How I Got My Job: Making Internet-Famous Food-Inspired Candles

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In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Ingrid Nilsen.

You may recognize Ingrid Nilsen from her beauty-focused YouTube channel, which still has 3.46 million subscribers even though she hasn’t posted a video in three years. The former influencer always knew she’d step away from full-time social media one day and ultimately decided to quit without a plan in 2020, when the idea of leaping into the unknown sounded more exciting than riding her success. At the time, she didn’t know a candlemaking kit would lead to her next act.

But once Nilsen tried the craft, she was immediately hooked. The pandemic hobby quickly turned into a serious artistic pursuit and then a company, the New Savant, which she co-founded with digital media veteran Erica Anderson. The Brooklyn-based brand focuses on personal, complex fragrances that Nilsen develops with esteemed Swiss perfumers. “All the scents are inspired by my life in some way,” she says. “I’m heavily influenced by food and beverage when it comes to designing scents. Almost every scent has been inspired by a meal or drink I’ve had.”

A candle called Mixed Feelings, for example, represents Nilsen’s mixed-race heritage with a steamed jasmine rice note that honors her Thai grandmother, who cooked a fresh pot of rice every day. “It’s one of my favorite candles to witness people smelling in real life,” she says. “People who grew up eating a lot of rice immediately recognize it and it’s definitely a conversation starter.” Here, Nilsen shares what she loves most about her new job, how she got into YouTube in the first place, and why the career switch was the right move.

Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?

Ingrid Nilsen: I love that I’m always doing something different. Some days I’m focused heavily on creating new fragrances. Other days I’m testing samples from our perfumers or working on marketing campaigns and new launches. Sometimes it’s working with the art department for product photo shoots. We do everything in-house. But I’d say my favorite part is when I get to be hands-on with my team in the studio. I love the basics of making candles, so when I get to pour, label, or pack up orders with the team, it feels like reconnecting with my roots.

What would surprise people about your job?

I think a lot of people would be surprised at the level of detail that goes into every aspect. Candles and fragrance sounds like an art kid’s dream (and it is!) but it’s also extremely technical and requires precision at every level. Every element of our candles is tested regularly and has been fine-tuned over time — plus we’re always thinking about how we can improve. Our fragrances start with my very precise olfactive briefs and our fragrance house brings them to life. I sometimes feel like I’m part scientist, part wacky art lady and I love it.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. I always loved the combination of precision and creativity.

Did you go to art school or college?

My teen years were very tumultuous — my mom had cancer for the entirety of my high school years and my dad died unexpectedly my junior year, so college was the last thing on my mind. I was just trying to make it to the next day. I barely graduated high school with passing grades and ended up dropping out of community college. But to be honest, I don’t think a traditional educational institution would’ve worked for me anyway.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

I folded clothes at a retail store in the mall. It’s as boring and tedious as it sounds!

How did you get into YouTube and grow your base and influence?

I’m mixed race — half Thai, half Norwegian — and always had a difficult time finding beauty products that worked for me. I remember reading all the teen magazines from the early 2000s; I would save my money to buy a recommendation I read about and it would always let me down. All the complexion products looked so pink and pasty on my olive skin. It was disheartening.

Then, I found young women on YouTube from all over the world talking about the products they loved. For the first time, I wasn’t limited to the mostly blonde, mostly white models I saw in magazines. I found other Asian women with olive skin and not only saw what they were buying, but could see how they used the products. I was always curious about beauty, so I was absolutely delighted.

I watched these women so regularly that they felt like my friends. At that time, YouTube had only been around for a few years, so you could actually keep track of all the creators on the platform. That’s how small it was — it was truly a community. One day, I decided I wanted to contribute and share what I had learned from the community, so I posted my first video. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved the process, the challenge, and the feeling of possibility it gave me.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

When I started making content on YouTube in 2009, it wasn’t an industry, so that was the biggest challenge. It went from being an outlet and hobby to becoming a career. There was no roadmap. Traditional media and most brands didn’t understand what was happening. Very few people took creators seriously at that time and I think a part of that is because many early creators didn’t fit traditional molds. We were all from different backgrounds, kind of eccentric, but absolutely bursting with creativity.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now? What made you want to quit social media and what got you interested in making candles?

I always knew there would be an end point for me with making content on social media as a full-time job, I just didn’t know exactly when that would be or how it would look. I knew it was time to quit in spring 2020 when the idea of stopping felt like a relief and full of possibility. When I quit, I had no idea what I was going to do next. I was really just focused on taking a break — I hadn’t had a break from work in 11 years!

During the summer of 2020 I made my first candles on a whim from a candlemaking kit and fell in love with the process. From there, I became obsessed with figuring out how to make my perfect candle.

How did you learn about designing scents?

I’m completely self-taught. It’s a combination of following my creative instincts and using the knowledge I gained from my career in beauty. I’ve always paid very close attention to my sense of smell, even as a child, so it has definitely served me well in this new chapter.

Food and food memories seem to play such a large role in your scents — can you talk about the role of food throughout your life?

Food was a huge part of my life growing up. Almost every weekend there would be a potluck at a family friend’s house. It was always a mix of Asian dishes, since my mom’s friends came from different areas of Thailand and Asia. So I grew up eating foods that were very different from what my peers ate, but I’m so grateful for it. All kinds of smells, textures, flavors, and ingredients were embedded in my system from a young age and I know that that was absolutely fundamental in shaping who I am today. Food taught me how to explore my curiosity, move through fears, and feel pure joy.

What were the most important skills that got you where you are today?

My creativity and willingness to take risks, without a doubt. I’ve also cultivated resilience when it comes to rejection because I’ve been told “no” a lot over the years. If someone doesn’t like me or my work, I’m fine with that — I don’t want universal appeal, I want my work to land fully with the right people. Not only does that make me a stronger artist, it makes me a happy one.

How are you making change in your industry?

The fragrance industry is very cis, very male, very Eurocentric. Of course, I respect the artistry and heritage that comes with the industry, but I also know there are so many other stories waiting to be told. I’m focused on presenting people with scent combinations that are inspired by my lived experience in the world as a mixed-race, queer woman. What I create is unexpected, maybe even off-putting or perplexing to some, but that’s the point. I want people to think differently about scent and expand their idea of what smells good.

What would you have done differently in your career?

I wish there were more financial transparency and opportunities for financial literacy when I was younger. I feel like I’m playing catch up in my mid-30s. There are so many moments I look back on and think, “Wow, I was definitely underpaid.” But I didn’t know better, which means I couldn’t advocate for myself. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so transparent about money now when women ask me about my past career and starting a business. It’s information I wish I had known back then.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

I heard America Ferrara give a TED Talk and one thing she said has become a personal motto for me: “I didn’t need my dream to be easy, I just needed it to be possible.”

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

Go for it! And give me a call. I’m so happy to share what I know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in New York.

Photography from Ingrid Nilsen.

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