Lazarus Lynch find success by following his authentic truth: "A show is not the end game for me"

In a candid interview, the chef discusses the reckoning on race in the food industry and the reason why he cooks

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published July 12, 2020 6:30PM (EDT)

Lazarus Lynch (Photo provided by publicist)
Lazarus Lynch (Photo provided by publicist)

This is part two of a two-part interview with chef Lazarus Lynch.

It's been one year now since Lazarus Lynch released his debut cookbook, "Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul." The journey of sharing his soul food bible with the world left an indelible mark on Lynch, and the colorful and vibrant book was unlike any Southern cookbook that came before it. In the process, the chef gained a newfound sense of empowerment and ownership of his own narrative, which includes openly identifying as a Black queer person.

Three hundred and sixty-five days later, the landscape looks not only different for Lynch but also for America as a whole. The nation reels from a pandemic and a recession, both of which have impacted Black Americans at a disproportionate rate. In the wakes of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, America also finds itself confronted with a national reckoning on race.

Lynch is quick to remind us that these struggles are not new for Black Americans. "They are issues that we, as a community, have been given Band-Aid solutions for and have never received true reforms or systemic change," he tells Salon. 

RELATED: Lazarus Lynch on the politics and healing power of food: It's "the conduit for all beautiful things"

As a Black chef in America, Lynch views his role as inherently political. The production and sale of food, as well as who has access to it and the land it is grown on all politicize our plates. The history of food in America is intertwined with the history of enslaved people. We vote with our dollars, and so we vote with our plates.

"Who we are is in the aromas of our kitchens. It comes out in our Sazón, in our Lawry's seasoned salt, in our Jiffy cornbread. It comes out in our biscuits, in our fried chicken and in our okra," Lynch says. "We must know not just about where that food comes from — not just about the Edna Lewises, the Leah Chases of the world — but we must also understand that growing our own food gives us ownership in a way that simply just telling the story through cooking doesn't."

Politics aside, food also has the ability to nourish and heal our bodies, which may be needed now more than ever. 

"Food has the power to heal — and not just heal bodies — but heal hearts, heal spaces and bring up important conversations around healing," Lynch adds.

When Lynch last appeared on "Salon Talks," he showed us how to make a sweet take on grilled cheese that's ooey, gooey and delicious. You can watch more of Lynch cooking up some of his beloved recipes here after you read part one of our two-part interview here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

As we've seen the protests against police brutality unfold, we've also seen reckonings over race across industries. Systematic racism in the food industry has been examined, including at prominent media publications. What do you think about the current state of the industry? How can it evolve and rise to the moment that we're living through right now?

Well, I think that's a very important question. I think that we're living in a very important time. These are all very necessary, long overdue changes, in my opinion. These changes are the beginnings of what I hope to be a permanent reconstruction of the industry. Now, that's going to take a lot of time. That's going to take a lot of labor. That's going to take a lot of willingness of powers to come to the table and really see these issues, and acknowledge these issues, before we can change them.

I think what's happening now is this: We're in the beginning stages. This is the acknowledgement stage, and we know people are still in denial. People still don't see the disparity. People still don't think anything's wrong. So we're still at the acknowledgement phase of this, which has to happen before we can get to the next level. 

RELATED: Inspired by his dad, Lazarus Lynch's peach cobbler is the dessert you'll want to bake all summer

I am looking at this as an organizer in this movement. I've seen the fashion industry. There's been a Black in Fashion Council which has been launched from this movement, and their role is to continue to hold the fashion industry accountable so that there's representation. And we need that in food. We need a Black in Food Council, and I'm willing to be a part of that. Because that is the important work.

I've had so many conversations with production companies, with networks who I won't name, who are interested in telling Black stories. But they're not interested in really telling the entire story, because they don't want to offend anyone. They don't want their audience retention to go down. They don't want to lose budgets.

And so there's still this capitalistic motivation driving a lot of these decisions. There's a reason why certain people are replayed and replayed on certain channels, while others are not. That's a money thing. And so the whole thing has to change. As a person who's been on camera, and hosted shows and who's written a book: Look, a show is not the end game for me. It is absolutely not the end game for me. And it's important that you, please, express that. A show is not the end game for me, because a show is, as all art is, a tool for social justice. And when you are irresponsible about how you use that tool, you end up perpetuating systems of oppression.

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So what we need to do is not just fill the screens with more Black people. That's important. Black representation matters. Not just filling the screens with Black trans people, because that's important and because that matters. But it's also about who's making those decisions. It's also about who's signing those checks. It's also about who's editing those stories. We need an entire change here.

And so, for me, it's about the beginning the stages, right now. The acknowledgement, stepping down of certain people, I appreciate. But how do we make sure that this is not created again, in a new form? How do we make sure that this is not just another problem that we put a Band-Aid solution over and really undue this whole system? That's how I'm thinking about this.

Have you redefined what success means for yourself? If a show is not the end game for you, should others who are up and coming in the industry think the same way? How can we think outside of the box of the current formula for success?

Well, I don't know that my definition has changed that dramatically. I've always sort of approached my life and the work that I do from a space of authenticity and from the space of what feels right for me. And that includes having a spiritual foundation and a practice in prayer and meditation, where I'm able to center myself before I make those kinds of decisions and those moves.

I think it's dangerous for me to tell people not to want a TV show or not to want a book deal. Those are things that people who want them should aspire to and absolutely make every best effort to make that reality for themselves. It would be unfair and completely incomplete for me to give advice like that, but I do believe that there is work to do. And I think that we have to, as people, as individuals, begin to do our own work. And that has nothing to do with an industry. That has nothing to do with food. That has nothing to do with the powers that be.

That has everything to do with us examining our own biases, examining our own prejudices, examining the ways in which we don't speak up. Because not doing that work is what has created the issues we have today. So my challenge to everybody is: If you're hosting a show, ask for representation in those crews. If you're writing a book, include other people. Your team you put together are people of color, who are equally as talented, who can do the job. And so, to me, it's not exclusively about just the color of people's skin who you are hiring. But it's about working in your own community, in your own life, to undo systemic racism. And that is the work that I want everyone to do.

So I haven't truly changed the position on success. I don't think a TV show means that I'm successful. I don't think having a book means I'm successful. I think those are things that I wanted, and those are things that I worked hard to earn and those are things that I did because those are the things I wanted to do.

If I never do a show again, and if I just moved or relocated to another country to teach children — if that was what I wanted to do, then I would find happiness in that. So for me, as a creator, as a thinker, as a artist, I have always envisioned my life sort of in a very creative, bold way. And that's how I express the things that I do. It's never motivated by, "I must do this so that I'm successful." Success is following my authentic truth, whatever that means for me.

And I think that shows in cooking, too. If you cook food that is authentic to yourself, it really shines through in the recipe, on the finished plate, in the book that you're writing. 

Absolutely. But the thing about what you're saying is that in literature spaces, in publishing spaces, we have to have a more expansive understanding of the stories that are to be told. That the stories that are to be told may look like a Mexican immigrant who lives in your city, and who has this fusion of culture, and who is fascinated by many different cuisines and who loves telling stories about their homeland. That is a valid story. And for someone who's from Ethiopia, who cooked Ethiopian food from a food cart and who's parents owned a local business. That is a valid story.

There's a quote that says, "You don't have to understand in order for it to be valid." This speaks to validation. In the food space, in the writing space, there are Black chefs, there are Ethiopian chefs, there are Puerto Rican chefs. There are chefs of color who want to tell their story in the pages of literature but who are told, either directly or indirectly, that their stories aren't valid, that their story won't sell, that their story doesn't belong on a book shelf.

And so what we do is we just create the same kinds of things, the same kind of stories, the same kind of images, because we think that that's what's going to work. And so here's the opportunity — now is the opportunity. I'm calling on the industry  I'm calling on publishers, I'm calling on editors  to expand their idea of storytelling. To expand the possibility of what readers want, of what consumers want. Because the truth is that all of these cuisines are valid. All of these stories matter, and so I want to see all of them told.

In the larger conversation of cultural appropriation in food, there are conversations about authenticity, experience and who can cook what foods. What do you think about these topics?

Alexander Smalls, the opera singer in Harlem, wrote the cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven, which received a James Beard Award. He talked about this in a recent essay he wrote  about who can cook what. Often times, Black people are put in the category of soul food. I'm going to just use very blunt words here and language, so please don't take offense to this. In the imagination of whiteness  and I say that with respect to this country that we live in and this kind of society that we live in — but in those kinds of institutions, in the imagination of whiteness, Blacks live in a very specific category. It's the same thing in music, because I'm also in the music industry.

So in the music industry, Black people don't necessarily live under the genre of opera. We live in the genres of soul, R&B, hip hop and funk. These associations about where our stories belong actually limit the creativity of the people who can do many different things, myself included.

So if I wanted to cook Italian food, because that's what I love, and I had done the necessary training to cook that food authentically from a space of truth, and a space of honesty and a space of love and respect, I deserve the opportunity. And because we live in a society where everybody can choose for themselves. But I think that if we have this very narrow-minded approach about who can tell a story, I think that's a very dangerous thing.

However, there's a caveat to that. Not everyone can tell every story, but everyone should have the opportunity to tell any story. And that's a very sort of complicated idea for some people. But that just means that because I have the ability to tell this story does not necessarily mean that I should tell this story. And on the flip side, I might be able to tell a story or have the resources to tell the story that is not my own, and I'm going to tell it because it needs to be told. So I respect that, and I understand that.

It always has to come back to the person's intention and why they are sharing it, because that says everything to me. So it's a nuanced conversation. I think that the beauty of food is that it can be exchanged, and we see that in agriculture. We cannot say that physically this belongs to Africa, and it should never leave the continent of Africa. It must only stay in Africa. Food is broader than that. Food transcends those boundaries.

Speaking of your music, I love "I'm Gay." How do you see your music career growing?

Thank you very much for liking the song. I appreciate that. I made a decision at the end of last year that 2020 was going to be a different year for me. I couldn't expect how different it would be. But I knew it was going to be a different year, and I knew that I wanted to take a step back from how active I was in the food side and focus on my music. I wrote "I'm Gay" last year on the eve of my cookbook coming out and just kind of sat on it. I thought maybe I'd release it at the same time as the book, but I just no time. And so this year I decided I'm going to focus on music.

Music has always been a part of me. It's part of my history. It's part of my family. It's part of my DNA. To be able to really now tell stories through sound, and through music and also through music videos, is a different expression of my artistry that people are getting to witness now.

It's just the right time. You know it just felt like this is the right thing for me to do. It is the right way for me to spend this year. So I'm very blessed because of that. And I'm very blessed that "I'm Gay" has come out at such a pivotal moment in our history, in our time. And it's really an affirmation to celebrate Black queer people and an affirmation of social justice. When I released the song. I said, "This is my protest. This is my pride anthem. This is my Black pride anthem."

I'm really grateful that people are listening to it and that it's emerging conversations around homophobia, race  all kinds of discrimination that this song interrogates and confronts. It's really bringing up these conversations. And as I said earlier, that art is a form of social justice. It is a teaching tool. I'm grateful for the ability to be able to use that tool  the ability that I have as a musician — to really bring up conversations. And there's more coming.

What can we look forward to next from you?

You can look forward to more music this year. You can look forward to witnessing the expansion of my artistry and storytelling. I'm still identifying for myself what that means. I know that music is a big part of that for this year, but I know that it's broader than that. And so I think we're all in for a surprise. This might be a wild ride. This is going to be a journey for all of us. But certainly in the coming months, you can expect some more music.

I cook because of my Mexican grandmother and growing up with her in the kitchen. It connects me to those memories, and it instructs me about my family and my identity. It's foundational in that sense. Why do you cook?

I cook to nourish my soul. I cook to nourish my mind. I cook to honor my ancestors. I cook to honor the past. I cook to be inspired about the future. I cook through memory. I cook through sensory. I cook through passion and feeling. And I cook from a space that reminds me that the shoulders that I stand on today have overcome. Therefore, I will overcome. And that is why I cook.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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