The Untold Truth Of Zoë François

Celebrity chefs often break into TV first, then decide to expand their relationship with their audience by publishing cookbooks. Giada De Laurentiis' first cookbook, for example, was named after her TV show "Everyday Italian" (via Food Network). Richard Blais parlayed his win on "Top Chef: All Stars" into a cookbook deal (via Books About Food). Zoë François, on the other hand, is following the footsteps of Julia Child. The pioneer of food TV got her first show, "The French Chef," in 1963 thanks to the publicity surrounding her first cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (via WGBH).

François had one self-promotional tool that was unavailable to Julia Child. On the "Inside Julia's Kitchen" podcast, François credited Instagram for making both her latest cookbook and her new TV show happen. Her new book is "Zoë Bakes Cakes" (via Penguin Random House) — a departure from her successful "Bread in Five Minutes" cookbook series with co-author Jeff Hertzberg (via BreadIn5). Her new show is a spinoff of her @zoebakes Instagram account. François hosts "Zoë Bakes" on Magnolia Network, streaming on Discovery+ (via Leite's Culinaria).

The most unusual part of François' food-celebrity career might be where it all started. The social media influencer regarding all things baked and sweet grew up in a Vermont commune with no electricity and no sugar. She didn't even see television until she was maybe 9 years old. That's when she discovered Julia Child.

Zoë François' earliest cooking experiences were in a commune

Zoë François' biggest Julia Child memory was watching her make and then eat a "floating island," which is French meringue sitting atop a thin custard (via "Inside Julia's Kitchen"). But even before Julia Child, and without a TV or running water, François discovered her love for baking in the busy kitchen of the Vermont commune where she was raised. "I realized that you could take these raw ingredients pulled out of the pantry, mix them together, put them in the oven, and they emerge something else. It fascinated me," François said on the podcast. Her first forays into baking simply involved throwing ingredients into the oven to see what would come out — usually something inedible, as François described on her website. Finally, with the help of a commune friend, she combined the flour, milk, and eggs well enough to make delicious Dutch babies — a story François tells in her 2021 cookbook, Zoë Bakes Cakes.

Maybe that puffed pancake was vaguely inspired by François' first encounter with a Twinkie — not on the commune, of course, but out of a fellow kindergartner's lunch box on the first day of school. That was the moment she realized that raisins weren't candy and carob wasn't chocolate, no matter what her hippie parents had told her. That Twinkie drew her into the magical world where wonderfully sweet things come out of the oven.

Andrew Zimmern helped launch Zoë François' career

Zoë François would show up to the commune kitchen for butter-churning duty as a young child, but her first real food industry job was ice cream cake maker at a Ben & Jerry's shop in Burlington, Vermont, per "I was amazed they paid me to do something so fun," she said. Then, in college, she sold homemade cookies from a cart in downtown Burlington. After college, François was unfulfilled in her job at an advertising agency, so she went to culinary school to pursue her passion for baking (via Pastry Arts). She enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in New York state but wasn't there long before Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" fame hired her as a pastry chef assistant. He elevated her to executive pastry chef soon after. Zimmern taught her how to market herself and prepared her for celebrity status — lessons that would come in handy later in her career.

François stopped working as a pastry chef to raise her children. She was standing in the back of her 2-year-old son's dance class when she met a fellow dance parent named Dr. Jeff Hertzberg (via Pastry Arts). He did what a lot of parents socializing in a child's class might do — he shared a recipe with François. But this new parent wasn't giving away his kid-friendly variation on meatloaf. He had a home-baked bread recipe that was about to take off.

Zoë François helped popularize home-baked bread

Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François became part of the no-knead bread phenomenon — a process that was so easy, it got a lot of people hooked on homemade bread. The duo didn't start the no-knead revolution. Credit for that goes to Jim Lahey (via The New York Times). Hertzberg and François made Lahey's easy process even simpler, and they branded it as "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" — the title of their first cookbook, published in 2007. Over the next decade, François and Hertzberg would write six more cookbooks under the "Five Minutes a Day" concept, on healthy bread, gluten-free bread, holiday breads, and pizza dough. They sold nearly a million copies.

Needless to say, the no-knead book series helped pay a lot of bills in the François household as her children were growing up. But the books reflected co-author Hertzberg's ideas and identity more than hers. After the seventh bread book came out in 2018, François decided to return to her first love, which was pastries (via Cherry Bombe). She refocused on her Zoë Bakes blog and started an Instagram account. Her new social media presence turned out to be as life-changing as that chance meeting in the back of a children's dance class.

Instagram helped Zoë François land a book deal

If Zoë François was going to publish her own cookbook, she would need to prove herself. Sure, she had "nearly a million copies sold" on her resume, but she wanted her next book to be about pastries, not bread. Ironically, the cookbook author who started her career as Andrew Zimmern's pastry chef wasn't known for pastries. "In order to get the book deal, I knew that I needed to grow my social media following," François said on the "Inside Julia's Kitchen" podcast. François hopped on Instagram and started posting tutorial videos. Right away, hundreds of her followers were trying to recreate her photogenic desserts (via Pastry Arts). Francois went from helping people feel confident about baking their own bread to getting them started on cakes and creme brûlée. "I have decades of pastry info to share, and it is a thrill to know I am helping people overcome their fears in the kitchen," François said.

François has grown her social media audience to more than 340,000 Instagram followers. Her 2021 cookbook, "Zoë Bakes Cakes," is a distillation of her experience developing recipes and interacting with her followers on the social media platform. She told Cherry Bombe the book wouldn't have happened without Instagram. "Without my work on that platform, I wouldn't have known exactly what I wanted to write and probably wouldn't have been noticed by the publisher," she said.

Instagram also led to Zoë François' own TV show

Zoë François credits Instagram for helping her get her own TV show, too. "Zoë Bakes" debuted on Discovery+ as part of the Magnolia Network lineup on July 15, as François announced on her Instagram account. François didn't know she was camera-ready until the COVID-19 pandemic had her craving human contact — even if only through a screen. "I wasn't connecting with humans at all" in quarantine, she told the "Inside Julia's Kitchen" podcast. So she started showing her face on Instagram Live; her previous videos had only shown her hands carrying out the steps of a baking lesson. "I think that it was ... seeing me interact with the following and on camera that I got the show," François said. "I really do think Instagram had a huge impact on my career."

In Episode 1 of "Zoë Bakes," François makes a lattice pie with rhubarb and strawberries straight from her father's Minnesota garden (via New episodes land on Discovery+ on July 30, François says on the Instagram post.

Her Instagram performances may have proved that François could carry her own TV show, but "Zoë Bakes" isn't her first TV appearance. She had her Food Network premiere in June 2020 as a guest judge on the Buddy Valastro show "Big Time Bake," according to an Instagram post from that time. She was also tapped to be a guest judge on "Chopped Sweets" in September 2020, according to another Instagram post.