Chef Barbara Lynch made her name as the erudite bad girl behind a small kingdom of restaurants, including Sportello and No. 9 Park. But with her latest venture—the city’s most ambitious upscale restaurant in years—she may be picking the battle of her life.
When Park was courting Lynch as a tenant, in 2004, he took her on a walking tour of the wharf area. He had promised her lunch. “The whole time, I was thinking, Where do I take this world-famous chef?” he recalls. “But she said, ‘Don’t worry, I know this great place.'”
Lynch took Park to the Quiet Man Pub, a few blocks deeper into South Boston; Lynch’s older brother Paul owned it. Park, the president and owner of Berkeley Investments, is a real estate developer given to wearing suits with French-cuff shirts and cuff links glinting at his wrists. The Quiet Man was a shot-and-a-beer joint filled with Edison and T workers reading the Herald. Park and Lynch shared the John Wayne platter (steak tips, chicken, sausage). “She knew everybody,” Park recalls. “It was pretty amazing to see her hanging out with the locals, this famous chef in her element. That’s when I understood the essence of who she was. She’s definitely of that neighborhood, but at the same time she can transcend that and be worldly.”
Lynch herself has compared her story to Good Will Hunting, and there are striking parallels between her background and the film’s tale of lone talent struggling to escape the stultifying gravity of South Boston’s white underclass.
Her father died a month before she was born, and as the youngest of six children brought up in the Mary Ellen McCormack housing projects by a single mother who worked two jobs, Lynch largely reared herself. She says she started smoking cigarettes at age seven (“Winchesters. Ten a day”). As a teenager she ran numbers for bookies.
Her mother had always made sure the kids got three meals a day, simple fare like Cheerios, a sandwich, roast beef or fish, hot dogs and beans. Somehow, Barbara was drawn to cooking and beauty. “My mother used to say, ‘Oh my God, you have champagne taste on a welfare budget.’ I’d listen to opera when I was 10. I listened to ‘The Ring Cycle.'” She first had an inkling that she might like to cook when she read a recipe for Chinese stir-fry in Good Housekeeping at age 12. When she was 15, she looked up Julia Child in the phone book and called her home in Cambridge; when Child answered, she hung up.
In high school, when she wasn’t playing hooky, she endured the tense atmosphere of forced busing to Roxbury. A home economics teacher saw something in her and mentored her, teaching her how to cook and later allowing her to audit a continuing-ed class in return for washing the class’s dishes. Throughout her teens she worked all kinds of jobs: in a sub shop; as a chambermaid; in a church rectory, cooking for priests. After dropping out of school, she ultimately worked as an import/export clerk at the port terminals.