Crittenton Women's Union Honors Barbara Lynch with Amelia Earhart Award
Barbara Lynch is a James Beard award-winning chef and one very funny woman.
When she stepped to the microphone this past Wednesday to receive the Crittenton Women's Union's Amelia Earhart award at a luncheon attended by hundreds, the first words out of her mouth were: "I just have to adjust my bra strap."
That pretty much sums up the level of pretension that one can expect from this incredible food artist and entrepreneur, who is regarded as one of Boston’s, and the country’s, leading chefs and restaurateurs.
Each year, the Crittenton Women's Union (CWU) honors a woman who has exhibited pioneering spirit with the Amelia Earhart Award. Lynch certainly fits the criteria, as do many of the clients of the CWU. The organization helps low-income and at-risk women and families get out of poverty and into lives of personal and economic independence.
Before the award presentation to Lynch, one of the CWU's clients, Helene Gaudette, spoke movingly of her journey towards independence, with the critical assistance she's received from the CWU. Gaudette found herself divorced at age 23, with two kids to support. She planned to become an interior designer, but with help from the CWU's career and financial planning specialists, she learned that the average entry-level salary for an interior designer in Boston is $37,000. Budgeting exercises showed that she needed $65,000 to support her family. She's now enrolled in a radiology program at Roxbury Community college so that she can move into a better-paying field. She brought many of us to tears with her pledge to support her kids so that they do not want, and so that they grow up with a strong role model of a woman who's self-sufficient and in control of her own destiny.
Following the opening speakers, local radio and TV personality Ron Della Chiesa introduced an excerpt from a short documentary on Lynch. This award-winning film, Amuse Bouche, A Chef's Tale, is described as "a female, real-life 'Good Will Hunting,'" and outlines how Lynch overcame poverty, depression, violence and social stigma to rise through the ranks and establish herself in a male-dominated business with a 60% failure rate.
Following the film snippet, Lynch came to the microphone, waving the crowd -- which had risen to give her a standing ovation -- to sit down.
Lynch relayed her life story and lessons with humility and irreverance. She grew up in housing projects in the South End in a family with seven kids. (Her Dad died when he was just 32.) She noted that she was brought up understanding that everyone is equal - a philosophy that would inform her generosity to the community down the road. She's noted for her heartfelt philanthropy.
She was not a good student, and she worked for a time as a bookie in high school. (She confessed that she did not always place the bets!) But she had a home economics teacher "who saw something in me that I did not see in myself." She developed a love of cooking, at the age of 13, got her first kitchen job cooking at a local rectory. (At age 14, she found Julia Child's number in Cambridge and called her on a whim. To her shock, Child answered the phone, "so I hung up!")
She eventually talked her way into a job as a cook's assistant on a cruise boat doing dinner cruises to Martha's Vineyard. When she approached the owner, he said, "We don't need anymore servers," and she explained she was looking to cook. He asked her where she had cooked, "so I told that guy everything. Thank God he didn't ask for a reference." When the owner asked her if she'd made a certain dish, she invariably replied, "Oh yes," even if she'd never heard of it.
Two days before the cruise was to depart, the chef resigned. Lynch told the owner she wanted the job, and he took a chance on her. She took 25 cookbooks out of the library, stayed up all night, and learned how to cut up beef. "Heck, I learned how to order beef!"
She was on her way. During her early twenties, Barbara worked under some of Boston’s great chefs, including Todd English, first at Michaela’s, then at Olives and later Figs. After working with Todd for several years, Barbara traveled to Italy where she learned about the cuisine firsthand from local women. She returned to Boston and became the executive chef at Galleria Italiana, bringing national acclaim to the tiny trattoria when she captured Food & Wine’s “Ten Best New Chefs in America” award in 1996.
At that point, she knew she wanted her own restaurant, so she signed the lease for No. 9 Park, the day before she got married. Travel & Leisure proclaimed No.9 Park one of the “Top 50 Restaurants in America” in 2003. For two consecutive years, No.9 Park was named “Best Restaurant, General Excellence” by Boston Magazine and Gourmet included it as one of “America’s Top 50 Restaurants” in 2006. She now owns eight restaurants, with a ninth in the works. In fall 2009, Houghton Mifflin will publish her first cookbook.
Lynch noted that in reflecting on Amelia, she asked herself, "What inspires me? What still drives me?" Here are a few answers to those questions, along with some hard-won wisdom:
- "If you want something, you can talk yourself out of being scared."
- She describes working together with a team as creating a big mural. "Someone's working on a foot over there, someone's working on the head over here, but it all comes together."
- "Companies have soul. They need nurturing."
- "We need to look at risks in a different way. Sometimes, the adventure is worthwhile in itself."
- "I believe in the mission of CWU - helping women to believe in themselves."
This marked the 25th annual Amelia Earhart Award Luncheon to benefit The Crittenton Women’s Union. The CWU was created in 2006 through the merger of two historic Boston organizations, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union and Crittenton. Both were trailblazing organizations serving women and families since the late 1800s; they merged to create a stronger organization capable of achieving things that neither organization could do alone.