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Meet the Stove Monkey
Chef overcomes his drug-addicted past and goes from booking to cooking at the Culinary Institute of New York.
In a simplistic sense, the job description of Anthony Lynch, as a chef, is to make stuff. That is, to find just the right combination of various and sundry to make a certain something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
But in a life that has involved going from high school drop out to entrepreneur holding multiple degrees, with a bout of drug addiction and recovery in between, it’s fair to say Lynch’s penchant for finding the right recipe extends beyond his prowess in a kitchen.
“Cooking has always been a passion for me,” said Lynch from the kitchen where he currently works as a private chef in Little Rock. “But I think I was always meant to be an entrepreneur.”
For better or worse, that’s a knife that cuts both ways. At present, it means running his own apparel business, one started with a grade school friend to make everyday wear for foodies and food industry professionals. But in the past, it also got him into trouble.
Born in Dallas, Lynch grew up south of Austin. By age 9 he’d tried drugs and by 13 he was using everyday, a path paved by marijuana, LSD and cocaine that “got totally out of control.” At 15, while working as a dishwasher at a restaurant, his aptitude for business kicked in when he realized he could be a supplier to coworkers. By 17, he’d left school and had his own apartment.
“I thought I had it all going on,” he said. “Then at 18 I was arrested for the first time.”
It was mushrooms and LSD — and not the wake-up call one might think. Lynch said he was more arrogant and angry to not be left alone than remorseful or cognizant of the problem he had. He ended up with probation... and was arrested again before it ended, this time with 25 pounds of marijuana en route home from Mexico.
That was enough to get clean, but only for a time. After nine months, “I started hanging out with the wrong people again, and it was like I never stopped using or selling. It got bad really quick.”
Handcuffs, again, changed all that, this time landing him in prison for a year. He spent 18 months in a halfway house and also began treatment, three months in-patient and six more out.
It was also then that he thought back to a meeting the first time he’d tried to turn his life around. He’d been working with a kid — in a kitchen, of course — who introduced him to the idea of culinary school. At the time, before the emergence of celebrity chefs and TV networks for food, it wasn’t a well-known idea. At least, he’d never heard of it.
His first thought was a community college in Dallas, and with that came seeking a job with a chef he knew at a local country club. There wasn’t a job there, but he got a referral to work for another chef.
“He said ‘the guy’s 6-4, from New York, and he’s fired 20 people in the last six months,’” Lynch recalled. “‘If you’re even a minute late, don’t even bother to show up.’”
Unbeknownst to the referrer, the job was 15 miles from where Lynch lived — and he had no car. So he biked it. Every day, cold or rain. For six months.
“I can’t even tell you how many times the chain popped off and I had to carry my bike to work,” he said. “It wasn’t a nice bike.”
The dedication earned him the nickname “Lance” and also the respect of the chef who sent him to the job in the first place. He eventually got an offer. It was just cleaning floors and running a snack bar at first, but he eventually worked his way up to executive sous chef.
“It wasn’t difficult, it just took a lot of dedication,” said Lynch of the turnaround, which included continued focus on recovery and staying clean. “I just didn’t want to go back to the life that I had been living.”
In the meantime, Lynch’s culinary plans also changed when he was introduced to, and set sights on, the Culinary Institute of America in New York, one of the most prestigious in the country — and the only one to turn him down owing to his felony convictions. It took a year of convincing — of essays and referrals — but in March 2006, he moved to the Empire State.
The time spent obviously offered a lot of instruction on food, not to mention chances to see food at work in the city itself. But Lynch, in talking about school, spends more time recalling activities outside the classroom: living and working at a Connecticut country club on weekends, spending time volunteering on a farm.
After school it was back to Dallas for a time before being invited by a friend to come take on work as executive sous chef at a Little Rock country club. Lynch said he visited the area and “fell in love.” He’d already planned to move, but — as fate would have it — just before he did he happened to meet two ladies from Little Rock visiting the Dallas spa where he was working. He made enough of an impression on them that, six months after he’d resettled in the Natural State, one called to inquire about his interest in working as a personal chef as well. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Lynch agreed. He’s since parlayed that into full-time work — and is happier for it, he said.
“I’ve been doing that for four and a half years now, and it’s the first time in my career that I’ve had a life outside the kitchen,” he said.
Of course, that’s in addition to running the apparel company, an online venture called Stove Monkeys. Lynch said the project started when he rather randomly ran into a guy he knew from childhood at a wedding.
“When we found out we were both chefs it was like we were best friends all over again,” he said.
It was the friend’s idea to do an everyday-wear clothing company for food people, and Lynch said, after realizing he struggled to find T-shirts that appealed to him, he was on board, too.
Naturally, the two didn’t quite realize everything they were getting into, Lynch laughed. Believe it or not, it takes capital to start a business and two 20-something chefs aren’t exactly the most flush people in the world. But with a printing contact in Dallas and a humble MySpace page, the two began operations in 2007.
“It was a slow process, but we stuck with it and did the best we could,” Lynch said, adding that the business eventually moved to its own website. He’s since bought the business and refined operations to include digital printing on a smaller scale, including partnering with restaurants around the country to do special shirts for those establishments and their chefs.
“Our idea initially, and it’s still part of our mission and true today, is to unite chefs and food lovers around the world,” Lynch said. “We want our brand to be food culture.”
He’s also spent the time in recent years to refine his approach to business by way of earning a degree in finance from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, potentially on the way to being a certified financial analyst and able to run the business side of hospitality operations. He’s also just shy of earning a pilot’s license. The plan, he said, is to hopefully one day put everything all together and have a sort of bed and breakfast type operation that flies guests into a country setting, treats them to a stay and on-site grown and prepared meals — a full-service operation.
At least, that’s the “maybe one day.” That it’s even a possibility, though, is something of a testament to Lynch’s tenacity and creativity in life as well as in food.
“I always had this clear direction of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, to be an executive chef at a country club, and the private chef job has put a twist on that,” he said. “Not that I’m in any rush to get out. My boss has been a real inspiration for me.
“But where to go from here? I guess it’ll be what’s gotten me where I am today, being open to whatever options present themselves,” he said. “The options are really limitless.”