“I’ve made the biggest mistake,” Chef Barbara Lynch stated as soon as she took her seat at the high-top positioned before 120+ captivated students gathered in the Harborside Amphitheater. “I’m late. This is not a business in which you can be late. And I’m the worst driver by the way.”
For someone who unofficially started driving at the age of 13 (she stole a bus), the irony is indisputable. She arrived at the Providence Campus later than planned for an exclusive appearance as part of her national tour for her new memoir titled “Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire” (Simon & Schuster). (She’ll make a similar stop at the Denver Campus on May 13.)
She’s a contradiction in terms — tough, all dressed in black, masking the self-doubt of the hard-knock life that shaped her into an iconic chef. Brutal honesty and a tender openness make her approachable and engaging. She was number 6 of 7 kids, and her father died a month before she was born. Her Dickensian South Boston background was fertile ground for mischief, mistakes and mayhem. A survivor mentality and risk-taking youth drove her towards success. An “I-can-do-that” attitude — no matter the task — grounded her despite her inability to wrap her head around what was later recognized as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
Through the discovery of high school home economics and the benevolent educators who allowed her to repeat the class multiple times, she stayed in high school but never graduated. Today, she is the James Beard Award-winning founder and CEO of Barbara Lynch Gruppo, where she oversees 7 celebrated restaurants ranging from a casual but elegant “clam shack” (B&G Oysters) to Boston’s epitome of modern haute cuisine, Menton. She is a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef and is regarded as one of Boston’s — and the country’s — leading chefs and restaurateurs.
Susan Marshall, EdD, associate dean of the College of Culinary Arts, sat across from Lynch, posing questions for nearly an hour. Lynch shared her personal journey, intimately, thoughtfully, provocatively — an f-bomb here and there — more here, more there.
WHERE IT BEGAN
In high school, I was reading from this big book and I said to my teacher, when the hell am I going to use Gaelic? That’s how I ended up in home economics. My teacher, Susan Lagozza, saved my life. She accepted me like no adult ever had. I'd never had focused adult attention like that.
WHY A MEMOIR?
I didn’t want to write a memoir. I had to Google what it meant. My agent begged me to write it. I said, I’m too young to write a memoir. But it’s an American story. I’m still in shock how I got here.
My mother didn’t send us to summer camp — she put us outside and said don’t come back.”
WHAT ABOUT THAT CHILDHOOD?
I was so stupid as a kid, stealing a bus at 13. My friends helped me become a risk-taker. My mother didn’t send us to summer camp — she put us outside and said don’t come back. I learned how to make money at a very young age. I wrapped tin foil around a soda can and went door-to-door asking for money.
I was on Martha’s Vineyard working on a dinner cruise vessel. The guy who hired me said there are no women chefs. I stayed up all night and read a book on butchering and how to order, and I figured it out.
IS IT TRUE YOU PRETENDED TO BE A JWU STUDENT?
Yes, I was in survivor mode. It’s not good to lie.
WHERE DID YOU LEARN THE MOST?
In the dish pit. And cleaning a grease trap the size of Chicago.
ON BALANCING SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS AND KNOWING HOW TO PUT SOMEONE IN THEIR PLACE
I find a good relationship with that person. Todd (English, an early boss and mentor) was a screamer. I’d have a hive attack. If I don’t feel right, I walk out the door.
Don’t think about money, think about food. It comes from your heart.”
If you don’t feel like this is where you should be — shoot high — go for the challenges you don’t think you can complete. You are the one person who can make stuff happen.
ON FINDING HER PATH
I built a restaurant I knew I could handle. The most rewarding part of the job is building a team. Everyone is equal on my team.
ADVICE FOR FUTURE CHEFS
Be selective of where you go. These are the most important years. Give it your all. You are on your path now. By the time you’re in your early 30s, you should be owning your own restaurant. This is a young industry. Don’t think about money, think about food. It comes from your heart.