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.
For all of Lynch’s regional success and foodie acclaim, she has not yet attained the iconic status of Jasper White or Lydia Shire or, to be sure, her old mentor English. With the fine-dining venue and the cookbook, her level of exposure may soon change, but that isn’t necessarily what she wants.
Lynch is one of a newer breed of acclaimed chefs, including her friends Sara Jenkins and Suzanne Goin, who have avoided the pitfalls of hypergrowth and popularity by expanding their businesses relatively conservatively, keeping them geographically focused, and not aspiring to Food Network celebrity.
Lynch does not feel comfortable doing TV. When she appeared as a judge on a Food Network “Mac and Cheese Challenge” in 2007, the comments on Chowhound were harsh (“a world class witch!” and “every time she opened her mouth i wondered what had crawled up her a** & died”). Lynch says, “I came across as so mean. You had to be as honest as you should be. And the producers edit what they want. You didn’t see the nice parts.” She still gets nervous before speaking in public, and when she recently did a cooking demonstration at Macy’s in New York for an enthusiastic crowd (two older male groupies were wearing “No. 9 Park” T-shirts), she was happy to have Ben Elliott speak at least as much as she did. “That’s not my mission,” she says of TV chefdom. “I have a mission in my life, I think. I just always feel that God put me here for a reason. I’m making good food, and I’m employing people, and I want to continue that.”
If she were ever to do TV, she’d want to be on PBS. She sees educating as part of her mission, and part of what she enjoys about her work. Lynch teaches classes at Stir, which also functions as a culinary lending library for her staffers, who can borrow any book for a week at a time. She is working on two more cookbook ideas and continually testing new dishes. At the Macy’s event, she served something called “butter soup,” in essence a pool of butter with some shellfish in the middle (kind of like lobster with drawn butter, but vice versa). The recipe originated from her relationship with Diane St. Clair, a Vermont farmer who sells her 87 percent butterfat butter only to Thomas Keller, the acclaimed chef behind California’s French Laundry and New York City’s Per Se, and to Lynch. Lynch wanted to have more of a connection to the sources of her food, and in 2006 she bought a “cowshare” in one of St. Clair’s Jerseys. She “came up here, saw the farm, met her cow, whose name is Hopi,” St. Clair says. St. Clair has since been down to Boston to talk to Lynch’s staff, and Hopi’s calf is named Babette, after Lynch.
The relationship with St. Clair and other suppliers has given Lynch the idea to do something agriculture-related as her next project. She’s not sure quite what, exactly, but maybe she’ll address farmers’ concerns—the vagaries of weather, blight, lifestyle hardships, the regulatory morass between farm and plate. Maybe something like a commissary for farm products, and scholarships for agricultural students. She also wants to promote better school food. She thinks the milk students drink should be labeled with the name of the farm it comes from so that kids understand the origins of what they’re putting into their bodies. She thinks every school should have a greenhouse attached to it, to teach kids where their tomatoes come from and the science of food, and so they’ll have better food to eat. Some of this may sound charmingly naive, but Lynch’s ideas often begin as intuition. Only later does she figure out what shape they’ll take in the real world.
“I find her really inspiring,” St. Clair says. “When she first came here, I was making butter in this tiny room of my house. She said, ‘How do you do this? You need a bigger plant.'” Last summer, St. Clair built a new plant. “[Lynch] keeps taking risks, sticking her neck out and trying new things,” she says, “and she does it in this very unpretentious way. I think she’s fascinating to talk to, what it takes to be a businesswoman—delegating, building a team, and all those skills that have to be learned and aren’t always that easy.”