Scratching the Surface with Baker Phoebe Lawless

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Photo by Baxter Miller for Bit & Grain

The light seeped through the window bouncing off the rogue crumbs and sugar crystals that lingered on my shirt.

I made my way to Boulted Bread a bit early, so my senses could run around on the morning bun’s citrusy, textural playground. I wanted to give Durham chef and baker Phoebe Lawless my undivided attention but I knew the sugary croissant would command my focus. As I took the last bite, James Beard Award semi-finalist Phoebe Lawless walked into the bakery, the sun spilling in behind her.

Wearing a kelly green scarf and kind smile, Phoebe greeted me with the humble confidence of an award-winning chef. Before settling in, she made her way to the counter to order a few loaves of stone milled bread to tote back to Durham. In that moment, it hit me that I was about to interview the woman behind the bacon jam that I couldn’t live without until, well, I had to live without. 

“What was your path to becoming a baker and a chef?” I promised myself I wouldn’t ask the question because I wanted to know the Phoebe Lawless sans chef’s hat, but it’s one of the hats she wears the most. “I don’t know anyone who wakes up and says they want to be a chef, but I’m sure people do,” she said. “My path was fairly traditional.” 

Long story short, Phoebe’s parents settled in Hendersonville, North Carolina before Phoebe started high school. Hendersonville was a small mountain town at the time, with less than 10,000 people. “We lived on the side of a mountain,” Phoebe recounted. “It was pretty idyllic.” When Phoebe graduated, she hit that traditional road for North Carolina State University where she would meet her first culinary influence; a handsome, Greek grad student. 

I love a good dating story, especially one that plays a significant role in a person’s life, so I leaned in like I was at a high school slumber party with all my girlfriends. While Phoebe was studying biochemistry and genetics at N.C. State, she started dating a guy who was working on his master’s degree in aquaculture in Hendersonville. “He lived in an itty-bitty cabin in the woods,” she said with nostalgia in her voice. I felt as though I was listening to the beginning of a Nicholas Sparks novel.  “He kept coolers of mountain trout and bass and would grill everything, so as a starry-eyed, 19-year-old small town girl, he was pretty amazing,” she said with a little laugh.

Phoebe was mesmerized by the ability of the 24-year-old handsome guy from Cyprus to cook all of his food on a grill and do it really well.  “It made a deep impression on me.” she said reminiscing. Phoebe kept that impression in her back pocket for a rainy day. And then, the rain came. 

While Phoebe was in her third year at N.C. State, her mother fell ill. She decided to leave school to move back to Hendersonville in order to care for her. While with her mom, Phoebe decided she wanted to pivot away from her academic studies and pursue a career in the culinary world (thanks to her former boyfriend’s influence). “My mother wasn’t thrilled about me making the change but said she would support my decision,” said Phoebe. “So I travelled around and decided that it’s 100 percent what I wanted to do.” 

Six months after Phoebe left N.C. State, her mom died, which ultimately changed everything. Instead of pursuing her plan to attend culinary school, Phoebe took a job as a cook at the nicest restaurant in Hendersonville. “I told the guy running the kitchen that I didn’t have any experience and he said he would teach me. I learned a lot in a few short months.”  

Phoebe eventually left Hendersonville and made her way back to Raleigh, where she worked back of house at a few restaurants until a friend told her that Magnolia Grill was hiring a baker. “I was incredibly confident,” Phoebe smiled, “so I thought I would just get the job and switch from savory to baking.” It was the 90s and chefs Ben and Karen Barker’s Magnolia Grill was the only restaurant in the area that had any kind of merit, so it was a no-brainer for Phoebe to jump on the opportunity. 

Working under James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Karen Barker was the launching pad for Phoebe’s baking career. She quickly realized that she didn’t want to go back to the savory side and eventually became the head baker. “There wasn’t bullshit in baking,” Phoebe explained. “You go in and you learn a craft. Plus, the hours were great and allowed me the quality of life that I wanted.”

After honing in on her craft for six years at Magnolia Grill, Phoebe decided to step away when she gave birth to her daughter. She spent four years at home, but she didn’t stop baking. During this time, the Southern Foodways Alliance asked Phoebe to be part of its food symposium in Oxford, Mississippi in 2009. The SFA ultimately impacted the trajectory of Phoebe’s baking career. She went from selling her pies and pastries at the Durham Farmer’s Market to opening Scratch Bakery in 2010 and The Lakewood and Baby Scratch in 2017. Phoebe’s simple approach to baking earned her four James Beard Award nominations. 

I wasn’t exactly sure what my face looked like when Phoebe paused, waiting for my next question. My eyes were wide (I could feel them), and my fist rested under my chin. Could she tell that I was in awe of her humble recount of her journey to becoming one of the most loved bakers in the Triangle? I wanted to know more. I was so engaged that I lost track of time and my chance to snag a loaf of Boulted Bread’s levain. 

My final questions were ones that had been burning a hole in my pocket. I wanted to know her thoughts on being a highly-recognized chef, the activities that give her life when she’s not thinking of the next life-changing pie recipe, and how she uses her platform to create change. Needless to say, I was not surprised by her no-bullshit, honest answers. 

“Essentially, we’re all doing this because we’re looking for the satisfaction of bringing people joy.” Phoebe replied in regards to being a highly recognized chef. “Having that publicly touted is a nice affirmation.” She reminded me, however, that it’s not as glamorous as people think. From long hours with little to no sleep to events with little to no pay, the restaurant industry is grueling. The beautiful photos we see, the well-written articles we read, and the wildly delicious meals we eat often times come at a cost that we don’t see as the consumer. “There are definitely perks to being recognized but that’s because people have worked really, really hard to get that recognition.” And from the little I’ve seen while working with CurEat (and we’re outsiders looking in), I agreed wholeheartedly with Phoebe’s statement. 

I mulled over Phoebe’s words while she continued to tell me about her world outside of her work. We naturally made our way to the topic of community. It is almost a given that a lauded chef will use their platform to impact the broader community or support social justice issues on a national stage (and they do so from the heart). Sometimes it’s the smaller acts that we don’t hear about that have the biggest ripple effect in the community. So what was a way in which Phoebe felt she was making the greatest impact? Her response was building positive relationships and work environment. 

“I feel pretty lucky that my small part was creating a culture/work environment that was safe and where I could pay people as much as I could,” she explained. “There were days when it was very chaotic and sucked for all the reasons, but for the most part I feel it was a very positive place.”  

The warmth from the bakery would envelop you before you even crossed over the shop’s threshold. From the lavender chess pie to the simple tomato pastry, you could taste the positive intentionality that Phoebe put into each recipe. I remember the first time I walked up to the counter to order at Scratch. I didn’t feel overwhelmed or lost, but welcomed by the person who handed my black coffee over to me. If it was one of those chaotic days that Phoebe described, it wasn’t evident by the environment or atmosphere. It was obvious that the good outweighed the trial of the day for everyone in the bakery. 

As we began to wrap up our conversation, Phoebe said something that struck a very prominent cord in me, “Again, I think that the driving force for people who do this work is to bring joy to people’s lives. It’s not because they expect to get wealthier or cook the food that they fantasize about because the reality is not everybody likes the food that they fantasize about. Sometimes you have to cook the things you don’t love. It’s also all about relationships and it starts with the immediate relationships that you have.”

On that note, I thanked Phoebe for spending a chunk of her morning with me, gave her a hug, and made my way to my car, -my steps lighter than when I arrived. Phoebe’s humble attitude about her career and life was a breath of fresh air. To her, what may have seemed like a normal, run-of-the-mill interview was actually quite the opposite for me. I saw a strong woman, wearing a kelly green scarf, who values relationships, positivity, simplicity, food, and family. To be honest, I saw a woman worth imitating.  

If you live in or around Durham and miss Phoebe Lawless’ cooking, you can subscribe to her snack service. She sends an email each week to tell you what she is cooking. She makes one sweet and one savory. And if you want to know where Phoebe Lawless eats and drinks from NOLA to D.C., follow her on CurEat.

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