Lauren Ko Updates the Humble Pie With Modern Design

“This was all kind of an accident.”

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Lauren Ko stumbled into Instagram fame a few years ago with her stunning design-forward pies, despite no formal training in either pastry or design. We caught up with Lauren at home in Seattle to talk about “the whole pie thing,” her new cookbook, and the bewildering revelation that she doesn’t even have a sweet tooth.

This was all kind of an accident. I was looking for a job when I moved to Seattle, and I was puttering around on the Internet. I stumbled across really beautiful pies on Pinterest and thought, Oh, that's interesting. I realized I had never made a pie, even though I come from a family of phenomenal eaters. I was always surrounded by amazing home cooks and delicious meals, but we never had traditional apple pie in my Chinese-Honduran-American family. My mom baked cookies and cakes when I was growing up, but I didn't show a huge interest. When I lived on my own post-college, I cooked dinner and baked for fun and figured it out on my own, following recipes and cookbooks. 

“I made my first lattice apple pie — it was fine, but it didn't change my life.”
After I stumbled across those pie pictures, I made my first five-lattice apple pie — it was fine, but it didn't change my life. It was something I added to my repertoire of things I made on weeknights and weekends, especially once I got an office job. Over the next year, I made a pie here and there. 

In August of 2017, I started my Instagram account. I felt like I was becoming that friend who puts too many food photos on my personal account, so I wanted some separation. This Instagram account was supposed to be a casual personal photo album, a holding place for documenting things I was making. I had no intention of it becoming anything, and it wasn't meant to be exclusively pie. It just so happened that that first photo I shared was a geometric-looking peach pie. It got 500 to 600 likes, which, for a regular person who had 50 followers, totally blew my mind. 

A few days later, I posted another photo that also got a couple hundred likes, which was really wild. I kept going, and Design Milk shared one of my pie photos, and I got 8,000 followers in one day. Then news outlets and TV networks started reaching out. By December I had 100,000 followers, and in January I quit my job because I couldn't keep up with all of the opportunities and the emails. Something was happening, and I wanted to explore where this wave would take me. I’d give it a month or two, and if it doesn't work out, then I’ll go back to a regular office job. 
Three years later, here we are. I think part of the appeal and novelty is that nobody else was doing what I do. People have a conception that pie is a very rustic, nostalgic dessert — they’d never seen it in such a modern, colorful, geometric interpretation.

I have no formal training in art and design; it’s just something I've always loved and appreciated. I go to museums and always gravitate toward things with really great design or lots of color. I'm inspired by architecture and furniture and textiles and, obviously, lots of color. 

"Flavor is always the bottom line — it has to taste good."

I got into pies for the art, and it just so happened that my medium was edible. But, because I share these things, flavor is always the bottom line — it has to taste good. Sometimes I build around what I can find at the grocery store, or maybe I have a bunch of wrinkly mangoes in the fridge. I’ll build around what flavors pair with that and what colors can contrast. I'm always looking to put a different spin on things. Traditional apple pie is a standard; it’s a classic. So if I'm going to make an apple pie, I'm thinking, How can I make this unique? How can I make this different? Maybe it’s a different kind of caramel or a different design or finding a spice that will pair with it that's not traditional.

Here, I made a cinnamon pineapple pie inspired by all of the delicious spiced pineapple I grew up eating at family barbecues. The filling is enhanced by the crisp, buttery crust. My original version of this layered design was inspired by waves and the undulating movement of water; incorporating spinach-dyed dough here transforms the crust into an abstract take on the clean and curvy Sweetie Pie design.

“People have a conception that pie is a very rustic, nostalgic dessert.”

I have a very distinct style, and I wanted my cookbook to feel additive and useful and new — there are lots of people writing cookbooks and recipes. I don’t have a food blog or share recipes online, so this was my big opportunity to unveil these secrets that aren't really secrets of how I create these things. I wanted the book to be super comprehensive, so there are 25 pies and 25 tarts, 50 fillings, and 50 design tutorials.

People ask me how to get started with pie-making, and I just say, “Jump in and go for it.” I picked a few recipes online and then kept making them. A lot of pie-making is making the dough, and you learn best by doing it over and over. You start to learn how the dough should feel and how it should look. There's a lot of research you could do about the science, but I'm a visual, tactile learner, so I experimented in my kitchen, and I learned from my fails.
“I'm a visual, tactile learner, so I experimented in my kitchen, and I learned from my fails.”
When I started dabbling in pies, I was still working my office job and feeling lost and not very fulfilled. Pie-making was really therapeutic and soothing. It can take a long time, and I enjoyed having this time to zone out and create and listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks. It’s a hands-on, exploratory creative outlet. I never sketch things out or have a very concrete idea of what I'm going to make in any creative session, and the dough and fruit don't always cooperate. I find that it's better for my headspace to have a general idea and then go with the flow. 
“I never sketch things out or have a very concrete idea of what I'm going to make.”

I usually make dough ahead of time because it requires some resting time in the fridge, and it's my least favorite part of the pie-making process. I’ll make a giant batch and let it rest in the fridge. Then I’ll freeze a stash of different-colored doughs so I can just pull out what I need when I’m making a pie. 

If I’m making a woven pie top, I’ll roll out the dough and do the weave on a sheet of parchment, slide a baking sheet underneath, and freeze it solid, so it's easy to pop it on top. I’ll usually keep the finished pie wrapped in the freezer and then bake it straight from the freezer. That helps preserve the integrity of the pie design because keeping things cold is a golden rule of pie baking.

“What I do now is this happy confluence of design, baking, and feeding people I love.”
I love the creative part of pie-making — that's why I got into it. I love creating new designs and finding ways to reframe the pie and design for people. It also feels really satisfying to have an end product you’re really proud of. 

I feel really lucky that what I do now is this happy confluence of design, baking, and feeding people I love because one of the ironies of this journey is that I don't really have a sweet tooth. I end up sharing the literal fruits of my labor with friends, family, and neighbors who are happy to receive it. I have a handful of savory pies in the cookbook — those are ones we keep for ourselves.

Photos by Reva Keller.