Do you ever stumble upon a chef or baker doing something inventive and offbeat and so visually stunning that it stops you mid-Instagram scroll and prompts you to wonder, how did they think to do that? How did they figure out the process? Oh, and also, how the hell are they making a living off it? Us too. Whether it’s tarts that look like Mondrian paintings, cookies topped with pressed flowers, or ice cubes unique enough to pique the interest of the New York Times, social media is filled with artistic foodies handcrafting their careers before our eyes. And while, like so many influencers, they make it look easy, the reality of building an artist-driven business in a competitive field like food is anything but.
Leslie Kirchhoff, the brilliant mind behind Disco Cubes, is a true multi-hyphenate. When she’s not crafting custom ice cubes for the hip Silver Lake restaurant Botanica and for events thrown by clients like The Coveteur, Girlboss, and Martha Stewart, she’s also a DJ, filmmaker, and photographer. She already had a thriving career spinning records, when, she tells tells Refinery29 via email, "I made an amazingly beautiful ice cube on accident."
"I put a blackberry and a rosemary sprig in a large cube tray and poured boiling water into it. It resulted in a half clear, half purple cube that was unlike anything I had ever seen," she recalls. "Then I decided it was time to become an ice cube scientist."
These days, Kirchoff says, she’s barely able to keep up with the demand for the cubes, which come as either traditional squares filled with herbs, pepper, and edible flowers, or in more complex, customized varieties that can cost over $14 per cube, and are typically sold to companies or private clients for parties and events.
“Los Angeles has so many events each day that I’ve been running at full capacity and I’m already starting to scale up production,” she explains, adding that her aforementioned write-up in the Times, titled “She Makes Fancy Ice Cubes For A Living,” has unsurprisingly been “quite helpful in getting the word out.”
And while she’s still pursuing her other careers, Kirchhoff seems to be leaning into her newfound position as ice queen of L.A. She’s currently working on launching an online shop that will sell vintage ice buckets and glassware, and says she’s also been “working on recipes, playlists, and content both for Disco Cubes itself and for other brands.” The great thing about one buzzy side hustle is that it often leads to others.
But not everyone wants to cultivate multiple careers. Just because you’re a creative doesn’t mean that you can’t be single-minded – even when your passion issomething as obscure and incredible as, say, technicolor pasta.
Such is the case for Linda Miller Nicholson, a self-proclaimed “pasta ninja” who crafts noodles so vibrant that you have to see them to believe them — and you can, naturally, via her Instagram and YouTube accounts, both called Salty Seattle, which currently have 151k and 15k followers, respectively. While Nicholson tells Refinery29 she’s been making pasta since she was four years old, it wasn’t until she became a mother to a very picky young eater around the same age that she began experimenting with color. And while her creations may look otherworldly, they actually obtain their hues thanks to all-natural ingredients like spirulina, beets, peas, carrots, and spinach.
“Not to go too deep with it, but the more you expand what you think is possible in the world, the more you will discover,” Miller Nicholson says. “For me, just being able to have the outreach to share with people in a way that makes them really happy, but in a way that also isn’t, you know, full of toxic poison… If I were to have one mission in life, that would be it.”
While Miller Nicholson receives regular requests from people hoping to purchase her creations, she only does occasional custom orders — mostly because the pasta-making is so time-consuming. That said, she’s previously created stuff like custom emoji lasagna, and writes on her website: "I’m dying to make a lasagna with a custom lasagna topper that says 'Will You Marry Me?' If you’d like to be the recipient of such a thing, let’s talk!" We, by the way, are in full support of a pasta proposal.
Instead of selling her pasta, Miller Nicholson teaches private workshops and says she’s considering selling certain pasta-making tools she’s crafted herself over the years. She also regularly films pasta-making videos for The Food Network's social media channels and will publish her first book on the art of pasta-making later this year, all of which enable her to build a life around doing what she loves.
Pastry chef Ksenia Penkina, who boasts 288k Instagram followers on her self-named account and is known for her swirling, psychedelic glazes and avant-garde takes on traditional pastries, follows a similar model to Miller Nicholson's. She's been baking for years and while she has a massive following, she focuses most of her attention on teaching both online and hands-on classes.
"The opportunity to also teach students and see them from their learning process to their success is truly unique; glazing creates an atmosphere of jumping, clapping, happiness, and magic as they see their hard work and effort transform into something beautiful and majestic," she tells Refinery29 in an email.
Penkina travels the world offering in-person classes, but says she's most proud of the fact that anyone, anywhere can log on and attend one of her digital classes at any time for about $150. She is also working on her own brand of food coloring, which will soon be released worldwide.
Should I even mention what is my favourite shape? 😜 GEMMA - my signature cake mould created in collaboration with the best @silikomart 💞 . . #kseniapenkinaforsilikomart #chefstalk #kseniapenkina #cakedecorating #cakeporn #cakesmash #pastrychef #dessertporn #pinkcake #diamonds #bethefirstbeoriginal #silikomart
Colette Dike, the avocado sculptor (seriously) behind FoodDeco, which boasts 119k followers on Instagram, used to work for a large publishing company in the Netherlands. She was always into food and would regularly prepare two- to three-course meals for herself and her boyfriend after work), which she began documenting on social media. She then began to conceive of a food company that would combine food styling and photography with cooking and recipe development, which is what she does today. It was also around this time that she began posting images of intricately sliced avocados, often resembling delicate green rosebuds, to Instagram. As with so many entrepreneurs, what started as a hobby became a full-time gig thanks largely to social media.
"I'm now working for really cool clients all over the world," Dike tells Refinery29 via email. "I'm very happy I can do what I love most and work with food full-time. I’m currently working on new book(s) and I help restaurants and hotels with ideas regarding menus, social media and plating."
Dike says that while her social media following was built organically, she's had some help along the way thanks to reposts by the likes of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. She also credits much of her success online to buzz surrounding her avocado-based cookbook, which was first published in 2017 and will be available in the U.S. in 2019. But, at the end of the day, good content speaks for itself — especially when it involves every millennial's favorite food. "My burger bun creations, avocado ribbons and the avocado proposal post went completely viral, which definitely helped," Dike says.
If you're anything like us, sometimes you can't help but roll your eyes at social media. It can be... a lot. But next time we get irritated by our ex-roommate's constant thirst traps or that one semi-famous person we for some reason insist on hate-following, we're going to remember that these platforms are also enabling women around the world to build thoughtful, unique, idea-driven businesses that likely wouldn't have existed prior to the era of the selfie. Just, you know, some food for thought.