Phoebe Lawless is many things: chef, pastry chef, business owner, artisan, champion of local foods, and a James Beard semi-finalist. She’s also a pie maker. Unlikely though it may sound, it’s this last humble title which Lawless has to thank for her larger success.
A once-savory chef who came up in kitchens across North Carolina, Lawless eventually landed at the famed Magnolia Grill (now closed) in Durham, where she embraced her sweet side under the tutelage of Executive Pastry Chef Karen Barker. “I found that learning the technical aspects of baking improved my cooking skills greatly,” she says. Lawless threw herself into desserts with an enthusiasm that landed her the pastry chef position two years later. But when she left restaurant life behind to raise her daughter, she wasn’t ready to call it quits with pastry.
“I started to bake out of my house, and then I started applying to farmers markets,” she says. “[Pie is] something that I thought would fit perfectly in that venue. Pies do well in most temperatures, they transport well, and they’re visually beautiful without requiring a lot of finishing work.” Utilizing her savory underpinnings, Lawless started making Southern favorites like Chess Pie and Tyler Pie, along with modern combinations like her Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Crostata. In this part of the country where pies are a way of life and tastes are discerning, Lawless’s pies immediately gained a cult following. Leftover pies made for valuable bartering materials with area farmers, and soon Lawless also had a reliable supply chain in place for local, seasonal produce. “It happened quite serendipitously,” she says. “As a matter of convenience, I started sourcing locally.”
Just as likely to be salty as sweet, Lawless’ pastries run the gamut of flavors. “Pie is the perfect vehicle for sweet and savory, and I always loved the craft of pie because of that,” she says. Her autumnal offerings include a revelatory Chestnut Cream and a hearty Roasted Poblano, Purslane, and Pumpkin Seed “Empanada” that you can’t get your hands on anywhere else. In the summertime she translates a glut of tomatoes into several different pie combinations, such as Cherry Tomato with Parmesan, and Roasted Green Tomato with Ricotta—turns on the classic Carolina tomato pie that leave you dreaming of summer all winter long. Juicy peaches are transformed into a dreamy Peach Cream—a buttery toasted oat crust with luscious Sand Hill peaches, creamy custard, and cloud-like whipped cream. Spring brings not only Strawberry-Rhubarb, but also Fava with Gremolata, of course. And you can get your sweet-salty fix from her year-round favorite, the Chocolate-Sea Salt Crostata.
To accommodate clamoring market-goers who couldn’t commit to a whole pie, Lawless began shrinking her pastries down to single-serving hand pies. “I didn’t really have to alter my recipes, I just had to adjust the ratio of filling to pastry,” she says. Her classic American pie dough is sturdy enough to be eaten out of hand, but still flaky and tender.
As these portable pastries gained popularity, and as people realized they couldn’t live without them, Lawless responded with a pie subscription service, offering pick-up spots in Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill. But demand was rapidly outstripping the volume she could produce from her home kitchen, and even from the catering kitchen space she rented from a friend during the graveyard shift. “It got to the point where I had to either go big or rethink what I was doing,” she says. So when a storefront space opened up in downtown Durham in 2010, Lawless went all in. She opened Scratch bakery, transforming the old tobacco town into pie fantasyland—and the pie-eyed people of central Carolina lined up
“[The brick-and-mortar bakery] significantly changed my business,” she says. “We still produce a lot of what I started with at my house, but now I have about 10 employees. Last year we sold about 500 pies over two days for Thanksgiving.” The line of dedicated, addicted customers winding out the door is a testament to the fact that for a pastry maven like Lawless, success may not have been easy as pie, but deeply delicious pies can lead to superlative success.