A Chef’s Life
It took acclaimed chef Barbara Lynch more than 50 years to get from Southie to Gloucester. But now she’s home.
Barbara Lynch snuffs her cigarette into an ashtray.
The chef and owner of a $24 million restaurant empire in Boston, she has cooked for hundreds of important diners, from Julia Child to the great chefs of Europe.
“To be able to impress an Italian diner is hard.”
Lynch is talking about the locals in the Liguria region of northwest Italy.
Seated on a bright yellow couch on the screened porch of her Annisquam home, she’s reminiscing about that recent trip. “You just say a prayer that you’re doing what they want,” she says.
Lynch’s gaze turns to her lush yard, where baby kale, radishes, and burnet are beginning to emerge in raised beds. A stand of Siberian iris have just popped, making a bright violet cloud against a spray of billowing asparagus fronds.
At the opposite end of the porch a table is set up with art supplies: a large wooden box of French oil paints, a pile of well-used brushes, and a pair of easels holding Lynch’s works in progress.
The sound of falling water from a garden waterfall smoothes away any remaining morning tension, but Barbara Lynch, child of the South Boston housing projects, didn’t become one of the world’s most famous restaurateurs by being serene.
She lights another cigarette.
. . . . .
Last spring, Lynch traveled to France and then to Italy, where she moderated a cooking demonstration in Liguria.
In the demonstration, her chef prepared Il Prebugiun di Ne, an ancient peasant dish made from potatoes, black cabbage with extra virgin olive oil, pesto di mortaio (pesto made with a mortar and pestle), and tomaxelle, a traditional Genoese veal roulade stuffed with meat, herbs, and mushrooms.
More than 25 years ago, Lynch traversed these two countries, journal in hand, documenting as many local specialties as possible.
Her inspired interpretations of traditional French and Italian cuisines proceeded to make Lynch one of the the world’s most respected chefs and restaurateurs.
Today her roster of seven Boston restaurants — No. 9 Park, Menton, Stir, Sportello, Drink, B&G Oysters, and The Butcher Shop — has garnered Lynch some of the industry’s highest accolades: Best New Restaurant in America (Food & Wine), Top 25 Restaurants in America (Bon Appétit), AAA four-diamond rating (all for No. 9 Park), Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef, and two James Beard awards, including being only the second woman ever recognized as Outstanding Restaurateur.
. . . . .
Lynch’s story is not a simple tale of hard work and talent. In her new memoir, Out of Line: A Life of Playing With Fire [Atria Books, 2017], Lynch tells the story of a girl from the Southie projects who conquered the fine dining world with guts and grit — and a loyal tribe.
The memoir is the page-turning read of how Lynch steered her speeding life away from the inevitable Southie dead end, crossed the bridge to Boston, and parked it cleanly at the foot of the Massachusetts State House, where her first restaurant, No. 9 Park, continues to win awards 20 years later.
It's a vivid tale — with some unspeakably painful scenes — of a young woman who locked arms with her besties and said to life, “I dare you.”
The process of documenting her past has changed her future.
“When I finished the memoir, after I submitted it, I was still living with the meter maids, state troopers, everyone I grew up with in Southie. And I kind of felt like it was time to move on. Right?”
Lynch’s hazel eyes focus, and one eyebrow arches dramatically. It’s not a hard look, but one that demands to be taken seriously.
“Thanks to the book, I don’t have to lie anymore. Even in my head,” she says.
“It’s like losing fifty pounds. For all my life, I had to keep those secrets. I don’t have to anymore. This is who I am — which I think I find hilarious — because my colleagues are saying, ‘Oh my god, I thought I knew you!’”
For 50-plus years, even throughout her soaring career, Lynch lived in Southie with her mother. Later, she moved into a South Boston condo. Now she has chosen Gloucester as the place to spend the second half of her life. She wanted enough space for her friends and family — the thick and the loyal — to gather.
“I sold my condo in three days and bought this place. The minute I saw it I said, ‘How do I get this started? This is more land than I ever thought I’d have … coming from a housing project!”
. . . . .
Southie’s Old Colony Housing Project is where Lynch buried her darkest secrets.
The second youngest of seven children, she grew up in the infamous neighborhood that organized crime boss Whitey Bulger called home. Old Colony was a tight community fused by struggle. Lynch was intimate with its brutality, but she found some security in the matriarchal clans that always made the place feel like home.
Things got even tougher during the desegregation of Boston schools in the 1970s, when she was bused to Madison Park High School in Roxbury. It was a time of racial protests and riots that brought national attention. Lynch was at ground zero.
Even before she started ninth grade, Lynch had already — in no particular order — 1) fractured both legs joyriding on the back bumper of an ice cream truck, 2) stolen an idling MBTA bus (she was too short to reach the pedals, so her friends worked the gas and brakes from the floor), 3) driven a previously stolen taxi up a set of school steps, 4) seen four friends die in a car accident, 5) lit the curtains at a friend’s house on fire, and 6) witnessed her sister’s developing heroin addiction.
There is more. A lot more.
Severe, undiagnosed ADD was the least of Lynch’s problems. She recalls how stunned her colleagues were to learn how much harder she was working to survive than the rest.
Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, the highly-regarded bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, had to read her book to learn that for all those years Lynch had been buying stacks of his foreign cookbooks just for the pictures.
“I had no idea you didn’t read — that you were dyslexic,” he told her.
The photographs in those fat cookbooks — Lynch calls them the “big daddies” — that Waxman kept in the back of his store were an instrumental part of her success.
“My friends and colleagues think I’m tough. I’m really not,” Lynch says. “I think it was a wall that I had to put up. ‘Faking it until I made it.’ But fudging your story that way — it’s hard.”
. . . . .
“My mother was a hard one,” Lynch says.
Lynch’s mother — single, worn by hard work and caring for seven children — was afraid and resentful of anything beyond the projects. The outside world only deepened her insecurities. She didn’t have the capacity to support young Barbara.
Lynch still maintains great respect for her mother, who worked two jobs, fed her family, and maintained a proper level of dignity in a place mostly bereft of it, but there are scars from being the child of an emotionally vacant parent.
“I worked most of my life to get my mother out of the projects, but she would never leave. I could never make her happy. I don’t think she knew how to boost us up, but she never took us down. My mother was a busy, busy woman. I’m grateful to her for her strong work ethic,” Lynch says.
By the age of 20, Lynch had already begun flirting with the idea of cooking professionally, but her experience was extremely limited: She had cooked a few meals for her parish priest and had “warmed some things” at a local joint.
In what became the pivotal moment in her life, Lynch fabricated a résumé that included attending Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence. She conned her way into a cruise ship job, landing as an executive chef on the Aegean Princess, which ran nightly dinner-and-dancing cruises from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket in the 1980s.
Kerri Foley, Lynch’s best friend from childhood, didn’t believe she got the job until Foley came onboard to cover a waitress shift. “Holy shit!” was all she could say when she saw Lynch giving orders in the kitchen.
“I lied my way to get there. And then I became the chef. And then I became a success. And I was like ‘holy crap!’ — I like this! I think it was about getting instant gratification which, as a kid, I never got. I was making people happy.”
“Well,” she said to herself, “you can’t make your own mother happy, but you can make people happy with food. That was big.”
. . . . .
Out of Line covers Lynch’s grittiest stories and more.
The book traces her rise through Boston’s burgeoning restaurant scene — for which she is partly responsible — and it traces the development of the Lynch palate: the months she spent devouring Waverly Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World; her first trip to Italy where she catered the Tuscan wedding of her best friend, chef and restaurateur Sarah Jenkins, the daughter of acclaimed food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
It covers the rise of her first restaurant, No. 9 Park, and the subsequent acknowledgment by the world that, well, Barbara Lynch is brilliant.
Success has also meant trials.
Recent years have seen a struggle in the leadership at Barbara Lynch Gruppo, and perhaps Lynch’s greatest test yet as a business owner.
In 2014, as she was busy promoting her cookbook, Stir, and acting as the face of the company, Lynch felt increasingly marginalized from the day-to-day operation of her restaurants. She sensed that her senior team was deliberately isolating her from the heart and soul of her domain.
At 49, for the first time in her adult life, Lynch — who once declared she didn’t understand feelings — was depressed.
“Building restaurants was all I knew how to do. So I was lost when I felt shoved out. To be pushed out of the only thing you know is hard.”
Lynch took some time off. She stopped drinking, went into therapy, and began to paint.
“I had opened seven restaurants in ten years. Suddenly it dawns on you that, ‘Oh! I haven’t really thought about my life at all, any balance or any of that,’” she says.
“That’s when you really go down deep and say, ‘alright, I’ve made the transition from kitchen to owner to restaurateur, and then entrepreneur. Now I have to own it.’ Whether you’re petrified or not, you have to get out of that comfort zone and say, I’m gonna own it.”
The time off healed her, giving Lynch the clarity to return to Barbara Lynch Gruppo and regain control of her company.
She identified who on the senior team was with her — and who should go.
She revived her Relais & Chateaux restaurant, Menton, which had been ailing under this corporate struggle, and made it vital again.
She spent a month at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she furiously studied the collection as an artist in residence, and then created dishes inspired by the artwork for the museum’s Café G.
Lynch’s creative spirit returned.
. . . . .
“Passion is what you look for when you hire people. You can see when somebody’s cooking from the heart, and it’s not about money. When you’re eating food that comes from a chef of the heart you know it immediately.
“We just ate at Roberta’s Pizza (recipient of two Michelin stars) in Brooklyn. He (Carlo Mirarchi, the executive chef and co-owner) had this green tomato salad that was just thinly sliced tomatoes with pickled tomatoes underneath, and cheese and pistachios.
“It’s one of those brilliant dishes — and it didn’t come from Noma.” (Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, was named the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. Chef and owner René Redzepi interprets Nordic cuisine with heavy emphasis on extreme foraging and fermenting.)
Lynch believes that today’s business model will soon be obsolete.
“It has to change. Restaurants have to be more self-sufficient. You might have to own the building to staff or house people, or even start growing your own things. And I hope that it goes back to the basics of cooking, versus the Noma style where everything is pretty.
“If you’ve studied art you can see where Matisse is brilliant, but Milton Avery was a symphony. I think his paintings are more understandable. I think that restaurants are going to have to become like that. Simplified.”
Asked about what is different for her now, Lynch says, “I’m much more aware of business now than ever. I’m much more of a leader than I was before. But, it gets harder,” she says.
“No. 9 is 20 years old! When do you hear of a restaurant that’s 20 years old, and is doing better than ever?”
. . . . .
Lynch has run all her life with curiosity at a rolling boil.
A few times her intense drive to understand the world almost killed her. But ultimately it saved her.
The way she relentlessly pestered the chef at the St. Botolph Club, where her mother worked, with endless questions about these foods that she had never seen before.
That curiosity still simmers, whether it means ferociously studying the paintings at the Gardner Museum or working to understand the Gloucester fishing industry.
Lynch is still learning, still reaching out, still making connections.
And she has never left her posse. Her grade school friends from the Southie streets, her high school home economics teacher, comrades from her early days in Todd English’s kitchen. This is her tribe.
And now she’s building a new tribe, this time in Gloucester.
Katie Noble is a Boston-based photographer
✹ Barbara Lynch’s memoir, Out of Line: A Life of Playing With Fire [Atria Books, 2017], is available at bookstores, or at Amazon.