LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The list of accolades for Chef Barbara Lynch is long. James Beard Award-winner, the sole female Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef in North America, and on and on. Lynch, though, is originally from Southie, a working-class area of Boston, and the world of high cuisine seemed very far away when she was growing up. Her new memoir is called "Out Of Line: A Life Of Playing With Fire." She told me how her mother, who worked three jobs while raising six kids on her own, influenced her culinary life.
BARBARA LYNCH: I loved her tuna fish sandwiches, her spaghetti and meatballs...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, the tuna fish sandwiches, you write, she put pickle juice in them, you know, just gave it something a little bit different.
LYNCH: And to stretch it out as well, and that's the way I make it. My daughter loves it. That was my first experience of food, but I have great memories of the stuff I love that she made.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The big character though in this book, overarching, I think, everything, at least in the beginning, is a - is South Boston, Southie. It seems to be a fundamental part of who you are. Tell us about Southie.
LYNCH: Southie's very blue collar, mostly Irish, a little Polish and very little Italian, lots of politicians, Whitey Bulger, Billy Bulger. So there's a lot of pride in South Boston, I think. You know, we're hard workers and survivors in ways. There's a sense of pride that comes out of Southie.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You talk about, in the book, how violence was a regular part of your life. Whitey Bulger, the famous Boston mobster, lived right next door to you and your best friend. You'd see him around the neighborhood. And, you know, you had things happen to you, but you have always survived and thrived. You never finished high school. You talk about having ADD and dyslexia. But you found yourself in cooking. Tell us about that.
LYNCH: Yeah. My friend, Tina Siete (ph), my - she was 13 and in AA already so (laughter) her AA friends were going to come over her house, and I said, oh, I'll make - how about if I make dinner for you, or spaghetti? This is really my first time cooking spaghetti and making a pesto sauce. So - I mean, really, it was challenging for a 13-year-old to really make a really good pesto and al dente pasta spaghetti. And to have the - these, like, 20 people love it, I was like, wow, this is - this is fun. And then, you know, I read some of my mother's Good Housekeeping magazines, and I found a recipe for stir fry, and that was challenging. Everything had to get sliced and diced and chopped, which we would never do at home. So I said, who would do that? Who in the world would do that? Then, I went and bought the ingredients and cooked. And it was like, this is amazing. And that's when I knew I wanted to be a chef.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you started making your mark, as a chef, working for the famous, the great, Todd English, at a time when there were not many female chefs on the line.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was that like?
LYNCH: Oh, he was a tough guy.
LYNCH: He was young himself when he worked - his first executive chef job, he was only, like, 23. You know, he would yell at me a lot. He would say, you need to get organized, you need to know about salt and pepper. And I'm like, I've never been organized, and I'll learn about salt and pepper. So we used to fight a lot, and I think he liked that, actually. But I have to say, I've loved his cooking at that - you know, he's just big hands, bold flavors. I think I did say once, I've - and it's true, I learned a lot of what not to do by working with him for eight years. But, I mean, his passion for food, that was what got me to work for him. And he was just incredibly passionate. And he would change his menu every day, every - and if I - if I had gotten my station set up, he'd say, what do you mean you have time on your hands? All right, we're going to throw another special on. So that chaotic energy, I think I was very used to, especially because I was raised on a chaotic energy and used to that to school. And so I loved his energy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think that what's so interesting for me is you are now an industry. You are not only a celebrated chef, you're an executive, a CEO of a thriving food business. And when you talk about how you now run your restaurants, it's the opposite of that masculine aggression. You said that when you started your own restaurant, you wanted to sort of teach and nurture and explain, and have a...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Calmer feeling inside your kitchens. Why?
LYNCH: Right. That's part of what I learned not to do from Todd is to scream and to not pay them. And a lot of that was what I had to go through. I had to beg for my paycheck, or - I think I was making $6 an hour from him. So I felt I would succeed if I treat people with dignity and teach them the tools to succeed - not that I really knew right away when I had only one restaurant - but to be part of a team instead of a head chef and a screamer. I wanted it to feel like we're all in this together - from the reservationist, to the dishwasher, to the line cooks, to myself - that we are one chef, and we - I need them to succeed. So that's how I worked in my kitchens.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think it's still so hard for women to break into this business?
LYNCH: It isn't hard to break into it. It's up to women to want to do it. I think a lot of women look at the hours and the lifestyle, and then they think family or children. But I think it's fabulous to have your children involved in the restaurant industry. I mean, it's changed a lot. And - I mean, it's not - it's about what women want to do, and don't give up. I think that's really - I just put my head down, and I knew what I wanted, and I went for it. And yeah, there's struggle, but there's struggles in every job.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Reading this book, the thing that always shone through was that you never took no for an answer. You talk about, despite all your successes, always feeling like you might never be good enough, or that people were judging you. And yet, you always sort of came back swinging, sometimes literally.
LYNCH: I love the word no (laughter). Because of the ADD and the dyslexic, I couldn't follow anyone's formula at all. So no to me was the yes that I needed to hear. And I wanted to succeed so I could grow my team and grow my staff as well. And a lot has to do about Boston in general. I wanted to be somebody, you know? I think so.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barbara Lynch - her book is called "Out Of Line: A Life Of Playing With Fire." Thanks so much for joining us.
LYNCH: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF LETTUCE'S "PHYLLIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.