The rockstar chef on soul food, faith, and his father’s legacy.

By Zoe Denenberg
February 10, 2020
Anisha Sisodia

Lazarus Lynch does Southern cooking differently. Lynch may not be from the South—born to an Alabamian father and Guyanese mother, Lynch himself grew up in in Jamaica, Queens—but he gained an early education in soul food at his dad’s restaurant, Baby Sister’s Soul Food. Meanwhile, as he explored places like New York, Beijing, and Rwanda, Lynch started to develop his own culinary sensibilities. He may be inspired by his Alabamian father’s true, honest soul food, but he was born and bred by the bodegas and bagel shops of New York City.

The best way to get a feel for Lynch’s personality is to flip through his cookbook, Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul. On one page, Lynch—wearing yellow-rimmed sunglasses and leather shorts—reclines on a bed of crispy fried chicken; on another, he surfs out of a basket of fried okra. Like Lynch himself, the pop-art pages of his cookbook exude energy, life, and color. But between those neon-printed pages are the reflective, nostalgic thoughts of a cook profoundly shaped by the generations before him. Lynch speaks with reverence and sanctity of women like his great Aunt Janice, who saved bacon grease in jars to lather her cornbread skillet, and his mother’s friend Elaine, whose big, homemade batches of Guyanese hot sauce remained a fixture of his childhood pantry. Lynch’s innovative Southern dishes take unexpected turns—his candied yams are topped with goat cheese brûlee, his banana pudding spiked with dulce de leche—but he stays true to the spirit of Southern cooking passed down to him by his father. For Lynch, cooking is all love.

SL: First thing’s first: Do you like your cornbread savory or sweet? You have recipes for both.

So I typically like a sweet cornbread because I’m a cake guy, and I’ve always loved sugar in my cornbread. I always jokingly say I grew up on Jiffy, so that was like the standard for me. But now that I’ve added my own twist to the savory version, which is with jalapeño, jack cheese, and honey chipotle sauce on top, I also really love and cherish that recipe. I’m not a stickler for one over the other. It’s a debatable topic and people have very strong family history behind that—it goes beyond just a preference, I think there’s a real story behind why people love it sweet or savory.

SL: What was your experience like growing up in the kitchen? What’s a favorite memory from your dad’s soul food restaurant?

Growing up in my household, it was always busy. It was always filled with people, my family and folks from my church, and food was a part of the social culture of my house. I took it for granted that Sunday dinner was like Thanksgiving every single weekend; food was always the centerpiece. My dad packaged the culture of my household and put it into his restaurant. That was what sparked my interest in cooking—because for me, cooking meant getting to create an atmosphere where people could come and feel comfortable, where they could be themselves and feel love. For me, being a chef meant doing what my dad did, which was creating a culture of love and community. His restaurant was for everyone—and everyone had a seat at the table.

SL: Your dad grew up in Alabama, but you’re from Jamaica, Queens. What is your relationship to the South and to Southern cooking?

Every year since I was a child, I have been going down South. I would go down to Georgia and South Carolina with my church every summer, to either hang out with family or go to a church event. And many of the adults in my life were from the South, so the celebrations thought of as being typically Southern—the way that they spoke, the food that they made (I’m talking about the pies, the pickled okra, the fried fish)—existed in my New York City community.

I feel like I have such a community of people in the South—they’re people who I almost consider my family, because they’ve opened up their homes and stories to me. I really do feel that I’m part of the South. Someone recently asked me, “Well you have a very colorful style and personality, how were you received when you went to Decatur, Alabama, for the first time?” And I said I was treated with love. I think the people in the South have a lot of love in their hearts that’s sincere and genuine.

SL: How do you define soul food?

The way I define soul food is: food that is made from the hands of black people, who either are from the South or who have been the storytellers and the conduits for those stories of our black ancestors, who have curated a cuisine that’s made from scratch. I think that is the stamp of soul food—yes it’s delicious, yes it’s comfort food, but it’s also resourceful food, it’s food that is made very thoughtfully. There is a science to soul food that can and cannot be explained. It’s a biscuit recipe that came from your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, and that same biscuit recipe has touched the hands of so many different people, men and women, and when it finally landed on your hands and fingerprints, it’s really yours to create. So in essence soul food is really food with heart, food with style, food with personality and story. African-Americans had to endure so much hardship in this country, and we created a cuisine that allows us to tell the story of freedom and victory outside of our hardships. And that’s why it’s celebratory cuisine.

SL: Your cookbook is called Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul. What does ‘cooking with soul’ mean to you?

Cook with soul, to me that means I’m having fun. If you look through the cookbook you’ll see there’s nothing stoic about it, there’s nothing buttoned up, and that was intentional—we wanted it to feel approachable and messy and like real people had touched and experienced the food. I myself am a very messy cook, my mother will tell you. But I think that’s how people experience cooking sometimes—they don’t want all the pressure of following a recipe so specifically. In my recipes, there’s a little room for error, a little room to explore, but it’s really about bringing joy and happiness back to the kitchen.

SL: How do you reinvent classic dishes or put your own spin on family recipes without changing too much or losing the significance that they carry?

I’m really thinking about the way I like to experience food and flavor. I think that we are supposed to take the food and the lessons we’ve learned and reimagine what it could be, what it could say, the sound of it. It’s not really about how to make it different—it’s more about how I can embody my past and my present. I think that the beauty of writing recipes and telling stories is that you get to insertyourself into it. Otherwise when you pass it down, it’s lost its soul. Because the soul comes through that person being able to share their full self, inside the recipe.

SL: What are a few ingredients you’d always find in your fridge growing up?

There was always a little bit of Crisco grease somewhere. You could just depend on it.

SL: What’s the story behind the name of your cookbook, Son of a Southern Chef? How has your family served as a source of inspiration for you in the kitchen?

I woke up one morning and the words Son of a Southern Chef just rolled off my tongue.

I knew that was it: I had figured out how to tell my story in 5 words. So I just started writing recipes in 2014, and in 2015 my father passed away. And I was like, “God, what’s good? What are you doing?” How is it that I’ve just started to tell this story (in 2014), and in 2015 my dad is gone? I was at the point where I thought it was over. But I still had a story to tell. My siblings and I—I have 4 brothers and sisters—we feel like it’s a story we’re all telling, even though I might be the face of it, it’s really our story. It’s about the things that both mom and dad gave us, and we’re passing on to the next generation.

SL: You write that Son of a Southern Chef wouldn’t exist without your dad’s mac and cheese. What does the dish mean to you?

No matter the time of year, it was always the highlight dish. At the restaurant, it always sold out. It’s such a simple dish, but it’s a dish that dad was well known for, that our family loved to eat together: We loved to talk about it, and we loved to make it ourselves. It’s so comforting, because whenever I think of dad, nostalgically I start to crave macaroni and cheese. And whenever I feel like I want to be closer to him, and I want to feel connected again, I will eat that macaroni and cheese.

SL: Did you put any of your own twists on your dad’s mac and cheese recipe?

My dad was unafraid to use butter, to use full-fat cheese, to really immerse you in the mac and cheese journey. He gave you all of the richness, he gave you all of the flavor, he didn’t hold back on it. Now I have to be honest and say that I did cut a couple tablespoons of butter. Because I had to say, it’s still delicious without 4 extra tablespoons of butter.

SL: In your cookbook, you talk about your father’s legacy and how you want to continue and expand on his work. What legacy do you hope to leave?

It’s what Dr. Maya Angelou said to Oprah: “Your legacy is every life you’ve touched.” I really feel that my greatest legacy is to live a life that not only am I proud of, but to know that I have lifted up someone else.

SL: You mentioned your relationship with the church community. What role has faith played in your journey?

Faith has played a very important role in my life. I went through a period of having to rediscover what having a personal relationship with God means as a black, gay man, where that conversation was not tolerated, and there certainly wasn’t a pathway for that. Talk about self-love: It was having to really discover for myself where I belong in this community. It’s been a journey, but I really feel like now I’m in a space where I’m guided by my faith. I really do believe in the power of prayer. It’s part of who I am—I just had to reimagine how I chose to participate in faith-based community. I like being different, I like being who I am. I like when I show up in spaces where I don’t look like everyone else, and I want more people to feel that they can be who they are and still love God (or whoever you serve)—to still have your faith, principles, values, but to never lose sight of who you are. Because I really believe that who God made me to be is beautiful, and who God made you to be is beautiful. There are no mistakes.

There’s a quote that I wrote that I think will summarize it very well: “Today, I am supported and guided by faith, my ancestors, and the eternalness of love. Today, I claim my space to exist, my right to know joy in all her fullness, the courage to ask for what I need and want, the will to let [it] go, and the power to be. Today, I am thankful.”

That is one of the most powerful affirmations that I can speak over my life. I think about my ancestors and the people that came before me and their struggles, their survival, and their willingness to go on, to soar above and to thrive. So that’s what I hope to do every day.

Order Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Advertisement