Barbara Lynch on Toques & Tonic, Boston Restaurants, and Her Forthcoming Memoir
Tonight marks chef Barbara Lynch’s Toques & Tonic, one of the heaviest-hitting chef events to ever go down in Boston (three names from the guest list: David Chang, Suzanne Goin, Daniel Boulud). It’s all for a good cause, of course, with proceeds benefiting Lynch’s ever-expanding Barbara Lynch Foundation. In theory, it should be the second anniversary of the shindig, which was dubbed last year as the “Blizzard Bash,” and then cancelled, crazily enough, due to an actual blizzard. In advance of this year’s event, I called up Lynch to chat about how she was able to draw so much talent to one spot, what’s needed in the Boston restaurant scene, and, most importantly, who should play her in the movie of her life.
What was the approach behind Toques & Tonic this year? Assuming the name change was as to not tempt fate again.
I mean, look how lucky we are. We had 10, 12 inches [Wednesday], and only my luck would be to call something Blizzard Bash and get a blizzard last year. So, the good thing was to change the name, which was great–toques and tonic meaning toques–hats–and tonic. It’s food and spirits. It’s a kind of catchy name.
What happened last year–everyone still came to town, correct?
We ended up having a very successful Relais & Chateaux evening [the night before], and then all chefs were on standby during the blizzard, and there was a parking ban. When the city shut down there was no way we could have had that event. So a majority of the chefs that traveled from San Francisco, and some Boston chefs, took their food over to the Pine Street Inn.
How much went into getting this group of chefs and bartenders together? How did you decide who you wanted to be participating?
I think throughout the years, I have done a lot of these events with Marc Vetri, Suzanne Goin–and they also have their foundations that they work for. Literally we put a list of 30 together, crossing our fingers and hoping they’d come, and then we got this great list.
Anyone coming you are particularly excited about?
I’m excited to have Suzanne Goin, I haven’t seen her in years. Michael [Voltaggio] from Ink in LA. Arianne Daguin [of D’Artagnan], I love having her in Boston. I love having Daniel Boulud in Boston. And Gary Danko, I am so excited for– he’s for [Thursday’s Relais & Chateaux dinner]. It’s so much fun to have all of these chefs together–there is really no ego, and it is all for a great cause. Sarah Jenkins too–I worked with her 20, 22 years ago at Michaela’s. I actually cooked for her wedding in Tuscany 20+ years ago.
There will be a lot of Boston chefs there as well, of course. What are your thoughts on the current state of the restaurant scene here?
Oh god, it’s great. To have all of the restaurants coming down to Fort Point and that whole area, it’s a blessing for me because it’s sort of like that gas station effect: the more there are, the better. I’m so happy to see independent restaurants vs. the larger commercial steak joints and so forth. I know every city needs them, but it’s so nice for other chefs to believe in this part of the city as well, that there is totally room for more, lots more.
Any newer places you’re particularly excited about?
I’ve been to Spoke a lot. I think that’s my favorite. I think that’s Ana [Sortun]’s favorite, too. We always end up saying, “Let’s just go there.” I go to Sarma a lot. I haven’t been to Tony [Maws’s] new place–I don’t usually go out that much, and I usually go to the same places. So those are my new ones.
Are there any neighborhoods where you’d like to see more restaurants open?
Probably Back Bay, I guess–more on Newbury Street.
With Back Bay, it’s tougher for the independent restaurants because the liquor licenses are just so expensive.
I think it’s more the rent–not the liquor license. And I think landlords make it very difficult for venting, and there are three-story buildings, and so forth. But it’s a shame, because if you look at Newbury Street, they are losing a lot of businesses. They are losing the independent retailers in general, and the galleries. And I don’t think that anybody is really focusing on that. And you want to keep shoppers there, but where do you go for lunch? And it’s a dead street at night. Which is a shame– it’s really hard for an independent restaurant on Newbury Street if it’s going to be empty. But if there are 10 restaurants on Newbury Street, that street would still be bustling at night.
Have you considered opening another place at this point?
Oh no, no, no. No. I’ve got my hands full. I’m happy. I’ve fulfilled all of my dreams and my needs. I don’t need another concept restaurant. I can have oysters when I want them, I can have great meat and charcuterie, pastas, fine dining, I can have a great cocktail.
How do you divide your time? Has that shifted over the years?
Yeah, I probably find myself more on Congress Street because my office is there as well. Tuesdays I’m in the South End, I’m not at No. 9 as much, but I try to go at least twice a month, and then a lot of it is via email and text. Out of my 300 employees, they feel they can text me if they have issues. The thing is I’m there, I just can’t be physically everywhere and think I’m going to get work done. Because you just can’t.
In Corby Kummer’s recent No. 9 Park review, he hinted that chef de cuisine Scott Jones may be implementing some more customizable menus in the future. Is that still in progress?
Yeah. Scott Jones, I think, is one amazing story. He had no cooking skills whatsoever, he dropped out of Harvard [grad school], and he came into No. 9 blind. He cooked his way up, and the kid is just extremely talented, and he puts his flavors together. I am amazed with every menu he puts out. I really am. So you want to give him full reign.
And I know Kristen Kish has made some changes over at Menton. Was it always important to you to give the chef de cuisine role lots of leeway?
Kristen has a lot of soul in her, and passion, and she is a brilliant cook. When I started cooking with her at Stir, I was like, “Wow, man. She’s got it.” I could give her the ideas for “Birds and Burgundy” and she fucking nailed it, and that’s what you want. She was ready for Menton. It was a nice, challenging position for her, and a lot of being a chef de cuisine is more like being a psychiatrist in a lot of ways. You have a team of 25 under you. You have to lead them, inspire them, understand them, teach. It’s taking your vision, and giving it to people. You also have to be a good delegator and learn how to fix mistakes. That’s what I like about our restaurants. I’m not perfect and I don’t set them up as being 100% perfect. There is room for failure, and when you fail, that’s when you grow.
Back in October you mentioned to Eater that you were working on a memoir. Is that still in progress?
Yes, it’s in progress. I keep on writing. I have to figure out when the hell I am going to pass it in. Too many exciting things going on.
You’re working with another writer, correct?
I had a ghost writer, correct. We are in the midst of switching to another ghost writer. The ghost writer I had, she was committed to teach for six months so it was getting tough to hang on to that and keep the momentum going. In the meantime I’m writing most of it. I’m also interviewing writers left and right. I’ll find one who can get my voice. There’s a lot going on: How did I get from point A to point B without going to culinary school, and being a woman, and being from the projects, and going on to be a grand chef? There’s a lot of hard work, there are tears, laughter, food, the success and entrepreneur part–there’s just so much to read. You want people from every walk of life to get it and to come out saying this was inspiring, knowledgeable, entertaining, sad, incredible. It’s really hard to find a ghost writer in general to feel like it’s their life.
Have there been talks about turning it into a movie?
There has been talk about that, yes.
Is it confirmed?
Not yet. Memoir first, movie second.
Fair enough. If you could choose anyone to play you in the movie, who would it be?
Oh, yeah–I would love, shit, who is the girl from Hunger Games?
Either her, or Ellen Page. I loved her in Juno, she’s brilliant. That would be the younger me, and then I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have Meryl Streep? Or actually, Kathy Bates would be awesome. I think Kathy Bates is awesome.
I hear she’s epic in the most recent season of American Horror Story.
Can you imagine Kathy Bates screaming and being a fucking crazy chef? I could. And going to France and not speaking a word of French? Bon fucking jour! I could just see her being incredible. I didn’t watch American Horror Story, but I remember her in the Stephen [King] film, when she captured somebody and saws his leg off.
Misery. That was the best.
Note: Boston magazine is a sponsor of Toques & Tonic.