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.
From the moment she went into business for herself, Lynch has let her instincts and her own desires guide her sense of what Boston needs.
B&G Oysters grew out of her wish to have a place, closer than Ipswich, to enjoy cold, mineral-y bivalves. For the Butcher Shop, she thought back to the bottegas of Italy, where she had been able to buy meat, chestnuts, wine, and gas, all in the same place. Drink aimed to fill the need for a craft-cocktail bar in the city, and was the bar she had always thought she’d own. Sportello evoked Brigham’s, where she had once waited tables. She started Plum, a produce boutique, because she missed Tony’s Market, a fruit and vegetable store in the South End. Even the location of her new complex in Fort Point Channel keys to her memories: As a child she loved the building, the former home of Boston Costume. Yet the new fine-dining venture is the first restaurant not directly inspired by a past experience. “I’ve been on the route of nostalgic memories, building upon a memory, so I’m trying to figure out what memory will [turn out to have inspired] fine dining,” she says.
Lynch tries to check in at every property every day, but now that she has a constellation of small businesses to run, she tends to concentrate on one or two projects at a time. Sometimes that means cooking, if she’s focused on a particular restaurant’s menu or execution. But more often her work takes place outside the kitchen: opening the new restaurant, promoting her cookbook, appearing on the Today show. Work keeps her late in the city, where she now has an apartment in the South End at which to crash when necessary.
Otherwise she lives in Winchester with her husband, Charlie Petri, and their daughter, Marchesa, who is almost six and is named after a painting Lynch once saw at the Frick museum in Manhattan.
Sunday is her one day off and when she still cooks at home. “This morning I made ravioli for my daughter. With Paul Newman’s tomato sauce,” she says. “Sometimes you’ve just got to improvise.”
Lynch’s instincts mostly have served her well, but there have been a few stumbles. South End singles, as it turns out, don’t necessarily cook often enough to support a place like Plum, a 250-square-foot store that sold pricey items like perfect chanterelle and porcini mushrooms and rare herbs. She closed the shop last fall and plans to knock down a wall and use the space to expand the adjacent Butcher Shop. Her partnership with Garrett Harker, the G in B&G, dissolved. (“Now I say it stands for Bivalves and Gills,” Lynch says dryly. Harker declined to talk about Lynch for this article.) She aborted plans for a comfortable Italian spot in the North End after the contractor doubled his fee mid-project. And her cookbook, which was contracted in 2004, took five years to come together, about two years longer than expected. Lynch and her publisher had trouble agreeing on what the book should be and on a suitable cowriter—Lynch chose her old high school home-ec teacher, but Martin, after seeing some chapters, told Lynch they needed another collaborator. “Barbara said, ‘Eff you,’ hung up on me, and didn’t speak to me for a year,” Martin says. “Barbara is a person of very strong feelings. She’s as loyal to me as she was livid with me that day.”
Several of Lynch’s employees have worked for her for years beyond the restaurant world’s typically short tenure. Eli Feldman and Colin Lynch have both been with her for seven years, and her wine director is Cat Silirie, whom she met at Rocco’s more than 15 years ago. Back then, Lynch was not immune to the intensity that high-pressure restaurant kitchens breed. When a TV crew from ABC followed her for the day at No. 9 Park in 2002, Colin Lynch, then working the garde manger station as a culinary school intern, sent out a plate of antipasto he’d prepared. When the plate came back to the kitchen, everything had been eaten except one bit of asparagus. “Barbara put it in her mouth and made a face,” he recalls. “She said, with the cameraman standing right there filming, ‘Don’t you fucking know what salt and pepper are? You’re never going to make it in this industry.'” Later, after he went to work for her full time, he had a bad night at No. 9 Park when he tried to change the whole menu in a single day without adequately explaining it to his line cooks. At the end of the evening, Barbara stopped by and learned what had happened. “I was on the phone talking to someone,” Colin Lynch recalls, “and I saw a glass vase go flying by me. I looked over, and there was Barbara.”
The staff has seen Lynch mellow in some respects since the days when she watched every single plate leave the kitchen at No. 9. “I think she has learned to let go a little bit,” says Ben Elliott, who started out in the No. 9 kitchen and now runs Lynch’s catering business. “She has to rely on the chefs at each restaurant, or she’d have a nervous breakdown.”