East Durham Bake Shop’s Ali Rudel Finds Pie Waiting at Every Fork in the Road of Her Life | Food Feature | Indy Week
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East Durham Bake Shop’s Ali Rudel Finds Pie Waiting at Every Fork in the Road of Her Life 

click to enlarge Ginger-lemon chess pie at East Durham Bake Shop

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Ginger-lemon chess pie at East Durham Bake Shop

When we got to Durham, it was like we were supposed to be here," says Ali Rudel. She's talking not only about her East Durham Bake Shop, which opened last month, but also about her family finding its home in the Bull City.

When some people are handed lemons, they make lemonade. Rudel makes pie—ginger-lemon chess pie, to be exact. No matter what adversity life has served her, pie has been her life preserver, from lucking into a successful Brooklyn bake shop to moving to Durham, starting a family, fighting cancer, and ultimately finding salvation in the meditative craft of making pie. With the opening of East Durham Bake Shop, Rudel has arrived home.

Since the age of fourteen, Rudel had never lived anywhere for longer than a year. She prided herself on not owning more stuff than could fit in her car. Her nomadic life led her to college at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before she moved to Virginia, where she earned a degree in linguistics from the College of William & Mary. After graduation, Rudel returned to Brooklyn and began looking for a job. With previous experience as a barista, she was hired at a pie shop, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, owned by sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen. It went on to become one of the most famous bakeries in the country.

Though Rudel was hired to sling coffee, she quickly became fascinated by all things pie. After finishing a shift behind the espresso machine, she haunted the kitchen, eagerly soaking up all the pie knowledge the Elsens had to share. As the business flourished, so did Rudel's baking skills. Before long she was baking pies to keep up with demand and making them her own; Rudel's recipe for salt-pork apple pie is featured in the Elsens' best-selling cookbook, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book.

While she was living in New York and honing her pie craft, Rudel met and married a Florida boy, Ben Filippo, and they started talking about moving to an area that was conducive to a growing family—a small, affordable city that was also rich with cultural opportunities. For Rudel, a vibrant food scene was also important, someplace that supported sustainable agriculture and a farm-to-fork food chain. After growing up eating processed and fast food, she wanted to raise her kids on wholesome food connected to its source.

Rudel found that the Triangle checked all the boxes: it was affordable, culturally diverse, and boasted a thriving food scene. Its temperate climate was also appealing. Once they arrived, in 2011, Rudel took a job managing the Chapel Hill farmers market and was preparing to start working at a nonprofit when a cancer diagnosis sabotaged her plans. Her new normal became all about self-education and survival.

While she was in treatment and recuperating, a traditional full-time job wasn't feasible. Once again, Rudel turned to pie. To her, baking was a meditative process that provided a way to work from home and maximize family time. The couple had its kitchen certified for commercial cooking, and Rudel sourced seasonal ingredients from the farmers and producers she met during her stint at the farmers market, spinning them into fillings like ginger apple, malted pumpkin, and maple sweet potato. The East Durham Pie Company was born, and Rudel's pies, with their delicate, flaky crust and creative flavor combinations, quickly earned her a dedicated following wherever she sold them, whether at Ponysaurus Brewing or farmers markets and pop-ups.

In July 2016, the couple launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to build a permanent bakery and cafe. By mid-August they had raised more than $24 thousand. In January 2017, they found a space at the intersection of South Driver Street and Angier Avenue, but it took well over a year to rebuild it from the ground up. When the renovations were finally complete, on March 21, they officially opened for business.

At East Durham Bake Shop, Rudel continues her mission of crafting food with care and seasonal ingredients that are sourced as locally as possible. The name change also comes with an expanded menu. In addition to pies, Rudel, Filippo, and their team—all of whom you can see at work in the open kitchen—now also produce baked goods including scones, cobblers, crisps, and gold-standard chocolate chip cookies, along with savory items like galettes, hand pies, pot pies, soups, and salads.

They've also earned a following for their laminated pastries, such as croissants (try the Videri chocolate variety) and the popular morning buns. Making laminated dough is a labor-intensive process that involves folding dough and butter over and over to create a dough that can have dozens or even thousands of layers. Most bakers use a machine called a sheeter, but Rudel and her team make the laminated dough completely by hand, which she admits is crazy.

Change is a constant in everyone's life. With pie as her constant, Rudel welcomes change with open arms and hands as she works through it one ball of dough at a time.

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