for Kellogg’s. The nutritionists were the strict people. Our job was to make sure the marketing messages the company wanted to print on packaging or put out were accurate. Say the marketing people wanted to say, “Eating chocolate cereal every morning will make you happy!,” — my job was to tell them, “No, we can’t, because that’s misleading, and we cannot be responsible for people eating chocolate every morning!” It was great but I wanted to move back to Singapore due to the weather. I aspired to be the next Jamie Oliver and revolutionize the way we view food and health in Singapore. But of course, that didn’t happen…yet!

When I moved back, I was stuck in a 9-to-5 job that I didn’t enjoy as much. One day, as I was browsing through the newspaper at work, I came across an ad for Eat List Star. It was a cooking competition and they were looking for the next Jamie Oliver of Singapore. I thought, “Hey, this is my chance!”
They were looking for someone who could cook and also speak in front of the camera. Half of the contestants were professional chefs and the other half were home cooks. At that time, I didn’t know how to cook — I mean, I could cook, but against professional chefs, who am I kidding?!

Still, throughout the competition, one thing stayed with me: I wanted to show that tasty food can be healthy, and healthy food can be tasty. A lot of people would tell me, “Oh, I can’t cook.” I wanted to let them know that cooking doesn't have to be complicated. It’s very easy and doable. Eating good, healthy food also doesn’t have to be boring or complicated. Long story short, I ended up coming in second in the competition and that opened a lot of doors for me that lead to Crave, 938Now, and other opportunities.

What keeps you motivated?

That’s a question I hear all the time, but never know how to answer! For me, I think, my passion for food is what drives me. I come from two different cultures with very strong food traditions –– my dad’s French and my mom’s Chinese — and food is very much a big part of my life. It isn’t just something that we serve and eat. My mum would make a big deal about eating at home and I didn’t realise till much later that not everyone has that. I became very inquisitive about food.
And once I know or learn something new, I just want to share it with as many people as I can –– that’s why I also started my own channel! The whole point of the show is to encourage people to cook at home and try not to eat out every day.

Right, you recently started your own cooking channel, TheCharlotteMei.  What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced doing that?

Time. Definitely time. At that time, everyone in the crew, myself included, had full-time jobs. We could only shoot on the weekends, after work hours, and so on. It was exhausting… and I was also paying my crew out of my own pocket. I really thought to myself, “Is this really worth it?”

But then, out of the blue, I got a phone call and was offered a job for a show (that I’m currently working on). So, I go, “Wait a minute, but how did you know you want me for this role?” And then they told me they like what I did on TheCharlotteMei. In a way, it’s my ROI… TheCharlotteMei is my portfolio! I didn’t have to show or explain to them how I host.

What’s your all-time favourite recipe you’ve made on your channel?

Tough question! (pause) I think definitely my banana-fig cake. It’s everyone’s favourite as well and great for people who are intolerant to gluten and lactose. Whenever I make my banana-fig cake, people will say, “Oh, there you go, Charlotte, being healthy again.” But when they take a bite, they’re always surprised at how satisfying it is!

Charlotte Mei's Famous Banana Cake Ingredient List: 3 Ripe Bananas, 3 Large Eggs, 70g dried figds, 190g almost flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 tablespoon vanilla extract, 45grams of oil, half teaspoon of salt

What are your 5 kitchen staples?

Ooh! I love questions like this. Eggs, very good olive oil, banana, garlic, and cinnamon. You can’t really make a dish with those five ingredients — but you can make banana cake for breakfast and then have the eggs for lunch or dinner.

An illustration of Charlotte Mei's 5 kitchen staples: eggs, quality olive oil, banana, garlic, and cinnamon

How do you typically spend a day off?

You know how people say, “Oh, I just want to stay at home and nua [laze around],” — I’m not that person. I like to run errands, go out, and do things. I’m someone who likes to be on the move. I’m always looking out for what’s next.
Because of my work, I also have to constantly meet people. I need to have my own time, so, every Friday between 9am to 12pm, I’ll clear my schedule and I won’t take any meetings. That’s the time I get to spend with just myself. Honestly, I’ll still check my emails, but at least I can do it on my own time.
Do you ever have a day off?

I guess, when you put it that way, I’m always working! I don’t really have days off, but just little moments of rest. In an ideal world, I would like to have an hour before bedtime to watch a show. But that never happens, especially since I started working for myself.
I guess my downtime, and a bad habit I have, is to watch Netflix while I’m eating my dinner. I also like to travel. Every year, I always set aside some time to visit my granddad.

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Definitely a morning person! The night before, I’ll usually write my to-do list for the next day. In the morning, when I wake up, I’ll look through my calendar in my bed and visualize my day. It grounds me and helps me prepare for what’s going to happen. I try to set intentions for the day so I can do what I really need to. But I always start my day with breakfast. I wish I could tell you I do yoga and whatnot … but really, all I need in the morning is a good breakfast!

What's on your bedside table?

I always have lavender oil by my bedside. Something I do before I go to bed is to sprinkle a few drops of lavender oil on my sheets. Lavender oil is something that really calms me and also reminds me of my granddad.

You champion a sustainable lifestyle. What does sustainability mean to you?

For me, living a sustainable lifestyle is simply living consciously. Be mindful of the impact of your decisions. As consumers, we’re always encouraged to buy, but I think we often forget that we also have the power to choose what we buy. You vote with your dollar. I’m not saying you should only shop from certain ethical brands, but rather, stop for a moment before you make your purchase: do you really need it? why do you need it? We need to live slower so we can be conscious of the decisions we make and understand their impact.

Pillow Talk is an interview series done in collaboration with Public Culture, an editorial experience studio that believes in connection over communication.

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