2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Pastry Chef Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie

2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Pastry Chef Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie
November 2016

As anyone who’s been to Sister Pie in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood knows, Lisa Ludwinski is a creative type. She graduated from Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 2006 and headed to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a theater director. As New York often does, it distracted Ludwinski with food—especially, baked goods. One day she found herself at Christina Tosi’s quirky, renowned Milk Bar and was immediately entranced: she wanted to be in a bakery.
Ludwinski started working at Milk Bar in the front of the house but made her way to the kitchen. Eager to expand her baking expertise, she secured funding through David Chang’s scholarship organization and staged at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor and Avalon International Breads in Detroit. Ludwinski returned to New York energized, and after working within the Momofuku organization for another year, she was ready to build something of her own.

What ended up as Sister Pie started pretty humbly in Ludwinski’s parents’ kitchen in Milford. Demand—for pies and cookies—increased dramatically, and Ludwinski found herself looking to settle into a brick and mortar space. That’s when the baker won $50,000 from Comerica Hatch Detroit, a contest honoring local entrepreneurs and independent retailers. Still needing cash, Ludwinski hosted a 24-hour dance-a-thon to raise another $25,000 and finally open her dream space, where she’s making and selling pastry with the kind of can-do creativity that overjoys a city. 

Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Pastry Chef Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Lisa Ludwinski:
I started out of my parent’s kitchen, moved back to Detroit from Brooklyn with the intention of opening a bakery four years ago. Sister pie is 16 months old. 

I went to college in Michigan for theater and moved to New York City to be a theatre director. I quickly realized I was more interested in food. Newly curious, I started a cooking show out of my apartment called “Funny Side Up.” It’s funny that I didn’t know what I was doing, once a week for two years. It was super low budget, but I wanted to immerse myself in the world of food. Brooklyn was an awesome place in 2008. I moved around a lot, five apartments in six years, most of the time in South Slope. While I was doing the show, I was working behind the counter at East Village Milk Bar and really wanted to work there to get in the kitchen. I made my idea known and started as an intern and moved up. That is the bulk of my professional kitchen experience. 

There’s a certain type of grit that goes into baking. The main take way from Milk Bar, for me, was how to improvise in the kitchen. They were also making family meal in the commissary, and I’d never worked in restaurant before, and thought it was such a cool concept! Momofuku Ssam Bar was making meals every day for us. Working at Milk Bar was a great way to develop creative impulses and cook and bake confidently. A lot of my pastry cooks will laugh about how lackadaisical I can be, but it produces great results. I’m pretty lighthearted about cooking, but we have strict rules in terms of our product. I’m open to experimentation, and know that while sometimes I will not make the best thing ever made, the quality of the experience for the customer and employee is ultra good. 

Farm to table–– it’s rare for a bakery to do that. People expect blueberry muffins all year along, be we refuse to do it unless they’re in season and bought from local farmers. 

SK: Where else did you develop you pie skills? 
At Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, I worked there for a brief summer, I developed my pie skills, making dough and crust roll outs.

SK: Who’s your mentor? 
Christina Tosi was a mentor when I worked [at Milk Bar]. I knew I was itching to do something on my own. I still talked to her, about writing cookbooks. Jenni Britten Bauer is a mentor too, but she doesn’t realize it. She’s coming here with her ice cream to do dessert pairings. I was obsessed with Jeni and her flavor combos and Mid Western spirit; I felt a kinship. She’s an inspiration. I wish I had more experiences and staged more places, but I got started late in my 20s and wanted to get going because I’m very bossy!

SK: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant? 
There’s a lot of challenges. The biggest is how to grow and stay small; growing without expanding. Growth to me means improvement and embracing exciting things that are happening. We have people coming in from all over, and the national media. We want to create a business that has a long term future with high living wage for employees, hours that are reasonable, and work that is challenging and good. We keep our eyes on that prize all the time. A common thing that happens is a business has success and then things fall apart. We want to maintain a commitment to high standards and a code of ethics. I want to grow my career as a chef and business owner while maintaining a presence here in the neighborhood.

SK: What's your five year plan? 
I would like to have purchased the building, expanded to the back and re-do the basement. I want to have a walk-in cooler and freezer. We want to maximize what we can produce out of this one place. Wholesale accounts, coffee shops—I want to expand  to that. We want 60 percent retail, 20 wholesale, and 20 percent weddings and special events. We want a delivery van to deliver to grocery stores, but I refuse to do it unless we have more space, time, and employees. Employees are coming from, relatively, around here. They find us through walking in or seeing a sign or Instagram post. We’re committed to hiring people who live in Detroit. It’s really helpful to have people who have trained in pastry, but we need a balance with people who have less experience. I lean towards hiring people with little experience because a lot of our employees move up from dishwasher.