A Conversation with Chef Barbara Motherflippin' Lynch
The powerhouse chef on her new memoir, identity, and controlling destiny (or not).
April 24, 2017
Let me just say this: Barbara Lynch is all of us.
She’s a wanderer. Curious, insecure, impatient for something beyond her own demonstrated power. Despite four James Beard Awards, a Relais & Chateaux grand chef nod, and positions at the top of every “Best Of” list from nearly every industry rag—and, revealed just before press time, TIME's 100 Most Influential People in the World—she’s somehow confidently uncertain of herself (but exceedingly confident of others). She’s a true New Englander, sarcasm guarding her wary heart. She trusts and gets burned. She worries about being a good mother.
It’s all in her new memoir, Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, released this month. Along with well-worn narratives about her hard-knock Southie upbringing, the book carries revelations regarding the world-famous chef’s struggles with childhood trauma, self-doubt, and sexual identity. It exposes the cracks in a Boston restaurant empire, and it does it honestly. This isn’t a shrine to success, but the chronicle of one very unusual, restless life. It’s a good read, plain and simple.
At the Cherry Bombe Jubilee conference a few days before the book’s release, Chef Lynch gave her life story yet another plot twist: an announcement that she’ll be giving her restaurants to her employees, focusing instead on a bank for women. I sat down with her a few days later to see if I could get some answers from a woman who seems to thrive on keeping us all guessing.
Lauren Friel: How are you?
Barbara Lynch: Tired. I’m tired, and it’s only week one. They already want another [memoir]. I haven’t even read the first one. But it’s good. It’s selling. That’s the idea, right?
LF: I have to say, I had all my questions ready to rock here, and then I heard what you said this past weekend at Jubilee about giving your restaurants to your employees and starting a bank for women, and I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ That’s not in the book.
BL: That’s the dream. I mean, I don’t want another restaurant, and these should be fucking running by now. No. 9 [Park] is 20 years old. [Menton] is almost 10. It’s hitting its stride now. I don’t want another restaurant, so why not? If I want to continue to have these [restaurants] run, which I do, it’s time for the staff to be a part of it. It’s way overdue. I’ll still advise, I’ll still be here, but, you know. It just gets tougher, with rent and more restaurants opening. It’s just going to get tougher and tougher. And 20 years is a long time.
LF: What do you think the Boston restaurant scene will be without you?
BL: Well, I’m not retiring.
LF: Yeah, but you’re talking about it. You’re a bastion. You’re the person.
BL: No, Ana [Sortun] is.
LF: Really, though. What do you think the city will be without you?
BL: I’m not going anywhere. I’m in the water. I’m just expanding. Like I said, these restaurants aren’t babies anymore. They need to stand on their own. I don’t want to have to worry about them anymore. If I want to move forward I’ve gotta let go. Giving my employees something isn’t even about a thank you – it’s about a need. It just gets harder and harder to live in the city, and they deserve it. A lot of my staff, they’ve been here forever. Bruce, my reservationist, he’s been here for 20 years. Whoever hits 10 years gets taken out to dinner, but they deserve more than that.
LF: Not many chefs plan to give their restaurants to their employees.
BL: Well, they should. They should have an exit strategy. I’m 53, I can’t do it. My daughter’s 13, so I’m gonna lose her soon to college. I’d love to have, like, just a little more time. Or a little bit of a life. That’d be nice. And the more free time I have, the more time I have to give back and inspire. It’d be ideal to have more time with my staff.
LF: I noticed in your book is that one of your strengths as a chef and a business owner seems to be that you don’t sentimentalize things. You recognize when it’s time to cut and change or shift directions. You don’t hold on to things. Where do you think that comes from?
BL: I don’t know. In general, I’m just not a worrier. If I thought about the past I’d be a mess, and if I looked ahead I’d be overwhelmed. I’m just like, ‘Let’s see what today brings.’ Gotta get my kid off to school. Give me 15 minutes and I’ll figure it out. That just works for me. If shit doesn’t work, it’s not meant to be. I need to have that kind of attitude. If it seems too hard, it’s not for us.
LF: What excites you most about the future?
BL: Growing. Not stopping, just shifting a gear. Honestly, I don’t think it’s feasible anymore to have a brick and mortar. It might be for the commercial restaurants, but not for me. I’ve never paid more than $11 per square foot. I would never pay $45. That just doesn’t work for the longevity of a restaurant. Plus, I have what I want. [Opening another restaurant] would be like doing another opera or another ballet. I’m done with it.
Well, I say I’m done. I’m never done, but I don’t need another restaurant. I don’t want another one.
LF: What about personally? Or are the personal and professional to intertwined that they’re one and the same?
BL: Yeah, I don’t have a personal life, really. It’s mostly professional. But what excites me most is more opportunity. Breaking barriers. You get to this age and you’re like, ‘Alright, this hasn’t been sitting well with me for years. I want to change it.’ Like banking and investing. To help give back, to get people up and out and on a positive road would be great.
LF: How do you see yourself contributing?
BL: I think I did a lot already, but it takes a village. The more that’s being built [in Boston], the more [corporations] have to become the community. Like GE and Vertex and PricewaterhouseCooper – they should be the ones helping. I’m not saying they’re not, but for some reason, it never hits the projects. It never hits the heart of Roxbury, it never hits Charlestown and the kids in those projects, and I know that. I was born and raised there, and I never knew anything that was going on unless it was in Southie. It’s a black hole. I don’t see kids from Southie hanging out down here [in the Seaport neighborhood]. They’re gonna put a park down here? Put money toward tearing down the project I grew up in. It’s the oldest project in the country. Fix it. You’re building a park, but it’s not for the [nearby] South Boston community, it’s for every little inventor or incubator or millennial. I just don’t agree with that.
It’s like why I want to fight for nutritional labels to change. Why do we have them in grams? A kid from the projects does not fucking weigh a carrot out on a gram scale. They do with cocaine, but nothing that’s gonna be healthy. So that’s where I go. Hitting the masses that really need the help.
LF: There are times in the book when you’re in these moments of incredible achievement – when you’re cooking next to people who are world-renowned, but you still come back to this sense of feeling like an outsider. You keep asking yourself, “What’s a kid from Southie doing here? What’s a kid from Southie doing here?” Even past the point at which you’ve become a household name yourself, you’re still thinking that. Do you think that insecurity is part of what drives you?
BL: Oh god, yeah. It doesn’t go away. Everyone thinks I’m really strong. I’m the weakest, mushiest person in the world. But, I would say that the insecurity isn’t as strong as it used to be. I used to have anxiety attacks just going out. I still don’t like going out. I like my friends, and I’m really comfortable with them. They don’t want anything from me, and they don’t judge.
The hard part about, um, the world is that a lot of it is just judging and thinking, ‘What can I get from you?’ The more success you have, the harder it gets. A lot of people would rather see you fail because it’s more to talk about. I knew that going in, so I don’t give a shit if I fail, and I don’t really care if I succeed. If I do succeed, yay, but I’m not gonna rest on my laurels. I just keep going.
LF: You have this strong identity of having come from Southie, and it’s clearly a big part of who you are, but there’s also a lot of trauma associated with what happened to you there as a kid, which you talk about in the book. It seems like a juxtaposition that must have been confusing when you were first developing as a chef. Did you ever want to distance yourself from that part of your identity? Did you feel like you needed to get out?
BL: I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to distance myself that much. But I did want to get help. I was so busy opening nine restaurants in how many years? Like eight years. That’s not right. I don’t think that’s normal. At one point I just felt, like, always tired. I had a baby, too. I was just always tired, always stressed out. And then I realized what I was doing. I wasn’t looking at me and what I needed to be happy. So, I’ll never leave, I still hang at the Shammy. We don’t change. I’ll never get rid of the trauma – you just learn to move it somewhere else. In order for me to grow, though, I had to write this.
LF: Did this feel cathartic and therapeutic? Are you worried about any of it being out there, the really personal stuff about your trauma and sexuality?
BL: I don’t worry. You can’t worry. You can’t. If you worry, it stops you. It will stop you, and if you let it, that’s wrong. That’s the difference between myself and someone else. I take those risks. And what am I gonna do now? I wrote it. It’s out. Why worry about it?
LF: You talk a lot about your sense of curiosity being a motivator. Does that ever feel like a curse? Do you ever wish you had a boring life?
BL: Hmmmmm [mugging mock consideration]. No, but I like my downtime. I can go for fucking days without talking. I’ve always needed space, even as a kid. When I was first married, I’d come home and [my family] would just start throwing things at me, and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, shut up.’ You just can’t physically take it all on. So, I just need space. I’ll probably always need space. But I’ll probably always have a lot going on, too.
A boring life? No. I’m happy I don’t have a boring life. I can’t imagine myself in a 9-5 job. To me, that’s like cattle. Everybody does the same thing, and that means I have to do something that somebody else formulated. I guess I was always the type who would have to work for themselves, because I couldn’t understand anything else.
LF: Why do you think that is?
BL: Just ADD, honestly. I couldn’t follow directions, I couldn’t understand. Unless it was easy breezy like, here’s how you be a cashier or fill up a mustard jar, I couldn’t do it. Then that’s where you feel useless, and when you feel like that, you go down. There were times when I went down because of the insecurities, the anxiety. Then later in life people started to take advantage. People see it. They see potential numbers instead of a heart and a soul and a human being. That’s awful, too, because manipulation is the cruelest. It’s a very long, slow process of taking you down.
LF: Toward the end of the book you talk about some extreme conflict with your former COO, about how you felt like an outsider in your own restaurants. To feel like an outsider throughout your life because of your origins, and then to feel like an outsider in the space you’ve worked to build for yourself – what was that like?
BL: It was the worst. To come in here and feel like you’re on eggshells. That’s where you have to be careful, because all of a sudden you question yourself. You start to think, ‘I guess I really am stupid.’ You start to fucking get paralyzed in doubt. And that is the worst. You have no idea what’s going on. You start thinking people are looking at you funny. And you’re like, ‘Hmmm, that’s different. That feels really weird.’ Even with friends. You just doubt. You just never know. It’s awful.
LF: How do you get over it?
BL: A lot of therapy. It took me a year to build trust again, though. Why I let him get away with it? I don’t know. I wasn’t secure enough in myself, probably. It’s like, you give someone this power, and they feel like they can change the vision instead of facing challenges. They’d rather change. Well, you don’t change a restaurant. You’ve gotta run it out. You tweak and tweak and tweak until it really works, but you don’t change it. He was like, ‘If Menton doesn’t work by January, we close it.’ Like, what? You don’t close it. What are you gonna do with the 80 employees with bills to pay, mortgages, families? You just close it? You don’t give a fuck about these people. That settled it. LF: Is it harder for you to trust people because of that whole experience?
BL: No, I just know more now. It made me stronger. I learned a lot, and I finally realized I wasn’t crazy, and I’m not an alcoholic, and I’m a great business owner.
Lynch and Kristen Kish, as seen in The New York Times | Gillian Laub
LF: I know the gender thing gets brought up a lot and it’s kind of exhausting, but do you feel like that’s unique to women in the industry?
BL: You know, now is the best time for women. It really is. If they don’t see it, if they don’t go for it now, good luck. Especially with Trump in the house. There’s so much opportunity. The only one who gets in your way is yourself. Your mind has to take over. Like, I hate running, but I like it after. You’ve gotta get over the mind thing first.
In this business, is it harder? God yeah. We’re blessed that we have women owners now. Like, can you imagine this 15 years ago? No. When you go over to Europe you’re still treated like shit. It’s awful. But we’re way ahead of that. We’re at the height of it.
We used to have the good backup in the White House. Now, [Trump] doesn’t give a shit. I’ve spoken in the White House to get women in small businesses to grow. Now it’s on hiatus. But hiatus in the White House—not here. Now is a great time. Just go for it.
LF: You have so many people who’ve worked for you for a really long time, and it’s the nature of this industry that it hasn’t always been easy. Why do you think your staff stays for so long? Is it because of you?
BL: I think I’m normal. I think I’m just one of them in most ways. I’m very humble, and I’m not perfect, and I don’t ever want to be. Do I want to be the best, or one of the best, or with the best? Yes. I will set expectations for myself that are sky-high, and I’ll probably never reach them, and I set them just as high for the staff. I just want them to succeed and be happy. You have to pay attention to them and grow them. I’d open places just because I knew someone was so good. Like John Gertsen at Drink. I knew that’d be great for him. Colin Lynch at Menton. That one ended up a no-go, but…
LF: Is there someone who works for you that you’re most proud of?
BL: All of them. I can’t have a most proud. The ones who left and are successful are great, too. Colin [Lynch] is successful [at Bar Mezzana]. David Bazirgan [of Bambara in Cambridge] was my first chef at Galleria and then No. 9. Ed Cotton. I’m really proud of them. Now I feel like I’m the grandmother, though.
LF: Do you think more chefs and more people in this industry should be going to therapy?
BL: Oh god, yeah. When I was the cooking all the time it used to be like, ‘Phew, let’s go for a drink.’ I was raised that way in this business. Now, we’re not doing that. Now, we’re like, ‘Let’s sign up for a road race, let’s go boxing, let’s get you help.’ We used to have these mad Christmas parties. Now we have one in the summer [the staff] can bring their kids to. I don’t want to see them wasted.
You know, restaurant people, we’re workers. We work hard and we play hard. It is the industry. It’s the hours. So we offer all kinds of stuff, between our insurance plan and monthly classes about how to invest. Stuff like that. I try everything. I think a lot of the reason the staff stays with us so long is the education. The food education, the wine education. It’s Cat [Silirie], too. The way we treat everyone is staff first, customers second. They’re all treated with dignity. We’re consistent. I never lay off anyone. A lot of people feel secure with that.
Not everyone loves change like me. I want to see everyone grow, but it’s not for everyone. The ones who don’t want to grow are still here, too, but they’re happy here. They’re content. You can’t control somebody’s destiny. The dead leaf falls off and a new one comes.
LF: Anything you’re most proud of?
BL: Oh, my daughter. Best thing I ever did. She’s thirteen now, so. We got along last night. She loves me this week. I don’t know why, but I’m happy.
LF: Do you think you’re better equipped because you’ve dealt with the unpredictable as a chef?
BL: No. I’m not a great mom. I can guarantee I’m not. I didn’t have a mother. I mean, I had a mother, but not a nice, charming, huggy mother. So, it’s tough. It’s tough to show love. But you can’t help it. It’s unconditional. She sees it, I hope.