It’s good to be Lazarus Lynch, ’16.
Since graduating from Buffalo State last year, the 23-year-old has put his career on the front burner and turned it up to a boil.
Lynch won the Chopped Star Power tournament on the Food Network, outlasting 15 other celebrity competitors. He recorded “Comfort Nation,” his own four-episode pilot that debuted on the Food Network this spring. He made guest appearances on NBC’s The Today Show and the Food Network’s The Kitchen. He cohosted the ABC Network digital series Tastemade Get Cookin’. And he sealed his first cookbook contract with Penguin Random House, the global publishing giant. And all that is on top of his “Son of a Southern Chef”–branded cooking videos that have attracted a huge following on social media.
Did we mention he’s only 23?
Born and raised in New York City, Lynch learned how to cook from his late father, Johnny “Ray” Lynch, an Alabama native who operated Baby Sister’s Soul Food Restaurant in Queens, and his mother, Debbie-Ann Lynch, a native of Guyana, who specializes in Caribbean cuisine. Lynch’s mission is to share his family-inspired recipes with the world.
Recently, the spicy-hot chef with the ultra-cool personality took a few minutes to update 1300 Elmwood on his life and career.
Q: You graduated from Buffalo State one year ago. How’s life been treating you since then?
It’s been pretty exciting. Yes, a year ago I was sitting in classrooms and taking final exams. Things have been kind of surreal since then, but the journey that I’m on started before I graduated. The nice thing is that you don’t have to wait until Commencement day to start thinking about what you’re going to do next. I have some incredible supporters and advocates at Buffalo State—and I’m in a good place today with their help.
Q: What are you working on now?
First, we’re aiming to publish my first cookbook in fall 2018. I’m very excited about that. I still have a bit of work to do on it before my deadline this March. It’ll feature my favorite foods—from appetizers to desserts—and will include some family stories as well.
And the Food Network and I are officially working together. We have a big project going on with lots of exciting plans. It will hit the market soon, but I can’t say any more than that right now. Stay tuned.
I’m really just having a blast meeting my work each day. I get to work with food stylists, photographers, and artists on a variety of projects—people who believe in what we’re doing.
Q: Has your Buffalo State education come in handy in your career so far?
Yes, there’s definitely a combination of things. I came to Buffalo State thinking I wanted to be a dietician, so I started out in the nutrition and dietetics program to think more about food and food science. What I learned during two years of dietetics labs has come in very handy.
I also look back to my experience on the Anne Frank Project service trip to Rwanda. Drew Kahn [professor of theater] introduced me to the incredible power of storytelling on that trip. Today, I’m essentially a storyteller—through YouTube videos, the book I’m writing, appearances. It’s all storytelling.
During my senior year, I focused my studies on media production—everything from editing to writing scripts to audio.
I also took theater and communication courses, and I had a wonderful writing instructor, Deborah Kloepfer, who really encouraged me to write.
Q: It’s one thing to be a talented chef, but presenting yourself well on TV is an entirely different skill, right?
Presentation style is all trial and error. I have a theater background, and I grew up singing at church. I’ve always loved an audience. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but I’ve always been able to muster up the strength to read scripture in front of a congregation or deliver lines in front of an audience. You just develop that confidence until it becomes more natural and you feel comfortable in your own skin. Of course, the time you spend preparing yourself is very important.
Q: You mentioned your involvement in the Anne Frank Project. How did that affect your outlook on life?
I was walking though Upton Hall in September of my freshman year. I had just arrived on campus, and I kept seeing posters for the Anne Frank Project everywhere. I had no idea what the Anne Frank Project was, but it sounded interesting, so I went to an open forum to learn more. When Drew Kahn started talking about the annual service trip
to Rwanda and how they used storytelling as a way to connect with people, I immediately thought to myself, I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it, but I’m going to Rwanda. I went from not knowing a single thing about the program to desperately needing to be involved.
As it turned out, there were two scholarships that I had applied for in high school that came through right before the trip. And there was another donor who told me this was something I needed to do and wrote a $1,000 check to help make it happen. The lesson to me was that if you really believe in something, it will work out. It may take working three jobs to get there, or accepting someone’s assistance, or fighting through failure to get to success—but if you follow through, it will work out. I was the only non-theater major and only freshman on the trip, and it really had a profound impact on me—I do believe storytelling is a tool that can be used to help change the world.
Q: How did you get started in the culinary world?
I went to Food and Finance High School in New York City, and Ingrid Hoffmann, a Food Network host, would come to our school periodically to meet with students. One time she asked for a volunteer to help her with a cooking demo. I raised my hand and was scared and nervous, but she told me afterward that she thought it went very well and encouraged me to start writing a food blog.
During my senior year, I got a call from a producer at the Cooking Channel who loved the blog and wanted to feature me in a “Food People” campaign they were doing—basically, mini-profiles of people involved with food. I thought it was a joke at first, but they came out and filmed me and I had a lot of fun with it, but I kind of thought that would be the end of it. I came to Buffalo State feeling like I had plateaued—I didn’t really know anyone in Buffalo; I was starting from ground zero and had left my comfort zone.
Q: Obviously, that wasn’t the end of the story. What was your breakthrough moment at Buffalo State?
No, that wasn’t the end of the story! I found Buffalo State to be a great place to thrive. It’s small enough to get to know everyone and large enough to have a lot of options.
The breakthrough came when I was interning for the Health Promotions program on campus. Tammy Kresge and I talked a lot about the power of social media and branding there. At the same time, I was thinking about my cooking career. After one of our meetings at Weigel, the “Son of a Southern Chef” brand concept came to me. I just felt like the story of me and my father was what I should build a business around.
Q: And so you took the concept to social media?
Yes, I started making short YouTube videos showing college students how to prepare quick, healthy meals. The series is called My College Kitchen.
That attracted an audience, and things continued to grow. When I was a junior, the Tastemade digital network called to offer me a video spot. I flew to Los Angeles to make a video of me preparing ramen. Now my videos are seen all over the world because of powerful platforms like Snapchat.
Q: There’s great power in social media, isn’t there?
Social media is so interesting. It’s all about providing regular content—posting, posting, posting. If you have a fascinating message and a unique voice, people will find you. If you don’t know something—you go to social media. People are looking for a voice they can identify with. And so if you can attract that audience, then iteventually grows into a customer base—people who might be interested in buying your book or your pots and pans. It’s all about building the relationship.
I think I still underestimate the power of social media. We’ve only scratched the surface. Today more than ever, there’s such an entrepreneurial mind-set. Millennials know that the future is in their own hands. They know things change quickly. They know how to hustle. They know how to make money on their own. And social media is such a powerful tool, whether you’re promoting yourself, a product, or a message. You don’t need anyone’s permission to put it out there.
Q: Branding is essential. What should people think when they hear the name “Lazarus Lynch?”
On a basic level, I want them to think That dude is cool! The layers behind that would be—he has so many cool recipes, he makes food with soul, he has a lot of personality, he tells cool stories, he dresses cool.
I’m not one-dimensional. I see myself fitting into multiple areas and using all of my talents. For example, I’m not a designer, but I love to pick out clothes. And cool clothes don’t have to be expensive; they can be thrifted. I have an eye for that. Other people may have an eye for something else. Basically, those ideas become content for an episode on the web or the chapter of a book.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in building a brand?
I consider myself an artist first, and the biggest challenge is that an artist is always dreaming up something new. When you do that, there’s the potential to lose focus and get sidetracked. It’s very important to stay pure in your work and remember why you started. It’s important to know your identity. I meditate. I pray. That makes it easier for me to discern who I am.
My brand is the story of me cooking in the kitchen with my father. And I know that most people enjoyed that same experience with their own parents. When people watch me preparing a dish step by step—hands forming dough—that imagery takes you back to a place of comfort. But I also know that people have limited time, so I need to package that in quick-content recipes.
Q: It sounds as though your family has been instrumental in your success.
My family has always been a blessing for me. My father and mother were never afraid of letting their children explore the deepest parts of themselves. I’ve never felt judged. They gave us permission to go and do, which allowed us to develop some good skill sets. They always believed in us.
My mother is an immigrant. She was born in Guyana, then moved to London, then to New York City. When we were kids, my siblings and I would go back and forth to London and visit museums, and we’d visit all the museums in New York City. I probably took for granted how amazingly hard my parents worked for us—and how much they taught us.
To this day, I shoot cooking videos in my mom’s house, and one of my sisters helps on production. It’s been a real joy to include my family in my work.
Q: Any advice from a Buffalo State faculty member that has stuck with you?
Carol Townsend [associate professor of design] would say, “The thing you loved most as a kid is what you are meant to do.” I thought about that a lot and realized that my attitude toward being creative is what I am meant to do. As a kid, I had a fascination with building—blocks, Legos. Putting things together. I think that carries over to building a recipe, building a book, building a brand, building a career.
And Sue McCartney [director of the Small Business Development Center] always said to strive to be happy. It may sound cliché, but it’s the truth. If you’re not happy or if you’re bored, then do something to change the circumstances. What can you change? It’s up to you to find purpose and use your talents to do good for others as well as for yourself. That was a recurring theme at college, I think. There’s definitely a reciprocity standard at Buffalo State. Giving back is part of the culture. Use your talents to give back.
Q: So what are your long-term goals?
People ask me all the time about my five-year plan. I’ve never approached my life like that. I really just want to live a creative life. The creative life is not about the fame or success. It’s about feeling joy. Sharing ideas. Getting inspired. That’s all. That is the dream, in whatever form it takes.