It is with great honor that I introduce the Food52’s first guest Chef in Residence, a woman who is entirely responsible for me becoming a chef—although she probably doesn’t know it.
In addition to being a phenomenal success story of true rags to riches, and a powerful and successful restauranteur in an era when that’s harder and harder (you can read all about it in her autobiography Out of Line), she’s also the reason I first thrived in a professional kitchen. Barbara Lynch became a friend when we worked together in a Cambridge restaurant one summer. We were both young. I was drifting, cooking but not necessarily loving it, trying to make enough money to get back to Italy.
When I invited her to come to Italy, as I always do with all my friends, Barb was one of the ones who seized the bull by the horns and came. It was probably one of the first times I really investigated Italian food, really thought about the stuff I grew up on—besides when I was away from Italy eating generally horrible food and missing the flavors.
We dined in Rome and Florence with my Tuscan farm family. We stole a yellow train destination sign, which, 27 years later, is still in the wine cellar at my family’s house in Tuscany. I still don’t know what to do with it, but I’m afraid to display it or throw it out.
Barb’s energy, enthusiasm, and drive to learn and absorb was tremendous; as we ate our way from Tuscany to Rome, she never tired of exploring local markets for unfamiliar vegetables like puntarelle and cardoons—or eating our sixth meal of the day. After she left, we stayed friends, and eventually one winter, when I needed to make extra money to pay my taxes, I convinced her to let me come work at the restaurant where she was the chef at the time.
At the time, I had worked in kitchens here and there, but generally as a pretty lame kitchen drudge who everyone rolled their eyes at as they waited over and over again for me to put my food up. This time, when I went to work for Barb, for the first time I had someone who was interested in what I thought about the food. She knew I knew Italy and she encouraged me, encouraged me to read cookbooks, encouraged me to come in with ideas that were often put on the menu for specials. Sometimes they had disastrous results because everyone had to spend hours waiting for me to execute those ideas! But you get the idea.
I learned from Barb, too, about the drive and commitment you owe your restaurant team. She taught me something in line with my art school education to “make it work,” which meant make the food get out of the pan, onto the plate, and out to the diner no matter what else happened. If you weren’t being carted off the line in a stretcher, then you had to keep on cooking no matter how badly you burnt or cut yourself, no matter how emotionally distraught you might be—nor how tired. It’s a phrase I repeat over and over again because everyday something happens that demands that mantra. I don’t know that I would have become the chef and cook I am today without having worked in the environment that Barb created: stern, demanding, but also warm and welcoming and embracing.