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Eater Q&A: Barbara Lynch on Fine Dining, Top Chef, and Her Upcoming Memoir

Photo: Barbara Lynch Gruppo/Facebook
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Chef Barbara Lynch has been one of Boston's best-known chefs for years. One of this year's James Beard Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America inductees, Lynch is known as much for her award-winning restaurants as for her humble beginnings and meteoric rise to the top of the culinary world. On top of running a culinary empire and starting her own foundation, Lynch also recently announced that she will be writing a memoir. Eater had the chance to catch up with the chef while she was in town for the New York City Wine & Food Festival. Here's what she had to say about expansion, the impact of Top Chef, "boys clubs," and her upcoming book:

You participated in this year's MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, where you and Margot Henderson talked about the courage it took to assert yourselves as female chefs in a male-dominated industry. MAD itself has also been criticized for being male-dominated. Do you think the fine dining world is still a boys club? What changes have you seen?
Barbara Lynch: It's not only fine dining. It's definitely a boys club still. Even Relais & Châteaux now, there's only six or seven of us in the world. That question always bothered me, but we are a minority in a way when you think about it. The changes are starting to happen. I think having Kristen [Kish] on Top Chef and just more awareness that woman can, basically, cook. I mean it's different. We are nurturers. We don't have a huge amount of ego, we ask for help ? it's a male-dominated world, sometimes, which is hard. But we're a lot better off now than we were. And when other women see me being successful it kind of boosts and inspires. And we have Gabrielle Hamilton. And look at April Bloomfield. She's right up there. Lidia Bastianich. I think men have different egos than we do. I was always nervous about raising money, going in front of suits, because what we do is a craft as well. We have to be cautious. I knew, especially after the fifth restaurant, I knew what I want. You're not going to get a percentage of it. You have to fight for what you want.

You have several restaurants in your group including Menton, No. 9 Park, and The Butcher Shop. How do you know when an expansion opportunity is right and when to say "no"?
Usually I go with my intuition. Right now I have many balls in the air, and I've had them in the air. Five years ago, I sat with my team and asked, 'What's our five year plan?' And then all the balls are in the air, and all the plates are in the air, and we start to see what evolves and what makes sense. No more, I can't do the organic-y thing like "Oh that would be a very cute steak joint or restaurant," I just can't do that. Plus as human being we evolve. I want to work smarter, not harder. It's hard to start to see all your young chefs open new places, I start to feel like a grandmother. And I can't do the 16 - 18 hours days anymore.

Two of your chefs have participated on Top Chef. Kristen Kish, who won her season, and Stephanie Cmar, who is currently competing. How do you think television shows like Top Chef have impacted the culinary community?
Tremendous. In ways, Top Chef, Bravo in general, they reach so many people. I just wish that it was a bit more educational instead of such a judgement ? Especially with cooking, you're judging their food, you're judging how they cook, you're judging what their plates look like, but I just think every chef is different. It's like art. Some might like Picasso, and some might not. And then you get judged. But you're being judged by another chef who hasn't taught you. But it's incredible, because it kind of shows that you can do anything you want if you're really passionate about it. So it's a double-edged sword. I think it's a great opportunity for a television show to say "Boom, I'm going to teach you." Because we've lost almost two generations of home ec. in schools ? This farm to table stuff is really great ? but you're not reaching the people who are watching television. The food dessert? They watch TV.

In your Tedx Talk last year, you spoke about getting back to the basics in cooking. How have you applied that philosophy in your restaurants?
Less is more. I remember when I was a young cook I had a lot more going on on the plate. And that's not what I'm asking to do now. I just think the basics, I mean celery and carrots; seriously, just sautéing something. The chefs; it bugs me when there's so much manipulation when there doesn't have to be. Like the French, peeling a tomato and then dicing it. I'm just saying, that's not the way to start. Understand food, and quality, and knife skills, and cleanliness, and prepping, and getting ready. But you have to master that before you go to the next level ? It's going to take a while to get to where you want to be, to be comfortable cooking your food, what really makes you want to cook ? The discipline of cooking really has to start at the beginning. Once you master that then you can go to the next level.

I understand you are working on a memoir with Kate Christensen. Why did you decide to write a memoir, and what should readers expect?
I was asked to write it because of my story. You know, raised in the housing projects, my mom was a single mother, I never went to college for cooking, I never graduated from school. Just kind of an inner-city kid, a troublemaker. And the fact that I got out of South Boston ? it's a tight-knit community and it's like, sometimes it's like a black hole. You don't know there's another world out there. And it's not like I just opened up an Italian-American restaurant. Eight restaurants later with awards and all of that. I think it's very inspiring.

And there's a lot in there. It's childhood, teenage years, struggles. Adn there's my first trip to Italy, and me working with my wine director for 25 years, winemakers, restaurants, awards, to where I am now, starting another company. It's going to be fun. You're going to laugh a lot, you're going to cry. You're going to want to cook the food.

So there'll be recipes?
Oh yeah. I've kept journals since '95, '94. Also it's therapy. It's hard to reach 50 ? It's just an age but you feel like, "Ugh, I can't do this." But it's also that next chapter. It's awesome.

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