Barbara Lynch: Food Fighter – Boston magazine – Barbara Lynch profile – Menton Boston – Fort Point Channel
She also waited tables at the St. Botolph Club, the Brahmin institution on Commonwealth Avenue, where she is now a member. ("When I went in for my membership, I forgot about the Brahmin part, and I had like fuckin’ iPods and fur boots, no pearls, all black," she says.) There she watched "in awe" how chef Mario Bonello made people happy with his Dover sole or his sweetbreads. "I had so much admiration for all the members who I waited on. It was just a lot of, like, ‘Wow, this is how a city runs.’ So in my heart, I just knew that if I owned something, which I thought would be a sub shop, I still wanted it to be on Commonwealth Avenue."
Yet Lynch’s ambitions were grander than slapping cold cuts on a bread roll. At St. Botolph, she’d tell the other waitresses "the most outlandish stories" about what she was going to do, says Kerri Foley, a friend from the projects whose mother worked at the club (and who has herself gone into the restaurant business: With her husband, chef Marc Orfaly, she owns Pigalle). "We used to ride our bikes to the Milk Bottle over near the Children’s Museum. She’d say, ‘I’m going to have a floating restaurant, right here.’ Now I tell her, ‘You’ve done everything but that one.’"
At 19, Lynch was still working at St. Botolph, languishing in her job at the port, and living with her mother in the projects. One day, Foley, who’d gone to college, came to the import/export agency. "I said, ‘This is where you work?’" Foley recalls. "‘There are no windows. You’re surrounded by a bunch of old people. Why are you doing this?’" They used a credit card to buy plane tickets to Cancún, where they spent a week discussing their futures. When they got back to Boston, Lynch quit her job, and the two friends moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lynch talked her way into a kitchen job on a dinner cruise ship. "She’d say anything to get a job," Foley says. "She’d say she went to Johnson & Wales."
A day after Lynch started, the chef quit, and the boat’s operator gave Lynch the position. She cooked everything from scratch, from the chowder to the salad dressing to the zabaglione. By making SOS calls to her old boss at St. Botolph, furiously reading cookbooks, and learning by trial and error, she managed to survive. Even then, Lynch had an entrepreneurial instinct—at one point she tried to talk Foley into opening a store that sold olives.
Within the year, she was back in Boston, working for Todd English, who at 23 was just four years older than Lynch and running the kitchen at the former Michela’s in Cambridge. English was a hothead. Lynch once watched him dump a tub of butter onto the general manager, who was wearing a coat and tie and had committed some piddling, now-forgotten infraction. Cooking with English was a high-pressure job, and Lynch often could be found crying in the walk-in freezer. Discovering her there once, English grabbed her, lifted her off the ground, and carried her to her position on the line, saying, "You have got to get your shit together. You have got to get organized."
Lynch welcomed the discipline and was inspired by English’s exuberance. "It was my military," she says of her time working for him. "I basically got my ass kicked. I needed it. I had no idea [what I was doing]. I read Waverley Root [The Food of Italy], I’d say, about eight times, back and forth from Andrew Square to Kendall Square on the T, just to try to catch up. I didn’t know what a head of radicchio was. I didn’t know what Gorgonzola cheese was. I just knew that whatever that guy was putting out every night was brilliant."
Lynch was depressed, though. She was cooking, yes, yet having a hard time adjusting to the chef side of a whole new glittering world that often made her feel like she wasn’t smart enough. "You have everything going against you—your language, your demeanor. I felt very isolated," she says. "It’s an insecurity. It was. Now, I’m 45, and I don’t give a shit."
She stayed with English for eight years, following him to Olives in Charlestown, and then to Figs. "I learned so much…I learned the energy, just to be creative, don’t hold back; if you have a passion, put it on a plate, mix it around, see if people like it."
Back then, Lynch joined, if not led, her friends in constant late-night carousing but would "be up at the crack of dawn," recalls Annie Copps, who worked on the line with Lynch at Olives and became her roommate in a Charlestown apartment (and later served as Boston magazine’s food editor). Copps remembers the time Lynch had a bicycle accident—she had two black eyes, and stitches on her face—and took only two days off from work; and when she drew jury duty while working at Olives, she never missed a single shift. "I’ve never known anyone so driven and determined," Copps says.
Every Sunday night, the roommates threw a dinner party. "She was reading esoteric French and Italian cookbooks and Art Culinaire; the rest of us were reading Glamour and The Bridges of Madison County," Copps says. "I was excited about learning, but she was turbo-excited." (Lynch read the foreign cookbooks with French-English and Italian-English dictionaries at her side, translating recipes word for word. Her passion for cookbooks—her collection now contains 800—ultimately led her to start her own cookbook store and cooking classroom, the aforementioned Stir.)
"When I first moved to town, she was a little intimidating," recalls Suzanne Goin, the celebrated Los Angeles chef who worked at Olives shortly after Lynch left. "She was the badass Boston girl—the way she talked, her persona, her food. She was the girl version of a man, just sort of balls-to-the-wall. But the great thing about Barbara is she’s also incredibly refined. That’s the interesting juxtaposition."