Lauren Ko went from hobbyist baker to Instagram design sensation overnight. Now, she’s riding the wave of pastry-made fame, dealing with internet trolls and making a living doing what she loves.
Lauren Ko made her very first pie less than two years ago, when she first moved to Seattle.
She only has a few recipes of her own, often preferring to toss ingredients together on the fly or use recipes from pastry chefs (although her website says to “stay tuned for further developments”).
And she’s never sold a single slice: The beauty of her pies isn’t making them or even eating them. It’s seeing them.
If you’ve got an Instagram, the odds are good that you have.
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In the whirlwind almost-year since the first pastry appeared on her pie-centric account @lokokitchen, which she initially created to avoid becoming “that friend” on her personal page, Ko has racked up over 200,000 followers. (I would gladly take her posts over the blurry meal-prep photos my friends so generously dole out.) And it almost didn’t happen: Ko’s surge in popularity came after the wildly popular Instagram account @designmilk shared a quince, apple and cherry number she was originally on the fence about posting.
“My journey has been kind of an accident,” Ko says.
A happy accident, no doubt: In January she ditched her nine-to-five to pursue full-time pies, which apparently includes hanging out with Martha Stewart, being named The Instagram Star on “Bake from Scratch” magazine’s 2018 Baker’s Dozen list of the most influential bakers in the business and holding baking workshops with $200 price tags.
“I could see that something was happening, but I wasn’t able to … ride the wave with a 50-hour office job during the week,” Ko says. “I took a risk, and it’s been good. Every week there are more opportunities.”
Unlike her myriad commitments, Ko never plans a pie ahead of time. She prefers to go in with an idea and see where the ingredients take her. Many of the resulting designs are intricate and difficult, something only the most patient and dexterous among us could imitate. But some of her most popular designs, like her signature spoke or cherry ombre, are fairly simple compared to the baroque creations popular among other Instagram pie artists. Ko favors straight lines and clean shapes — made possible with a ruler and a pastry wheel — over the complex leaves and rosettes that dominate the pie scene.
But that hasn’t set her back; it’s made her stand out. A search for #pie on Instagram yields a swath of foliage, dotted with geometric creations immediately recognizable as Ko’s.
It may be why her occasional forays into IRL proselytizing (prosely-pie-zing?) have been so successful. Ko is eager to break down her complex designs into their more straightforward parts, none of which require you to run around town trying to find a nice leaf-shaped crust cutter. And she gets most of her ingredients from Costco (Kirkland Signature, of course).
“I think with my designs there’s like a shroud of mystery … People think, ‘I can’t wrap my head around this, I have no idea where you’ve started or how you would even construct that,’ ” Ko says. “People are pretty surprised at how easy it is.”
She’s also managed to master punny social-media captions, something the rest of us dejectedly gave up on circa 2011. I counted 10 puns in one of her recent captions on a cherry ombre tart, “a twist on one of [her] cherry first @lokokitchen posts.” And it just so happens to be her most-liked photo. The people love puns!
But living and breathing pies isn’t all sweet.
The truth is, Ko doesn’t even have a sweet tooth, and neither does her husband. Even their big bear of a rescue dog, Santi the Shar-Pei, spends more time sleeping on the kitchen floor than eating pie scraps off of it. That works out great for pie-loving friends and family. It also means Ko had to invest in a big chest freezer.
“It’s the great irony of our life,” Ko says. “For the most part, if they’re sweet, we’re just like, ‘get them out of the house’ … If I had somehow gotten into pizza making, then we would be in trouble.”
She does enjoy the occasional savory pastry, usually in tart form: hidden among her photos is a potato, onion and cheddar tart topped with a honeycomb pattern of Trader Joe’s cheese; one featuring a mind-boggling swirl of hand-sliced potatoes and another boasting an ombre array of radishes atop a cauliflower filling. You’d be forgiven for mistaking any of them for sweets.
And despite exclusively posting photos of the world’s least controversial subject, Ko deals with her fair share of internet trolls. Some of them call her a fraud for not being a trained pastry chef. Others berate her for posting photos of unbaked pies, to which she responded with the tongue-in-cheek hashtag, #YeahButWhatDoesItLookLikeBaked. (Thanks to the giving nature of the internet, those people have now moved on to berating her for neglecting to show what the pies look like sliced. Hint: they look like slices of pie.)
“In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter,” Ko says. “You don’t need to spend time crafting me five-paragraph angry emails. It’s pie. I’m also not selling it, so you don’t get a slice! Chill out.”
Then there is that messy business of turning the thing you love into a job, which can quickly flip inspiration to obligation. It’s also meant an increased workload: Ko wakes up at 6 or 7 every morning and fills the hours until she hits the mattress at midnight answering emails, scheduling appearances and interviews, baking pies and washing lots of dishes.
“I work at a startup, so I just work all the time,” Ko says. “I’ve never worked so much in my life.”
She has set some boundaries, though. She knows she never wants to have a pie shop, fearing that she would be forced to sacrifice creative freedom for menu consistency. She isn’t interested in branching out to cakes or cookies. And, nope, she’s still not going to sell her pies: “I don’t think I’d be able to price my labor and art accordingly,” Ko says. “I don’t wanna be that person that’s like, ‘I’m gonna need $400 for this pie.’ ”
But she’s glad to share some tips for making your own. First, the golden rule of pie-making: keep the dough cold, and get it in the oven cold, too. (She’s considering becoming the only Seattleite with air-conditioning so she doesn’t have to keep popping it back in the freezer mid-design.) Use tapioca starch rather than cornstarch in fruit fillings to keep the colors bright and glossy. If the design involves dough weaving, do it on a baking sheet — it makes the whole keep-the-dough-cold thing a lot easier.
If you’re looking to try some designs of your own, look for inspiration in unexpected places — Ko gets hers from textiles, architecture and patterns she sees in everyday items.
And, in pie-making and in life, don’t underestimate the power of happy accidents.