Singer, author (Son of a Southern Chef), and food personality Lazarus Lynch is not your typical cookbook writer or social media star. As an openly gay young Black man, Lynch is blazing his own trail in the food and media worlds, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to him for Special Sauce.
Lynch started his food TV career in college, where he enlisted friends to hold cameras and other equipment for his cooking show in exchange for free food. “We put it on YouTube. I didn’t think anyone was going to watch it. And suddenly people on campus started to notice it, pay attention to it, and then [online food video network] Tastemade came calling.” The next thing Lynch knew, Tastemade was flying him out regularly to LA to shoot his show.
Who inspired him to pursue a career in cooking on camera? “In the early days of watching Food Network, I would come home [from school] and turn on the Food Network- it was everyone. It was Bobby Flay, it was Emeril Lagasse, I mean, it was Ina Garten. It was all of the ones that we see, or that we know to be sort of the Food Network people. And that was my education, really…. I didn’t know about the powerful women in soul food, like Edna Lewis or Leah Chase. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that they existed until much, much later.”
Lynch came out to his parents in college. His father was immediately accepting, but his mother, a product of a strict Catholic upbringing, found his sexuality challenging. It took three conversations over the course of five years for her to come around. He told her, “I think that part of my purpose in your life is to help you evolve in accepting people of all different places, and whoever they are. That’s part of what I’m here- to grace you in that process of learning and knowing. And you’re here to support me in being my best full self. So, we had a very compassionate, loving conversation the last time we talked about it.”
Despite the difficulty of those talks, the payoff for Lynch in increased self-confidence was huge. “It’s been so freeing to be okay with who I am and where I am, and, you know, I think the best reward is not just living a happy life but also to know that there are other young people who are looking at me and who are being inspired, whether it’s with their sexuality, or ‘I need to change this…. My parents are forcing me to study something I really don’t want to study,’ which was very common when I was in school. Whatever that might be, but to follow your own heart and follow your truth.”
I found Lynch’s story and path fascinating and inspiring, and I think serious eaters everywhere will, too. And that’s even before we get into a discussion of his cookbook and shows, which we’ll do in next week’s episode.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Lazarus Lynch: Most of the teachers, most of my culinary instructors, were not people of color. They were not telling those stories, so I had to really dig for those stories myself, and then discover Edna Lewis, and then discover Leah Chase, and then discover Michael Twitty. It took a lot for me of self-starting a lot of this research.
EL: This week, in house, we have cookbook author and television host Lazarus Lynch. Lazarus’s unconventional cookbook, Son of a Southern Chef, was just published, and if you want to see him explore America’s Southern food traditions, check out his digital show Comfort Nation. And if that’s not enough, he’s got a new show called Soul Food Talks. Welcome to Special Sauce, Lazarus.
LL: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
EL: So, let’s talk about life at the Lynch family table growing up.
LL: Yeah. What do you want to know?
LL: Okay. Well, first of all there was a lot of food, and a lot of folks, because I come from a really big family.
LL: Six people at least in the house at a given time, and we grew up, I lived in Jamaica, Queens here in New York, and so we grew up in an apartment, a two bedroom apartment, and I shared a room with my brother. And just so many people, all the time, that’s the thing to know. My mother was actually an immigrant. She was born and raised in Guyana.
LL: And when she was 13 years old, she left Guyana, left the convent there. She was raised by nuns.
EL: She was raised by nuns.
EL: Not wolves, but nuns.
LL: N, U, N, S. She was raised by the nuns. And she left that to go to London and live there with her father and her mother who was a nurse, and her father was a mechanic, and he painted cars and owned his own mechanic company. And stayed there for another 13 years, and moved to New York. She just said “I’m done with England, I want to get out of here.” And moved to New York. She lived next door to my father. They were next door neighbors. My dad was born in Bessemer, Alabama, and migrated when he was about six years old.
EL: Which is a steel, I believe.
LL: Steel town, yeah.
LL: And made his way to New York City. And, you know, my father was raised by a single mom, who is my grandmother, and she cooked for a living, she sold food out of her apartment, and did hair out of her apartment, and-
EL: She was multitasking before there was even such a word.
LL: Yes. Exactly. And really showed my father the way to make a living by using all of his talents and gifts. So, anyway, when he and my mother first met, they were just friends and quickly, you know, became lovers and then parents to me and my five brothers and sisters. It’s been a real long ride. But, you know what, Sundays were big days for us in the family.
EL: What are you eating at the family table?
LL: Oh, we’re eating everything.
EL: I want to know the real stuff.
LL: Oh, we’re eating everything from like my mom’s roti, which is a very Guyanese traditional flatbread made on the tawa pan. And next to that, like, collard greens that were stewed in turkey necks and stock that my dad made. And then we were eating curried chicken. And then we were eating peach cobbler. And-
EL: So, he was, your dad was a serious cook, obviously, since the name of the book is Son of a Southern Chef.
LL: Well, you know what, he probably would disagree with you. He would probably say he was an all right cook and he cooked for fun. Although, he did own a restaurant.
EL: Once you own a restaurant, you’re no longer cooking for fun.
LL: Oh, well, he would probably disagree with that. But I agree with you, that he really did take on this business concept much later in my childhood, that he had never done before, that he had no formal training. All he knew was the business of people. He knew how to connect with people, he knew how to serve people, because of just who he was and his other businesses in serving people.
EL: So, he was the dominant cook. And did you take to cooking right away?
LL: I did not, no. I was, actually, I grew up the music kid and the art kid. So, I was, you know, on the weekends I was either at a dance school or at a performance camp or, you know, drawing in an art school somewhere in Manhattan. I really… Food, I always loved food. I mean, I love to eat it and I love to watch my dad cook, but it didn’t really become a passion for me until I was about 11, 12 years old.
EL: I mean, that’s still pretty young.
LL: I know, it still-
EL: I don’t know how to break it to you, but that’s still pretty young.
LL: Well, I mean, but it still wasn’t really… I mean, I thought I was going to become an animation designer or I was going to become an architect, that in some way I was going to utilize my design in building structures or in creating characters, and food was just not part of the story at the time.
EL: Got it. But you went to Food and Finance High School?
LL: Yes. I went to Food and Finance High School.
EL: In New York.
LL: In New York City. It is New York’s only culinary arts school.
LL: I thought I wanted to be a restaurant chef just like my father. You know that’s… My dad was the example of who I had, between him and Emeril Lagasse on Food Network, but those were my examples. And so, yeah, I went to this incredible high school and around my sophomore year, I met a woman by the name of Ingrid Hoffmann how was a host on the Food Network, she-
EL: Oh, I remember her.
LL: Yeah, Simply Delicioso was her show.
EL: Yeah. She was probably the first Latina chef they had on, right?
LL: I think so.
EL: Or one of the first.
LL: Or then they had like Daisy Martinez or someone.
EL: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LL: Maybe before her. But yeah. But Ingrid sort of came to the high school, and she just wanted to support and just be there and give a talk. And I remember listening to her talk about what it’s like to, you know, write books, and what it’s like to be on television. And I thought “Oh, that’s really exciting.” It was for the first time that anyone had ever explained to me what it’s like to have a career like that.
LL: And at the end of her talk, she asked for a volunteer to come up and pretend do a demo with her, like a food demo. And no one wanted to get up. I certainly didn’t want to get up. And the room just sort of volunteered me. All my friends, or who I thought were my friends, volunteered me to go up there.
EL: Maybe they knew you were secretly a ham.
LL: Maybe they did. But I got up and I said “Oh god, I’m so nervous. I don’t know what we’ll do.” And she’s like “Well, what do you want to make?” And I just thought, “Okay, pancakes. Let’s do pancakes.” And that was the first time that I had actually sort of pretended to cook in front of an audience, a live audience.
EL: And did you love it?
LL: Not right away.
LL: I knew… I sort of, I knew how to engage her. I think that was natural. I knew how to be in front of an audience from my performance background, but I didn’t quite make the connection that this was something that I could do and that this was something I would do for a living. None of that really crossed my mind at the moment. I was honestly just very nervous.
EL: Right. So, tell us about the performance background.
LL: So, my dad was a musician. He played the saxophone, the bass guitar, and he was also singer. And we grew up in the church, my family, so Sundays were big days for us, a lot of music. The weekends were also like choir rehearsals and being a part of a performance in church. So, that’s really where, that was my early, my early start was performing in church. And that’s when I learned everything from like how to hold a microphone to how to project and how to sing from your diaphragm. So, all of those very early lessons sort of carried me through life, and when I was about eight years old, I started playing the djembe, which is a hand drum from West Africa, and I played that for many years. I played in African classes for dance schools, I performed, traveled, playing the djembe drums, and got really good at it. My childhood was just full of music, full of performance.
EL: Full of food.
LL: Full of food, yeah. And full of food. So, I look back now, and I think “Wow. I’ve somehow been able to create a career that includes all of it.”
LL: And food is the pinnacle for sure, in many ways, but I still get to do a lot of the other things.
EL: Yeah. So, you go off to college. At that point did you think you were going to be a performer or did you think you were going to be an accountant?
LL: I thought I was going to be a dietician.
EL: A dietician? That’s like a first cousin of being an accountant as far as I’m concerned.
LL: Well, I would agree. And then there’s the dentist, who’s like your third cousin or something like that.
LL: But, you know what? I really did feel that health and nutrition was a big part of my high school education, in addition to the food and the finance piece, which we could talk about. But the food, the nutrition part was such a big part of my high school career, I ended up in… I say “ended up”, but I wrote an essay about Swaziland when I was junior in high school, and I sent it to the World Food Prize Foundation, and they held a conference every year in Des Moines, Iowa for high school students to talk about food security and malnutrition and all these things that are being done around the world just to make the world a better place. My essay was selected and I was flown to Iowa to attend this conference, and I remember running into Kofi Annan on the escalator and not knowing who he was. And so many ambassadors were there. Long story short, that summer I got an internship to study abroad in Beijing, China and I was studying at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and I was learning about food science, and I was working with folks who were on the road to their doctorate or their master’s degree, so really above my head. But when I got back to New York, I thought “Wow, nutrition is so important. If I could study anything in college, I want it to be nutrition.”
EL: So how’d that go for you?
LL: Well, let’s just say I didn’t graduate as a dietician.
LL: Midway, two years into the degree, I decided that it wasn’t a good fit for me, primarily because I am a performer, and I’m a creative, and-
EL: It’s hard to be a performing dietician.
LL: Yeah. I mean, I think some people might have the ability to do that, I just, for me, it was just way too intense on the science side.
EL: What rhymes with carbohydrate?
LL: That’s a good question.
EL: So, you go off to Buff State.
EL: And somehow you started a cooking show, like a YouTube thing?
LL: Yeah. A little all over the place. You’re right to have the sort of questioning inclination in your voice. I also felt very in questioning about everything in college. I mean, no one told me that college was a place to really explore who you are, and I thought I had to choose going in and how to stick with that. So, anyway, having this great high school experience and knowing that being a chef and maybe performing and doing that on television was possible, and the nutrition part not really working out, I decided to let me go into theater, let me try that. And they said, “Well, it’s going to take you three years to graduate, on top of what you’re doing.” And I thought “Oh, that can’t happen.”
EL: So that would be an extra year.
LL: An extra year, and I didn’t want to do that.
LL: So, then I went into journalism and communications, and I thought “Oh, this is really interesting.” You know, writing stories and reading news, and I thought “It’s not creative enough.” And finally ended up in Individualized Studies, which was my degree, and I created this capstone project, which was a YouTube show to teach people on campus how to cook. And what I would do is I would use my nutrition background and calculate all of the carbohydrates and the fats and the sodium inside of the recipe, and then I would use my communication background. I would produce the entire thing, I would edit it myself, then I would post it to YouTube. And so, in that way, sort of combined all the, and then also the theater, combined all of the things that I had learned and put it into a capstone project. And I thought “No one’s going to take this seriously. My advisor’s going to say this is a joke.” And funny… He supported me.
EL: And you got some credit for it.
LL: And I got some credit for it, and also, you know, so many doors opened because of that. Because of that show, I was able to work with friends on campus. You know, my sort of elevator pitch to them was “Hey, I’m doing this cooking show and giving away free food if you want to come and hold a microphone or hold the boom for me, and hold the camera, you can get fed at the end of it.” And it worked, and so I had a couple friends who were committed to helping me produce it, and they worked with me on it every weekend. We put it on YouTube, I didn’t think anyone was going to watch it. And suddenly people on campus started to notice it, pay attention to it, and then Tastemade came calling. Tastemade’s a network in LA.
EL: This was before you even graduated?
LL: This was before… Yeah. Before I graduated. I was a junior. And-
EL: Where’s the dues paying come in?
LL: You know, I think my dues were, just, I thought I could get it done and, just…
LL: To tell you the truth, I was minding my own business one day, and Tastemade discovered this video that they saw on YouTube, and I think that’s what’s incredible about the internet today. One of the amazing things, the good things about it is it can connect you with people very quickly. So they said “We would love to work with you.” And I thought it was a complete joke.
EL: You thought somebody was punking you.
LL: Yeah, I thought it was like Ashton Kutcher or somebody on the other end. But no, it turned out to be legitimate. I had no manager, I had no publicist. I had nothing. It was just me and just me.
EL: I’m 67. I still don’t have a manager.
LL: Oh, well good for you. God bless you.
EL: I have to manage myself.
LL: How’s that going?
EL: It goes well.
LL: Does it work? Okay.
EL: Yeah. So, you get this Tastemade show.
LL: I get this Tastemade show, and suddenly-
EL: And, like, you’ve never worked in a restaurant other than your dad’s.
LL: Well, I… No, I worked… Actually, off campus, I had two jobs.
EL: Oh, you did?
LL: I worked at a cheese shop, and I was just really interested in learning about all the different cheeses in the world. Found out that I love balsamic aged cheddar cheese, I love triple cream cheeses. Just learned all of those things.
EL: Wait, balsamic aged cheddar cheese?
EL: You mean cheddar cheese that’s been aged…
LL: In a barrel.
EL: … in a barrel with balsamic vinegar?
LL: Soaking in balsamic vinegar.
EL: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.
LL: Oh, it’s incredible.
EL: All right.
LL: And the flavor, you know, because it’s nice and sweet, and it permeates the cheese, the cheese is super rich. Anyway, worked there, and then worked at a Japanese restaurant called Sato and making ramen. And that’s what I did for about a year. Right before I quit Sato, I remember this vivid… I remember feeling this inclination that it was time to let go of Sato. Now that’s a big deal for a college student who has no income other than the job. So, I don’t know, I just felt very strongly that I needed to move on from that job, and I had no other prospects. I knew the YouTube thing was going on, but I had no other prospects. And because of letting go of that, I believe that invited Tastemade into my life. I do believe that in some interesting way I’m-
EL: Now, Tastemade was paying you while you were still in college.
LL: They were paying me. They were flying me to Los Angeles every month to stay for like 2, 3 days and do cooking demos that they would put on Snapchat. And then came Kellogg’s who said “Oh, we’d love to work with you.” Kellogg’s the brand. They saw me on Tastemade and said “Okay, let’s do some work together.” And then ABC came. This all happened in three months.
EL: That’s crazy.
LL: It was crazy.
EL: Did you ever stop and think, like, maybe you weren’t ready, who could be ready for all that happening to them at such a young age? Did you think you knew how to cook well enough at that point?
LL: I definitely did. I mean, I feel and felt that Food and Finance High School was a place that truly prepared high school students to understand what it’s like to be in the culinary world. I mean, I interned at Food Network when I was in high school, that was my internship. We all had to intern somewhere. Some people worked at Per Se, some people work Le Cordon… I mean, it was just, it was serious, serious training.
LL: And, you know, it wasn’t an easy bake curriculum. We were working with professionals. And so I did feel certainly that I knew I had the skills, I knew I could cook, but I didn’t quite know how to translate that from knowing how to put a recipe together to then translating that into my own personality on camera.
LL: I mean, that sort of evolved with time, and there’s no one to really teach you how to do that.
EL: Right. And so, who inspired you to cook, and perform, besides your dad?
LL: Well, like I said, in the early days of watching Food Network, I would come home and turn on the Food Network, it was everyone. It was Bobby Flay, it was Emeril Lagasse, I mean, it was Ina Garten. It was all of the ones that we see, or that we know to be sort of the Food Network people. And that was my education, really. That was my, when I would get home from school, that’s what I would watch. I didn’t even know… I didn’t know about the powerful women in soul food like Edna Lewis or Leah Chase. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that they existed until much, much later.
LL: Until college. Oh, yeah.
EL: Because Edna Lewis was a serious, serious and seminal figure in African American and Southern cooking, right?
LL: For sure. But, think about it. I mean, like, none of those figures were… Well, in my time, I was born in the 90s here, so…
LL: … I’m the young kid in the room. But, I didn’t have those images in front of me, and what I had to do was sort of pursue them. I had to find them, because most of the teachers, most of my culinary instructors, were not people of color. They were, you know, they were not telling those stories, so I had to really dig for those stories myself, and then discover Edna Lewis, and then discover Leah Chase, and then discover Michael Twitty, and then discover… So, it took a lot for me of self-starting a lot of this research.
EL: So, you had a sort of reverse searing career?
LL: I think so. Yeah, I do. I did. You know, part of… Someone asked me, actually, the other day, “What qualifies you to do what you do?” Because I am very young, and I feel like I am the new kid on the block. And, you know, but I have to say that I still do and have done the work, am doing the work of educating myself and being in the room of, surrounding myself with really smart people who have walked the journey. I’m glad I could call Marcus Samuelsson a mentor, I can call Bobby Flay a friend and a mentor, you know? These are people that I’ve… Carla Hall. People who I’ve gotten to know from a very young age because of the high school, and have, they’ve watched my career grow, and they’re still important people in my life.
EL: Yeah. That’s cool. So, I read a piece by Serious Eats own Elazar Sontag-
LL: Big fan.
EL: … that he wrote in the Washington Post in which he asked you about what it was like coming out to your parents as a young black man interested in performing and cooking. That’s sort of crucial to your story.
LL: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. I remember Elazar called me the second time, and he said “You know, we didn’t talk about something.” And I thought “Oh, what could we have not talked about? We talked about everything.” And you know he wanted to make sure that my story was told fully, and I appreciated him for that. You know, I grew up… Because I grew up in a sort of Christian home, the values were that you… You know, we all know the teachings, that a man is with a woman, and in growing up, I could never quite make sense of that story for myself, and I thought “Well, there must be something wrong with me”, and, you know, also really struggled with acceptance. Because the truth is is that when you don’t feel heard, when people don’t feel heard, you know, they either go to extreme measures to get attention, or they find safety in someone, a confidant or something. I found safety in friends who were also, you know, in their own process of sexuality, and one of my closest friends who was part of the church, you know, we would confide in each other, but still very sort of in shame about it.
EL: Right, sort of under the surface.
LL: Under the surface, oh yeah. And, you know, I remember one day, just talking to my dad. We were hanging out, and we were sitting in our neighborhood on a bench, and this was around 2014, I would say. And I just told my father, I said “You know, I think I like guys.” Just I think that’s what…
EL: And were you terrified at that moment?
LL: Yes and no. I mean, I wasn’t… I had already gone through so much of my own process to come to terms with the fact that… of who I was.
LL: And so, by this point, I really wasn’t even looking for his agreement. I wasn’t looking for anything.
EL: Validation, or…
LL: Or validation.
LL: My brother, one of my older brothers had come out years ago, so it wasn’t sort of the first time, but I felt at ease and I felt comfortable, too.
EL: And what did he say?
LL: He said “Well, you know, it’s like your brother.” He said “I will love you no matter what, and, you know, you guys are my sons, and you know, I want you guys to be happy.” That’s, in essence, what he said. Which, I will tell you, I was super surprised, because my father was the essence of, in my mind, what a man is and who he should be. I mean, he was the provider, he was strong, he was astute, and he was… you know, and he was also straight as a broom.
LL: So, for me it a little intimidating.
EL: Straight as broom, I like that. I might steal that line, by the way.
LL: Take that one.
LL: You can have that for free. But yeah, I thought if I could tell him, then I’m okay. And if he could see me this way, I’ll be okay. But what was more difficult was having the conversation with my mother, because…
EL: She was raised by nuns.
LL: She was raised by the nuns. Which is so interesting, because my mother had this incredible time in her 20s when she was bartending, and she was in all the nightclubs in England, and she was surrounded by people of all different kinds and cultures and… But when she moved to New York and sort of settled down and became a devout Christian, you know, a lot of her principles shifted, and so, with all due respect, I wanted to approach her, but I also didn’t want to lie to my mother. I didn’t want to feel like I was lying to her. So, you know, I finally had one of three conversations over the years with my mother. It did take three conversations.
EL: Three conversations?
LL: At different times, oh yeah.
LL: For her to sort of…
EL: Fully grok this?
LL: Well, in her own way. I mean, and here’s the truth, and this is what I told her, too. I said “I think that we are here to grow, learn, and evolve, and I don’t get to control your journey, and you don’t get to control my journey.” I said “But what we do get to do is share information.” And, you know, I told, I said “You know, I think that part of my purpose in your life is to help you evolve in accepting people of all different places, and whoever they are. That’s part of what I’m here to grace you in that process of learning and knowing. And you’re here to support me in being my best full self.” So, we had a very compassionate, loving conversation the last time we talked about it.
EL: But it took three conversations to get there.
LL: It took three conversations over a span of about five years.
LL: And the last conversation, I said to her, I said “You know I told dad about it.” Because my father passed in 2015, and one of the questions she asked me was “What do you think your father would say?” And I said “Well, this is what he said.”
LL: “This is what he said.” But, it’s been so freeing to be okay with who I am and where I am, and you know, I think the best reward is not just living a happy life, but also to know that there are other young people who are looking at me and who are being inspired, whether it’s with their sexuality or “I need to change this… My parents are forcing me to study something I really don’t want to study”, which was very common when I was in school. Whatever that might be, but to follow your own heart and follow your truth.
LL: That’s the best thing.
EL: Do you think it’s getting easier?
LL: You know, it’s interesting. I have a friend, Myles Loftin, he’s a photographer.
EL: I watched the show, he was on Soul Food Talks.
LL: He was on Soul Food Talks.
EL: Which we’ll get to later.
LL: And he said something super interesting to me during that conversation, and he said “You know, straight people don’t have to do this. Straight people don’t have to sit down and have a conversation about what they feel and who they are and who they want to date or marry.” And I thought “That’s so true. They don’t.” How unfair is that?
EL: Whether they want to be chefs or whatever.
LL: Yeah, they just, it’s just not a conversation, and my hope and dream is that… Well, to answer your question, I do believe that we are making progress, you know. I do believe that. I mean, you know, we celebrated Pride recently and Stonewall 50… You think about that, it’s like, that was 50 years ago, and there’s still a level of discrimination, there’s still some mis-education around sexual health and sexuality and… But I do think that we’re moving towards, we are moving toward an awareness and a consciousness around that. I do think that.
EL: Yeah. Yeah. So, and this is somehow related, I think, is… You talked about you being a performer and, you know, I listened to your song. What is this thing about this kinship between food and music? Have you ever thought about that?
LL: I think about it a lot, actually, and, you know, I think that music is that secret language that can connect everybody, where you feel like you could be yourself, or you feel like “Yeah, this is, I can conquer something.” Or you can connect with your emotions. And I think, you know, we talk about eat your feelings, but, you know, I think people do sit at a table and, when you’re eating, there’s something so visceral about that that touches you in every part of you.
LL: You know, and I think it connects people together, and I thank that’s-
EL: The same is true of music.
LL: The same is true with music.
EL: Anyway, we haven’t even talked about Son of a Southern Chef, like where has all the time gone? So, we’re going to have to leave it right here for this episode of Special Sauce, and we’ll talk about your book and Soul Food Talk in the next episode. But, for now, thanks for talking about your roots with us, Lazarus Lynch, and we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.