Lauren Ko is new to fame. She’s had to turn notifications off on her phone; they tend to drain her battery within minutes. She’s been flooded with more emails than she can keep up with, and she’s spent the past few months slowly digging herself out of a bottomless pit of unanswered messages.
Well, Ko is dealing with what you could call mild fame, at least—the kind that sort of just happens to you when you’re an avid home baker with a single-subject, impeccably-manicured Instagram presence like hers. Ko has been running Lokokitchen, an Instagram account in which she documents her baking efforts, since August of last year. Ko grafts geometric patterns onto the surfaces of her pies and tarts, photographing most of them against sober, monochromatic backgrounds.
The pies and tarts, after all, are meant to the be our focus: They’re pretty spectacular, some with gobsmackingly intricate lattices, others studded with goldenberries and pomegranate seeds. She captions each photograph with cheerful, punny platitudes: “Together, we are inquinceapple.” “Go boldly where no cran has gone before.”
Ko lives in Seattle with her husband; she described herself over phone last month as “just a regular person with a regular eight-to-five job that has nothing to do with food.” By day, she’s an Executive Assistant at the Seattle Colleges network. She does most of her baking on weekends.
Ko doesn’t sell her pies, even though she’s routinely gotten requests to do so. She’s not terribly interested in becoming a pastry chef or pie shop owner. In fact, Ko is rather content with being an Instagram sensation. When I spoke to Ko just before Christmas, her account was just shy of having 100,000 followers. As of writing, it’s climbed to more than 105,000. She has only made 35 posts.MUNCHIES: Hey Lauren! So when did you first start baking pies?
Lauren Ko: I made my first pie a little over a year ago. I had just moved to Seattle, I was unemployed, had plenty of time on my hands. I had seen a picture on Pinterest of a really cool, fancy pie, and thought, I wonder if I could do that. So the plaid lattice pie on my feed
is actually the first pie that I made. I made pies on and off after that. I made one for Thanksgiving 2016 and it was a total disaster.
Oh no! That sucks.
Yeah! It was undercooked and gross and mortifying. I took a little break before this past summer, when there was so much fruit and produce in Seattle that I just decided to pick baking back up. Was I really doing it seriously? Well, I don't know. I enjoy baking, but it wasn’t like pies were my “thing.” I just made them once in awhile.
Then, on August 29, I started this new Instagram account as a way of separating food photos from my personal account. I didn’t want to be that friend, you know? Most of my followers at the beginning were just friends and family. I didn’t have any expectations for the account. And then, two months later, things just exploded.
Right. So, about that turning point—when did you start seeing it take off beyond your friend and family circles?
I don't even remember the first two months of running the account. Slowly, though, I [started] using a bunch of hashtags. I don’t really develop my own recipes, so I was making other people’s recipes and tagging them in the photos. Then, around the end of September or beginning of October, DesignMilk re-posted one of my photos. That gave me my first bump. I got 10,000 more followers out of that, and that just blew my mind. I didn't think that could ever be possible.
Once DesignMilk shared my photo, a lot of different design blogs started jumping on and reposting my photos. An article about me on BuzzFeed probably provided the biggest spike. I guess you could say my account is growing steadily, but each steady jump is tens of thousands of people now. It’s wild.
Whose recipes do you usually make?
All different ones. I started out using some from Stella Parks from Serious Eats—her pie crust is the one I usually use. What I make depends on what’s in season and mainly what’s on sale at the grocery store.
Do you have a go-to pie recipe?
I made this pear and miso caramel pie. I’d never made miso caramel before. I didn’t know it was a thing. It’s my new favorite thing now. It’s delicious! And it’s not too labor-intensive.
Do you have any early food memories centered around baking?
My grandmother owned a restaurant in Honduras, and at some point in my childhood also opened up a little cafe. I grew up in San Diego. She was an amazing cook who’d cook these giant banquets any time we visited her, but I never really cooked or baked with her.
My mom was a big baker, too. I have memories of baking with her as a child. But I never branched out and baked on my own until after college. The kitchen of the house I grew up in was pretty small.
So how often do you make pies nowadays?
I’ve been baking every weekend. It’s winter in Seattle, currently, so it’s dark when I leave the house in the morning and it’s dark when I leave work. I can’t really do any baking on weeknights because of that. I can’t take any good photos at night. If I have a free Saturday or Sunday, I’m frantically baking two or three or four pies.
How long does it take to make each each pie?
It depends! The geometric pies are somewhere between four to five hours from start to finish. Not all of this is active time, of course. I make the dough, and it has to chill in the fridge for an hour. I make the filling. I construct the pie. That has to chill in the fridge for another hour. Then I have to bake it for an hour. It could take up to five hours, but I’m not necessarily working that entire time.
Do you have anyone helping you?
Not really! Sometimes I will get myself in a bind and pick a pattern that is really complex and then I lose my place and call my husband over to help do the math for me. But in terms of prepping and cooking, I do it all.
What compelled you to put geometrical shapes on your pies?
I don’t know, honestly. I’m driven by color and inspired by geometric patterns and textiles. Plus, I think pies have been having their moment lately. There are a lot of fancy pies out there where people use cookie and letter cutters, things like that. Those pies look cool, and I wanted to do something a little different. I searched for a lot of geometric and textile patterns that I wanted to recreate with dough and just went from there.
So we’re in a “pie moment,” as you say, where there’s an oversaturation of very pretty pies floating around on Pinterest and Instagram. Why do you think your photographs have struck such a nerve with people?
[Laughs] I have no idea! I think maybe the aesthetic of the top-down, black background when you look at my feed helps. It’s eye-catching. I do use a lot of different color and flavor combinations, too, that might be interesting to people.
I also think the geometric patterns are something that people haven’t seen before. Pies are having a moment, but a lot of them have leaves, flowers, or roses—things like that. I do something that maybe a lot of people haven’t seen, and I also get a lot of feedback on my captions. I work really hard on those puns! Some people say they come for the pies and stay for the puns.
How often do you hear that phrase that your pies are “too pretty to eat”? It sounds like you value the actual taste of your pies as much as you do their aesthetic. What’s your read on that phrase and how it applies to your own baking?
Well, if it’s food, flavor is really important. It’s meant to be eaten. I don’t like to waste food. I would hate to spend all this time and make something that’s inedible, as much as I enjoy the process of actual baking.
Honestly, I did get into baking from a design perspective. I started baking primarily because I was like, can I create this design I saw on Pinterest? My medium of choice just happens to be pie. Now that I’m creating so much, I don’t want to just bake these things and throw them away. I give them to my coworkers and say, please consume this.
Still, I get a lot of criticism from people online because I largely post pre-bake photos, and people say stuff like, "That’s not a pie. It’s raw. This isn’t real"; "I don’t even know why people are making a big deal about this"; "She doesn’t even post the post-baking photos."
Eek. Do you get a lot of hate mail?
[Laughs] Yes, of course. Because it’s the internet, and because everyone has to pick up on something negative. I do have trolls. I have seen some comments on Reddit about how I’m a fraud. People get upset that I don’t always show the post-bake, which means that whatever I made must’ve been a disaster and that my pies are obviously disgusting.
There are definitely people with negative things to say, but, hey—I’m just baking pies. There must be more important things for people to be fighting for, right?
Surely. Thanks for speaking with us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.