Advice from James Beard Award-winning Restaurateur Barbara Lynch

James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch at JWU Providence

James Beard Award-winning Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch will be at JWU’s Providence Campus on April 18 for a very special Q&A followed by a book signing of her new memoir, “Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire” (Simon & Schuster). She will also be at the Denver Campus on May 13.

A high school dropout, this largely self-taught chef fell in love with fine dining as a teenager, when she bused tables at Boston’s exclusive St. Botolph Club. Nearly 3 decades later, she oversees a restaurant empire that includes some of Boston’s most acclaimed restaurants, ranging in style from elegant No. 9 Park to the low-key Sportello in Fort Point Channel.

For the no-nonsense Lynch, success means following gut instincts. Excerpted rom her 2011 Distinguished Visiting Chef talk at JWU’s College of Culinary Arts, her practical advice to culinary students about defining your own career path:

What It Takes to Be a Chef
Being a chef is one of those jobs where you have to know everything — not just about cooking, but about how long it takes to clean the grease trap, or to wash dishes. You have to live and breathe it.

How She Made It Out of Southie
I was born in South Boston. At age 12, I knew I wanted to cook. I was a terrible student — 4 yrs of home ec totally saved me. But I learned from my mother’s example: she had such a strong work ethic. She worked at the St. Botolph Club, which is how I got interested in food.

I had all kinds of jobs before cooking. Worked the docks, and at a food warehouse. Martha’s Vineyard was my 1st cooking job. I’d never even cooked before, so I just read and read and read. I’d read “The Foods of Italy” by Waverley Root on the train commuting to work, and I’d totally absorb it.

I had a friend in Italy and went for a visit — what a surprise that was. I thought everything would be in English. I learned how to skin a rabbit. Don’t know where I got the balls, frankly.

Trust your instincts” is one of James Beard Award-winning chef Barbara Lynch’s mantras.

Set Your Own Goals
Think about where you want to be in 10 years and go for it. If you have the passion, money will follow.

Find Mentors
When you’re looking for a job, find restaurants that will set you up for success. Treat people the way you want to be treated, and you’ll get that respect right back. Roll up your sleeves. Take criticism and grow from it.

Be Savvy about Business
I don’t have a business background, but I knew I had to be smart about labor, food and material costs. You have to read a LOT. Be on top of every detail.  Food cost is SO important — always pay attention to waste and look at invoices every single day. Everything matters — pennies will kill you. And remember: only one protein on the plate at a time!

How She Runs a Growing Restaurant Empire
I used to have a COO who answered to me, but I felt too remote from my own company. Now I receive back-of-house emails each morning from every restaurant summarizing the previous evening’s service: what worked, what didn’t, who came in, what sorts of criticisms we received, etc.

Then we get together for a tactical meeting every week. One hour to hear the good, the bad and the ugly from every restaurant. We over-communicate!

So You Think You Want to Own a Restaurant?
Be smart and start slow. Be conservative about costs. As you grow, you can start to relax and focus on what’s important.

Barbara Lynch’s signature banana split with chocolate ice cream.

Barbara Lynch’s signature banana split with chocolate ice cream.

Topics: Careers Culinary Arts Providence