Elazar Sontag, Special to The Washington Post
When Lazarus Lynch's debut cookbook came out last month, he slipped into an electric-blue-and-purple wig, a checkered trench coat and leather pants, and took to the streets. Followed by a five-piece band, Lynch skipped up the subway steps, his wig blowing every which way, and shimmied to the centre of Times Square, where he began dancing with his book held high in one hand, a tambourine keeping beat in the other. Soon there was a crowd surrounding Lynch, and he was in his element.
Lynch is as comfortable singing, playing music and dancing through Times Square as he is in the kitchen. He recently put out the soul-melting R&B single "In My World," which has been streamed nearly 150,000 times on Spotify, and he's working on two more singles he'll release this summer, plus a studio-produced album he's already finished writing. And when he's not making music or developing recipes, Lynch is interviewing cooks and farmers for "Comfort Nation," his Food Network digital series focused on cooking traditions around the country.
"In the book, I wanted to marry all those things," Lynch tells me the following week in the brick-walled kitchen of the Jamaica, Queens, apartment where he was raised and where his mother still lives. "I was thinking, 'How do you do that?' I had no template. I had no model for how books articulate heart and soul." So the 25-year-old chef, writer, television host, musician and all-around artist created exactly the book he couldn't find a template for, one exploding with colour and personality, and named it "Son of a Southern Chef: Cook With Soul."
Throughout the book, Lynch rotates through more outfits - rings, necklaces, hats, bags, fanny packs and neon nail polish - than a model during fashion week.
Though "Son of a Southern Chef" overflows with expressions of self-love, Lynch hasn't always been so comfortable in his own skin. Growing up, he followed his parents - devout Christians - to church every Sunday, and as close as he was with both of them, he didn't know how they would receive his queerness. "I grew up with this idea and this teaching that maybe who I am is wrong," Lynch says. In 2014, reclining on a sun-dappled park bench with his father, he was struck by a sense that this was finally the right time to broach the topic. "I remember being on that bench, and my dad saying, 'I'm going to love you no matter what.' It meant everything to me. There are a lot of children that don't have that support."
That conversation stuck with Lynch and informed his work. "I wasn't sitting here thinking, 'How can I make this book queer?' " he says. "It's just me. But when young queer boys and girls come up to me and they say, 'Thank you for being yourself, you've inspired me to be myself, you've inspired me to talk to my parents,' that's part of the joy I get to experience every day."
The book's recipe headnotes are conversational, like a friend texting you words of encouragement. His shrimp and grits "screams yasssss," he writes, and in the Issa Drinks Wave section of the book - what other cookbook indexes might simply refer to as beverages - a watermelon cocktail's headnote reads, "I could see Jay-Z and Beyoncé sipping on these on Maui." Between recipes, on pink pages entirely taken up by text, Lynch offers up quotes ranging from "Let your light shine!" to "You are worthy of self-appreciation, joy, and self-love." To Lynch, the quotes, LOLs and LMAOs are just another way to bring more people into the fold, welcoming a new generation to cook soul food and claim it as their own.
And then there are the photos: On one page, photographer Anisha Sisodia captures Lynch, dressed as a knight with a skewer as his lance, riding a much-larger-than-life grilled shrimp into battle, while on another he surfs a pile of enormous breaded okra tumbling out of a fryer basket.
Therese Nelson, a food historian and founder of the website Black Culinary History, applauds Lynch's attempt to bridge generations. "The power in someone like Lazarus is the ability to show people that these black foodways have modern viability," she says. "He's somebody who you're going to relate to culturally. To take these recipes and make them cool and interesting and modern is powerful."
The book sometimes reads like an autobiography, with nearly every recipe connecting back to his family. When Lynch was growing up in the same kitchen where he stands dredging thick filets of fish now, his father, Johnny Ray Lynch, was always working, wearing as many different hats as Lynch does today. "He took on any job he could," Lynch says. "He finished high school and went straight to work. He created several businesses. Everything from a carpet store, a 99-cent store, a men's fashion store, a moving service and then finally the restaurant."
The restaurant was Baby Sister's Soul Food, a small space in Queens. There, he and Lynch's Guyanese-born mother, Debbie-Ann Gravesande Lynch, served the dishes Lynch's father ate as a child in Bessemer, Alabama. Baby Sister's Soul Food was a community space and a family affair. Though she worked full time as a secretary, and cooking wasn't her passion, Debbie-Ann would swap out her formal work clothes for an apron each night, and join Johnny Ray on the line to fry fish and fill plates. He built a stage in the dining room and set up enormous amplifiers. "My father would throw all these shows. People who sang background for Chaka Khan would come through and hang out," Lynch remembers. "It was that kind of spot. I still miss that today."
Lynch did all he could to connect with his father. "Both my parents were out hustling, making ends meet, so I kind of resented other kids who had their father after 5 o'clock," he says, as he carefully drops the first batch of flour-dusted fish filets into a cast-iron skillet of bubbling oil - a recipe straight from his father's restaurant. "The way that I figured out how to spend time with my dad was to cook with him. It was either that or music." So when they weren't in their living room playing djembe drums, piano or saxophone together, Lynch helped at the restaurant, grating mountains of cheddar for his father's famous mac and cheese, peeling carrots, even mopping the bathroom floors.
In his teens, Lynch ended up at Food and Finance High School, New York City's only public culinary high school. After school, he'd bring what he'd learned back to his father's kitchen. "I would go to the restaurant, and I'd say: 'Dad, we need to add salad to the menu. We need to change this and change that, maybe add nutmeg,' and he was like: 'Why are you adding nutmeg to the collard greens? That's ridiculous,' " Lynch recalls, laughing.
After high school, he enrolled at Buffalo State College in Upstate New York. Unenthused by his classes, Lynch launched a blog and a YouTube channel, both titled "Son of a Southern Chef," which is how he'd come to see his place in the world of food. He began interviewing his father and watching him more closely as he cooked, writing down everything he did. He shared those recipes and stories online, and people wanted more. Lynch's Instagram following was expanding quickly, and a television network reached out to cast him for a Snapchat cooking series. A few months later, ABC Network approached Lynch to host a digital cooking show, "Tastemade Get Cookin'," giving him a platform to share his family's recipes.
Then, just as his world was opening up with opportunity, Lynch received a call that his father, who had been battling cancer for more than a year, had died at 53. Lynch was devastated. What would happen to his father's stories and recipes, many of which Lynch had recorded for his blog, now that he was no longer at the restaurant, filling plates with yams, fish, mac and cheese, and greens? Suddenly, Son of a Southern Chef took on a new meaning. "More than ever, legacy was so important to me," Lynch says. So he decided to write this book.
Nicole Taylor, a food writer and the author of "The Up South Cookbook," says Lynch's work to preserve his father's legacy is crucial. "For decades and decades, there were these brilliant, amazing black people from the South and beyond who were doing creative things, but they weren't recorded," says Taylor, who was recently named executive food editor at Thrillist. "Oral tradition is the base of black food culture, and it's the base of Southern food culture. It's so important that we have folks like Lazarus publishing books because what it does is it tells our family story. It gives a blueprint."
While Lynch's own recipes are boundary-pushing, he didn't meddle too much with his family's dishes. "My father loved butter, he loved all that stuff," Lynch says. "In the book, I celebrate that. I don't dismiss it." Dad's Fried Fish Sandwiches, for instance, the ones Lynch is making as we talk, call for Aunt Jemima self-rising flour. "This was the classic dish at Dad's store. In the black community, fried fish is a celebration food." Including ingredients like Aunt Jemima in the book wasn't just a way of keeping things simple and approachable - though that didn't hurt. It was a matter of holding on to history. "It's about meeting people in a lineage that they can relate to. That's how I watched my father cook. That's also how he watched his mother cook."
The choice to feature ingredients like Aunt Jemima in the book is already making an impression. "It's approachable, but it's also like, 'This is me, this is who I am,' " says Taylor. "When I see that Aunt Jemima container, it's a historic take."
Lynch has watched with delight as the first people to buy his book cook from it, sending him pictures on Instagram and tagging him on Facebook.
For the first time since he danced through Times Square holding his book high, Lynch found a moment of peace and quiet a couple of weeks ago to sit and flip through "Son of a Southern Chef." He pulled up a stool in the kitchen, the same one he sat on for hours as a child, helping his father mix coleslaw, wash collard greens and split open boiled peanuts. "I sat and I read the book," Lynch says. "As soon as I started doing that, I felt this warmth come over me. I could just feel his comfort. My father's fingerprints are all over this book."