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.
Lynch began to find her voice after leaving Figs in 1993 to run the kitchen at Rocco’s, a 180-seat Italian restaurant in the Theater District. She wanted to strip away the excesses of the food she had been cooking and make dishes with fewer ingredients; she wanted to let ingredients taste like themselves rather than brining and grilling everything. She spent two and a half years there, a year at Pomodoro, and then went to Galleria Italiana, where she made handcrafted pasta and other homey Italian food. She had been to Italy with her friend and fellow Michela’s alumna Sara Jenkins, whose mother, the food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, owns a farm in Tuscany; there, Lynch learned how to make gnocchi and Bolognese sauce from Mita Antolini, a neighbor who looked after the farm. When Sara Jenkins was married at the farm, Lynch was on hand to cook the feast.
While at Galleria Italiana, she got her first taste of major national attention when Food & Wine named her a Best New Chef. “I remember getting a phone call from [fellow Boston chef] Gordon Hamersley, who had won the award. He said, ‘Congratulations, there are two things you can do with this. You can either take it and run with it and go for it, or you can fail and quit.’ I’m like, I think I’ll take it and go with it,” Lynch says. “But I sort of understood what he meant, ’cause you’re getting accolades and getting press. How do you stay grounded, right? You’ve got to ride it and really work hard and then create teams, and that’s the route I took.”
As she looked around for real estate for her own restaurant, she was fired from Galleria Italiana, the same place where she’d earned her first national acclaim. “I went in one day and they accused me of stealing lamb. I’m like, ‘A leg of lamb? I’m going to steal a leg of lamb? I don’t know whether to fuckin’ knock you out right now or laugh, ’cause this is just ludicrous.’ And that was it. I left, I went home, and I spent a day on the couch crying.”
Yet Lynch had just found the space that would become No. 9 Park—3,000 square feet and no windows—so she started working full time to open her own restaurant. She signed a lease, wrote her first business plan, rounded up investors, and began envisioning exactly what kind of place it would be. “I knew I wanted fine dining,” she says, “and I knew who I wanted to feed—Back Bay, Beacon Hill.” She had been cooking Italian for 12 years, and now began to fold in other influences. She remembered the warm, genteel service she had observed at St. Botolph. And she worshipped Alain Ducasse, the famous French chef whose books she had scoured and whose food inspired her to make a gastronomic pilgrimage to Paris, where, as newlyweds, she and her husband ate at a different Michelin-starred restaurant every day.
A mix of all these influences, No. 9 Park was an immediate success when it opened in 1998. The restaurant won a three-star rave from the Globe and praise from national magazines including Gourmet, Food & Wine, and Travel & Leisure, and Lynch paid off her investors in two and a half years.
She soon got used to telling and retelling her personal saga, honing the mythic quality of her story, which the media scarfed down like a bowl of her house-made spaghetti alla chitarra. By the time Rux Martin, an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, approached Lynch about writing a book, in 2004, the chef’s story was no longer merely an explanation of how she had become who she was—it was part of her brand. “I was entranced by the notion of such a raw outsider who was so consumed and driven by a love of food that she learned two languages,” Martin says. “That was what summed up Barbara’s manner. She is not glad-handing. There is no bullshit. So I was interested to see if she could bring together that phenomenal knowledge with that complete no-bullshit authenticity to show us what she knew about food and show us we could learn it, too.”
Lynch is hardly the first chef to salt her speech with four-letter words, but she may well be the first to deploy one in a glossy, coffee table–worthy cookbook featuring such eight-letter ingredients as foie gras and truffles. In the introduction to Stir, published in November, Lynch writes that “if a fortune-teller had told me at fourteen what good things were in store for me, I would have laughed in her face and told her where she could shove such bullshit….”
Doe Coover, Lynch’s literary agent, says of the writing process, “Getting Barbara’s voice down without being too scatological was tricky. One of my favorite quotes from Barbara is ‘Rice is a waste of a carbohydrate.’ And that’s a mild version of what she says. It’s more like: ‘Eat fuckin’ pasta.'”
If Martin, the editor, had had her way, such words would have appeared more frequently in the book. “It was actually Barbara who asked them to be excised,” Martin says. “There’s nothing showoff-y about Barbara, and I do think that the F-word, which I’m personally very fond of, as a literary device it’s been sort of used up. Now, you look at it and say, ‘There’s the chef pretending to be a chef.’ It’s quite strange, and it was the subject of much debate at every stage of the book. I kept stetting it”—restoring deleted text, in editor’s parlance—”and in the end, Barbara said, ‘I’m not comfortable with it.’ And not for any wussy reason. It just didn’t feel right.”