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Why Phoebe Lawless Is Shocked To Be A James Beard Semi-finalist

Phoebe Lawless
Lissa Gotwals

People who bake pies for a living usually do so because they love it. Not to win awards. So when Phoebe Lawless of Scratch bakery learned recently that the James Beard Foundation named her a semi-finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef – an honor she shares with only 19 others in the country – she was thoroughly shocked.   “I certainly did not expect to find myself on the list,” she said.  Lawless learned of the honor while at home on her couch, when someone mentioned it on Twitter.  

Lawless claims that being a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award is not something she aspired to. “If I did, I probably would have stayed in fine dining,” she admits, alluding to her days as assistant pastry chef at James Beard Award-winning Magnolia Grill. In the past, recipients of the Outstanding Pastry Chef Award have usually been affiliated with a fine dining establishment. But Scratch is different. It’s a bakery, serving only breakfast, lunch, and desserts. One of their main draws is their pie. Lawless says the fact that she and other more traditional bakers are on the list makes her think that The Foundation is starting to recognize the skill of bakers, in addition to fine dining pastry chefs. “It’s a validation for me as a baker,” she says, “that something as humble and traditional as a pie - something made in the home – is being taken seriously.”

But Lawless also whips up things that you might not make at home.  Some recent concoctions include grapefruit brûlée, beet cream tarts, pickled eggs, and chocolate sea salt crostatas.  It’s no surprise that all the jobs she has ever held have involved either plants or food.  She got her start in the kitchen as a prep cook, when she was in her mid-twenties.  After honing her skills for years as an assistant pastry chef to James Beard Award winner Karen Barker at the late Magnolia Grill in Durham, Lawless finally decided to start her own establishment.  In 2008, she began Scratch.  At first, it was a farmer’s market only business – she baked pies out of her personal kitchen and sold them on weekends at the Durham Farmers Market.  But in June 2010, she opened a store in downtown Durham.

Among her most popular baked goods include her shaker lemon pie and her hand pies, smaller savory pies containing meat and/or vegetables.  She says that at any given time, they have from eight to ten different flavors of pie. Here is a recipe she shared with WUNC:

Vanilla Cardamom Rice Tart

  • ¾ cup whole milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ vanilla bean, scraped
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 1 heavy cup cooked fragrant rice
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 round tart pastry

Combine milk, sugar, cooked rice, vanilla bean and cardamom in small sauce pan. Heat until just reaches a simmer.Whisk together eggs, egg yolks, salt, and sour cream. Temper with rice milk and mix until smooth. Can be made one day ahead.
Meanwhile, roll out your pastry into a tart ring and place on a parchment lined sheet pan. Freeze rolled tart. 
Heat oven to 325. Bake tart pastry until just golden in spots and loses its raw look. Pour in filling and carefully put into oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate pan and bake for another 5. Allow to cool down for 15-20 minutes then store in refrigerator. Serve chilled.

Stay tuned! This week, we’re taking a closer look at some of the local restaurants and chefs nominated as semi-finalists for the James Beard Awards. North Carolina claimed 13 semi-finalists for the annual Restaurant and Chef Awards, nine of which are in or near the Triangle. The James Beard Foundation will announce its finalists for the Restaurant and Chef Awards on March 18 and the winners on May 3.

Laura moved from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill in 2013 to join WUNC as a web producer. She graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the spring of 2012 and has created radio and multimedia stories for a variety of outlets, including Marketplace, Prairie Public, and Maine Public Broadcasting. When she's not out hunting stories, you can usually find her playing the fiddle.
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