Top of Mind: Lydia Shire

Chef-restaurateur, Julia Child protégé, dieting foe, sports nut, Hub culinary icon, age 60, Weston

Top of Mind: Lydia Shire

Photograph by Sean Alonzo Harris

Of all the words that can be used to describe Lydia Shire—”outspoken,” “demanding,” “driven”—the one that fits the moment best is “enduring.” In a year that’s seen some big names bow out of our fine-dining scene (Aujourd’hui, one-time Shire project Excelsior), the Brookline native is keeping the burners on high at no fewer than three restaurants: Liberty Hotel hot spot Scampo, Maine outpost Blue Sky, and downtown’s historic Locke-Ober. Ambition in the face of adversity is nothing new for Shire, a James Beard Foundation honoree known for breaking boundaries throughout her nearly four-decade career. And while that career looks to have plenty of mileage left, Shire today is making room for the next generation: her college-age son, Alex, who can often be found working alongside his mother at Scampo.

Some nutritionists make out food to be the enemy, and that’s wrong. …[Scampo’s menu] basically says to hell with those people.

Julia would be the first one to say that she had butter every day.

One of the nicest things was when she invited me to England to go on the QE2 with her. She called me up and said, “Lydia, I am dying to eat oysters and drink Sancerre at Harrods’s oyster bar. Would you like to come?” What do you say to Julia Child?

I don’t see any barriers for women [chefs] out there now. There are tons of women cooking. While the balance is not quite equal yet—there are more male chefs, no question about it—women have made long strides.

Bostonians are smart; they’re experimental. They want to try what you have, if they trust you. And I think, at this point in my life, most people trust me that the dish will be good.

To my mind, having multiple restaurants is like having children: They’re all different, but you love them equally.

This recession time, as everybody is calling it, challenges chefs to become a little more creative. We have all these fancy ingredients that we know we can use to wow people at any moment. But how to wow them for $15 or $16 instead of $30 or $40? It’s actually a good challenge.

I could never even imagine Locke-Ober closing, especially not on my watch. It’s too great and grand an institution.

I need to surround myself with beauty. I’m probably not the best person to run a clam shack.

What do chefs love to eat? Spaghetti aglio e olio, the simplest dish in the world: spaghetti, oil, and garlic. You know, they say perfection is a dish that has three ingredients.

If I weren’t a chef, well, I feel I’m the best butcher I’ve ever seen. …The hardest part of my job is managing people, and there are times when you have to say something to somebody that you really don’t want to. …That’s what I love about being a butcher: I’m just there with my big old dead animal on the board.

The only reason I use television is for sports and news. That’s it. I have never watched the Seinfeld show. I’ve never watched the one that Sarah Jessica Parker was in. My daughters think I’m crazy.

In the fall, Sundays to me are all about football, Red Sox, sports in general. It’s the only thing in the world that takes my mind off any problem.

I don’t spend too much time on politics. But for Mayor Menino, I would do anything. He’s a great guy. …I roasted him once—I got up on stage and I was stuffing M&Ms in my mouth, because he loves M&Ms. And I was mumbling, of course.

I’ve just learned in the past three years how to use a computer, and I’ve said that now I’m ready [to write a cookbook]. But when Jasper White—my best cook friend in the world—wrote his first book, he had to take a year off work. I don’t know how I can do that.

I surely don’t think about retiring. I have pretty much the same energy I’ve had all my life. Are my knees a little creakier? Could be.


Interview by J.L. Johnson