This Award Winner's Journey to the "Time 100"Maggie Borden
May 25, 2017
With a Boston restaurant empire, three James Beard Awards, and a spot in this year’s Time 100, Barbara Lynch has rightfully earned her place in the pantheon of great American chefs. To celebrate the release of her new memoir, Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, we sat down with Lynch to talk about her journey from humble beginnings in South Boston, her new passion projects, and her dreams of helping women succeed in the kitchen and beyond.
JBF: You have eight restaurants, all located in Boston. Why did you decide to keep your restaurant group within the city?
Barbara Lynch: I felt like I had a purpose: to create the things I felt that Boston was missing at the time. When I opened No. 9 Park and Menton, we had just lost the Ritz dining room and Maison Robert. Menton was what I felt the city needed. We had butcher shops and good Italian restaurants, but they were all in the North End—why not in downtown or South Boston? I didn't feel comfortable going to anybody else’s city. I’m from Boston, and I knew I’d have a life in Boston. If I worked in New York, I’d have to work 24/7. I was happy staying in my hometown.
JBF: At this year’s Cherry Bombe Jubilee, you spoke about getting out of the day-to-day management of your restaurant group and focusing on new projects, including a women’s bank. Tell us more about that.
BL: “Bank” is a loose term. I don’t want to own a bank because it’s worse than owning a restaurant. It’s a boys’ club, and it takes like, $10 million to start it. What we’re working on now is partnering with companies and groups, like Vertex, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship. CWE focuses on building women’s confidence through job-skill trainings, and also by helping them to find financing. I want to make it easier on women: put the forms into layman’s terms, make the loan percentages lower, have an online ATM where you’re not charged just to take your own money out. Basically, I want to make you feel like you’re banking with dignity.
JBF: You also mentioned at that event that you’re working on a line of dehydrated vegetable products?
BL: Yes, it’s called Barbara Lynch Made, and I first designed it about eight years ago. Right now it’s in packs: there’s a summer pack, a winter pack, and a mushroom pack. It’s all dehydrated with no sulfites or dips to protect it—we use an ancient preservation method, how it was done thousands of years ago.
I wanted it sourced and produced in the United States, but it has taken a long time to find companies that dehydrate veggies here. I finally found one in California that has a dehydrator the size of two football fields, and we’re negotiating with Colorado school systems and the USDA to get this into schools.
It’s actually a better product for Colorado schools than what they use now, because they have so many power outages. Right now they buy a 50-pound box of frozen vegetables, and probably only use about ten pounds a day. If they have a power outage, they lose all 50 pounds, so they’re out of whack in terms of their yearly food costs. My product weighs nothing, and it doesn't have to be in a freezer. All you do is boil water and reconstitute it. You get a better flavor and texture than from frozen, and the nutrients stay the same.
JBF: What inspired you to make a preserved product?
BL: I think looking backward is inevitable when you’re writing a memoir, and I kept thinking about how I was raised. I grew up in the projects. My mother worked multiple jobs to keep us off welfare. My breakfast was Hostess’s Suzy-Qs or garlic potato chips if I woke up too late for Cheerios. My mother had diabetes, and I’ve battled with my weight my whole life. We just had shit food—it was the era of TV dinners and frozen mac-and-cheese.
Now we have an opportunity. When my daughter was young, she had to be in the hospital a lot for ear infections. I’d stay overnight with her, and the only place to get food was the vending machine. And what were your options? Cheez-Its, Snickers, or ramen soup with shitloads of sodium. I wanted the choice of healthier food, and this product is an answer to that. It’s amazing—all you do is boil water and reconstitute it. I eat it all the time when I don’t have the time to go grocery shopping.
JBF: Are you planning to continue oversee the restaurants while working on the women’s bank and the vegetable line?
BL: No. 9 Park is 20 years old, and I’m almost starting to feel like a grandmother, because we’ve spawned a lot of great chefs. I’m focused on preparing my staff to be ready for the day when I can get my first-round investors out and I can just be an advisor. I want to be able to give back to my team and have them own some stakes in the restaurants.
JBF: In your memoir, you give a lot of credit to your home economics teacher Susan Logozzo, writing that she “saved your life,” and gave you the education that ultimately opened the door for you to achieve your dreams. How do you feel about the current state of home economics in schools?
BL: I’ve seen schools in the suburbs raise $3 million to build a new football field, but they don’t have the money for home ec? Home ec sets you up for success no matter what you do. You won’t be held hostage to packaged foods. Dietary issues would decrease because kids would learn how to cook, and would be more awake in school. It would be a healthier world, and then maybe there’d be less press about making a billion dollars as a football player.
I feel like we’ve got to aim higher. If the federal government is going to continue to subsidize our public schools, then we need more lobbyists that are going to work for our children.
JBF: You’ve spent much of your career helping to mentor young women in the restaurant industry. What are you most proud of in terms of advocating for women’s leadership roles?
BL: Well, I have a daughter, and this is really all for her. She’s 13—what’s it going to be like when she’s heading off to college? What challenges will she face when she’s deciding on her career? I’m trying to just show her what opportunities are out there. The thing is, I made it here. And if I could do this, anyone can. I was a scrappy son of a gun, and even with dyslexia and ADD, I figured out how to get it done.
JBF: Looking at the industry now, and where it’ll be by the time your daughter is an adult, would you want her to work in the restaurant industry?
BL: Not unless she really wants to. I think the most difficult thing is going to be following in my footsteps. I want her to do whatever she wants, and to be the best at what she wants to be. Right now, she could be a Broadway singer, but she’s also very funny, and she’s a brilliant soccer player. I don't know what she’s going to do. I hope she changes a lot as she grows. I seem to change every seven years, so I hope she does, too.
JBF: What has been the biggest surprise from this journey of writing and touring with your memoir?
BL: How great the book is going and how far I’ve come. Honestly, I thought I’d just have a sub or steak shop in South Boston. I never thought I’d get this far, and I’m really happy with who I am now. I’m happy, but I’m not done yet.
Can’t make it to Boston? Get a taste of Lynch’s culinary creations at home with her recipe for Poulet au Pain.
Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.