A life of pie: Valerie Lucks on the pie trail
Seems everyone has a little bit of a soft spot for pie.
Whether it's the cherry pie your grandmother used to make in her kitchen every summer, the pumpkin or pecan pie your family always ate on Thanksgiving or the Dolly Madison chocolate pies your mom would sneak into your lunch when you were especially well-behaved, there's a good pie memory lurking in almost everyone's consciousness.
But there are few people in Milwaukee who love pie more than Valerie Lucks, co-owner of Comet Café, Honeypie Café and Palomino.
"I think I'm drawn to pie because it's really universal," Lucks says. "It's everywhere. And people love it."
She says she gleaned a love for baking from her mother, who primarily made cakes, but she thinks her love for pie must have been passed down from her great grandmother, whose recipes she still uses.
"I started baking pies in secret," she says, "When my mother wasn't home. I'd go door to door and borrow ingredients we didn't have from the neighbors."
"My mother would be furious," she recollects. "But it was something I loved to do."
When Lucks moved to Milwaukee with her brother Adam in 2005 to help Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro turn Milwaukee's beloved coffee shop, Comet, into a full service cafe, she began making pies for the restaurant.
"It was really just an apple pie here and another pie there," she said.
And, even when they opened Honeypie Café in 2009, Lucks said she thought pie wouldn't be much more than a sideline.
"Again, I thought we'd only do a few pies a day," she says. "But people loved them so much, we had to change the way we thought."
Over the years, as the business grew, Lucks says she began to find her life revolving around the quest for great pie ideas. A lover of road trips, she found herself seeking out pies whenever she'd travel.
"It kind of started by accident," she says. "In 2011, a couple of friends of mine and I took back roads out to the Grand Canyon and back. Everyone else was on motorcycles and I was in my Jeep, so I'd poke around at restaurants and pie shops while they were doing motorcycle stuff."
"And as I was going," she says, "It dawned on me that I was documenting this."
Eventually, she says, pie became a framework for planning her roadtrips, which have included trips through the Midwest, to the South and across the Pacific Northwest. In fact, in the past five years she's visited nearly 30 states on a quest to find inspiration from the best pies in the nation.
"A lot of it is getting into these small towns and byways and looking at what they have," Lucks tells me as she describes criteria for her travels. "Sometimes it's a BBQ stand. Sometimes it's a pie shop or a bakery. But, no matter where I find the pie, it always gives me a little glimpse into the community."
Lucks admits that not every pie she tries is good.
"Honestly," she says, "On my first trip through the south, I was so excited. But, I ended up really disappointed. It seemed like everywhere I went, the pie wasn't from scratch. It was premade pie."
She says she began to suspect that all the good pie in the south was being made by peoples' grandmothers. But, then she happened upon the Tupelo Honey Café in Asheville, NC.
"They're kind of a Comet-type restaurant," she says. "They make this amazing blueberry cream pie. It's the only pie they make. And it became the inspiration for our berries and cream pies."
Lucks says she has great admiration for pie shops that make classic pies in a new way.
"There was a banana cream pie in Denver," she says. "It was from a little shop called Humble Pie, and it was amazing. They make a graham crust – with the flour, not the crumbled crackers. And there were big chunks of banana and real whipped cream… you never get big pieces of banana in banana cream pie … I got it and drove out of town and then ate it … and I was so mad I was too far away to go back for more."
Others are so memorable, she goes back again and again.
"Upper Crust in Kansas City really makes some of the best pie in the country," she says, with a look of true admiration on her face.
"Their peach pie… I dream about that pie," she goes on. "I took a train once from St. Louis to Kansas City. And I was on the train going back to St. Louis, and I'm eating this pie. And I just wanted to turn the train around and go back."
But, despite the deliciousness of the pie, Lucks says it's often the pie-makers who are most memorable.
"Recently I was in Nashville," she recounts. "I was on my way to Tuscaloosa and I stopped at a little town in Tennessee. I was trying to find this pie place that had been listed as one of the best … it turns out it was a guy and his dad baking pie in this building underneath the bank.
"I sat and talked to those guys forever," she goes on. "We talked about regional pies, and how nobody in the north knows what chess pie is … and how southerners don't understand rhubarb pie. It was great."
Lucks says that many of the pies she makes and serves at the restaurants are based on inspiration from her travels. Others are ideas that come from the seven bakers she now has on staff to meet the daily needs of the restaurant.
"The honey pie we started serving a few years ago is a good example," she says. "We realized we really ought to serve a pie with our name in it. And Sarah Elliot, one of our bakers, developed that recipe."
Honeypie has at least 50 flavors of pie in their repertoire, with probably six to eight showing up daily on the menu.
"There's always a chocolate, a banana and coconut," she says. "But from there we rotate, depending on ingredients and inspiration."
She admits that sometimes it's just about what she feels like making.
"Sometimes the way I make pie is very selfish," she confesses. "I do what I'm hungry for. And I've always approached it based on what I want to eat. Fortunately, what I want to eat is also what other people want to eat."
And, although she focuses primarily on sweet pies, she says more savory pies are in the works.
"One thing I did find in the south were great savory pies," she says. "And, actually, at Palomino, we're going to start 'pie and whiskey' events starting in July where we'll do a small menu of savory pies and whiskeys. It will be fun. And we have so many great whiskeys to try."
When I asked Lucks when she's taking her next road trip, she was quick to answer.
"In September I'm planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains," she said. "And this fall I want to travel the northern stretch of Mississippi and Alabama – go through Natchez Trace and the Blues Trail. At some point I'd also like to cover the southern part of California, south of San Francisco. I haven't been there yet."
In the meantime, she says she's really having fun with the "PieGram" program they started recently at Honeypie.
It was an idea she came up with years ago when she wanted to send a gift to a pie loving friend in San Francisco.
"I had no idea how pie would hold up being shipped across the country," she said. "So, I started experimenting. I'd take a bunch of pies, pack them up and let them rattle around in my trunk for a few days. Then I'd open them up to see what they looked like."
Ultimately, she settled on mini pies, packed with tissue into a pie box. And then she decided it would be a great idea for the restaurant.
"I'd love for someone to mail me a pie," she says. "So, I figured I wasn't the only one."
Available pies come in flavors like cherry bomb crumb, almond blueberry streusel, salted brownie, lemon chess, whiskey walnut pecan and Wisconsin honey. And each PieGram comes with a little handmade card, including a brand new "I'm sorry" card, featuring the Honeypie pig with his head bent forward in shame.
Lucks says the mini pie business is going well, and that it picks up over holidays.
"I've done almost no promotion of it," she says. "But, we get a lot of business around Mother's Day and Father's Day. And it's a great way to grow the business outside of the Milwaukee border without actually having to open another restaurant."
For information and pricing for PieGrams, visit pie-gram.com.
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