Boston’s Doyennes of Dining Share a Meal

They forever raised the game for Boston restaurants, shattering kitchen ceilings along the way. Now, over one special meal, Jody Adams, Lydia Shire, and Barbara Lynch dish on why they’re still hungry for more.

Photo by Pat Piasecki

“We’re still here!”

It’s a winter night inside a cozy South Boston loft, and with this celebratory toast to their resilient careers—accompanied by the clink of glasses full of wine and hoisted high—three of the most influential chefs in the city’s history tuck in around a wooden kitchen table. Tonight, there’s something truly special on the menu: a rare dinner together.

Lydia Shire. Jody Adams. Barbara Lynch. They’re names that carry culinary-world weight well beyond the borders of Boston, where they’ve spent the past few decades blazing trails and generally dominating a fickle restaurant industry that has seen plenty of ups, downs, and flashes in the pan. From building business empires to fighting sexism in the kitchen, they’ve experienced the sweet and sour of it all. They’ve also cooked for just about every epicure (and VIP) in town, which explains why they’re usually far too busy to ever cook and eat with one another—at least, until we suggested a dinner-party-style summit between this trio of tastemakers, forever entwined by the experiences they’ve shared over the years.

At the head of the table sits Shire, the septuagenarian matriarch of modern Boston’s family of chefs. A simmering firecracker with a famous flame of bright auburn hair, she palled around with Julia Child, worked her way from so-called salad girl to one of America’s best chefs (said Food & Wine), nurtured the next generation of homegrown talent, and busted down doors for other women to follow her into traditionally male-dominated fine-dining kitchens.

One of them was Jody Adams, seated to Shire’s left, who cut her teeth under Shire before taking her own big bite out of Boston. Today, the self-described Type-A chef is a powerhouse restaurateur, an eloquent advocate for workplace equity and independent businesses in the city, and an overall industry mover and shaker.

Across from Adams, meanwhile, sits Barbara Lynch, draped in black and wearing a mischievous smirk. Her made-for-Hollywood origin story is, by now, as much a part of Boston lore as her collection of dining institutions: Maybe you’ve heard the one about the troublemaking latchkey kid from the Southie projects who—armed with a gift, grit, and gumption—sculpted herself into a pillar of this dining-doyenne pantheon?

Thanks in large part to all three chefs, whose respective kitchens have been fertile training grounds for rising talent (former South End legend Gordon Hamersley, pastry guru Joanne Chang, and Top Chef champ Kristen Kish, to name just a few), Boston has been transformed, too: from the land of bean and cod and not much else to a city with a culinary scene that commands respect. And today, long after many of their male peers have stepped away from the stove (wherefore art thou, chef Jasper White?), these women are still working, still building new restaurants, and—for once—finding time to catch up over a little table talk.

Photo by Pat Piasecki

In addition to her famed lobster pizza, Shire’s lobster-and-finnan-haddie chowder has been a hit at several of her restaurants. / Photo by Pat Piasecki

After preparing some of their signature plates for the meal, the chefs take a seat and begin to reminisce. For Adams and Lynch, that includes sharing memories of how they first met Shire, the group’s chef-stateswoman. When she debuted Seasons restaurant in Boston in 1982, Shire earned national recognition and established herself as a lodestar for younger women aspiring to break into the industry.

Barbara: I feel lucky to be here. We last had dinner a long time ago. I haven’t seen you, Jody, in so long.

Lydia: That’s what happens when you have children. You work, and you take care of your children.

Jody: You two might see each other more, I think.

Lydia: I’ve been hanging out with Barbara a lot. But we haven’t always hung out like this. It’s more in the past five or six years.

Barbara: Lydia is a kindred soul. In my world, she’s a master. I’ve never met someone who is so fucking passionate about everything she does. I love her because we don’t have to pick up the phone every day. She’ll still think of me and drop something off. Biggest heart in the world.

Jody: Lydia is incredibly thoughtful.

Barbara: I first met Lydia when she was doing a photo shoot. You were killing a duck in a swan boat.

Lydia: Somebody asked to do a photo shoot. I had this great idea: Since duck was so important at my restaurant, Biba, I would go across the street to the Public Garden and kill a duck. I left Biba and walked across the street to the pond, where the swan boats are. I had a big cleaver, and I was pretending to kill a duck. I didn’t do it.

Barbara: It was a big duck, though. Beak and everything.

Jody: When I first went to meet Lydia, she wasn’t there. I interviewed for a job at Seasons, but she was in France eating foie gras.

Lydia: Wow! You have a better memory than I do.

Jody: I have the most vivid memory because it was my first job. I had met Julia Child in my early twenties when I was working for a gourmet food store and volunteered for one of her fundraisers at the Rhode Island School of Design. When I decided to become a restaurant cook, I re-met Julia Child and Sara Moulton at the same time, and they both said, “When you go to Boston, you have to work for Lydia Shire.” You do what Julia tells you to do. So I came to Boston, and Seasons was the first place I went and applied. Lydia was in France. Gordon Hamersley [Shire’s sous-chef at Seasons] didn’t hire me because I had zero restaurant experience. And Seasons was the most exciting, innovative, hot restaurant in Boston at the time.

Lydia: We had an all-American wine list back in ’82. That was huge. That was pretty groundbreaking. But continue with your story.

Jody: Later, I was up on a ladder, painting my apartment. I got a phone call. That was when the cord was in the wall, so I had to get down off the ladder to answer. It was Gordon saying, “I’m curious if you’re still interested in that job.” I didn’t miss a beat. I said, “Absolutely. Yes.” No pride. No holding back. By that time, Lydia was back—and I was the luckiest young woman in Boston. I was the middle cook, which meant you did all the sauces. There was one menu where you had four butter sauces. Four fucking butter sauces! And I had to do these pommes anna with chanterelle—I’d never seen a chanterelle in my life—so that’s why we have these tonight, in honor of Lydia. As for the duck: When I worked as a chef at Michela’s, I had to come up with a dish that people would gravitate to. So I took the old Seasons duck, which was marinated…

Lydia: …in soy, ginger, and garlic…

Jody: …and I transformed it into something Italian. So this duck here has balsamic vinegar and mustard and soy sauce. I chose this dish because Lydia and Seasons were so important to my start. This duck was on my menu until I closed Rialto.

Lydia: I knew Jody was so smart. She left and partnered with Gordon to open Hamersley’s Bistro, and the rest is history. Everybody loved what they did there.

Barbara: Iconic.

Jody: I have a joke. It’s Gordon Hamersley’s joke. “What’s invisible but smells like worms? Bird farts.”

Adams’s Italian slow-roasted duck, marinated in balsamic vinegar, never left her menu at Rialto. / Photo by Pat Piasecki

Before long, the trio realize how many great chefs they’ve outlasted in the biz. The challenges they’ve faced as women, they decide, have made them stronger—and kept them vital past the days when male peers have moved on.

Lydia: To me, it’s sad that all these men are leaving us. Gordon, Jasper…

Barbara: They’re retiring. We’re still standing! We’re working the line.

Jody: And all of us have new restaurants.

Lydia: I honestly believe that women, maybe because of the ages when they were relegated to second-class citizens, are pretty goddamn ballsy. Maybe we’re making up for lost time. Pretty much all the women I knew didn’t stop. They forged on.

Barbara: I don’t know about you, but I think it’s in our blood. We’re nurturers, we can fucking delegate, we know how to multitask more than anybody, and we can stand the heat in the kitchen.

Jody: I have a slightly different perspective. I once had a conversation about how a marriage survives over time. The answer is: You don’t leave. Right? You don’t leave. Marriages are hard. Sometimes you look at the person, and you think, “Who are you? I hate you.” And then you decide you’re going to stay. I think for me, that’s part of it. I think it’s really important for women to stay present and relevant. I’ve always felt a responsibility as a woman to speak up…. I mean, I remember the men would be standing in front of us at photo shoots. I remember doing a cooking thing on a team with two men, and they pushed me off the stage. I was completely disregarded. So I have fought, I hope not too aggressively. I feel a commitment to the generation that’s coming up but also to people like Lydia and Barbara.

Barbara: We’re all different ages.

Lydia: I’m 74.

Jody: I’m 65.

Barbara: I’m 58.

Lydia: I just think that deep down inside, women have decided that they have something to prove in life, and they’re going to work harder. All of the kids coming up in the business, I tell them, “When you go into a job, look at everybody else. Know everything they know, plus one thing more. Then you’ll be tops.” That’s the drive that women always have. Well, not always. Good women have that kind of drive.

Jody: It’s a necessity because there are so many barriers we have to break through.

Lydia: My husband, Uriel, has always supported me. He has never once asked me, “When are you coming home tonight?” Never. So I’ve never had any pressure on me. I run my life the way I want. I work when I want. I never have someone checking on me. I couldn’t do it.

Jody: That’s similar to my husband, Ken. He is an amazing man. I wanted to leave the industry multiple times, but it mostly had to do with my children and feeling like I was not a great mother. I remember reading a book to my daughter—I was not a good reader like Ken, who did all the voices and read every page. I skipped pages. I said to her, “It’s your turn to read.” She said, “Mom, I don’t know how to read.” She was so smart and articulate, I thought she would know. But I was so out of touch with where she was. There were times when I really wanted to stop working.

Barbara: Like every parent who works as much as we do. We’re not even there for the holidays, and if we are, we’re fucking exhausted.

Jody: But a deal is a deal is a deal. It goes back to staying. I’m not a quitter. We’re not quitters.

Lynch’s most iconic dish at No. 9 Park: prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras butter sauce. / Photo by Pat Piasecki

Long hours. Rampant sexism. Food TV’s obsession with tattooed young chefs. The restaurant industry isn’t all gravy for these seasoned pros, who reflect on what keeps them up at night.

Lydia: Are you a good sleeper?

Jody: No.

Lydia: I’m not.

Barbara: I just take two melatonin, and I’m knocked right out. Not all the time. I wake up when shit bothers me. I just know why I want to proceed: I want to change the industry. I beat to my own drum. I think we all do.

Jody: I came out of Lydia’s kitchen, where people were respected no matter who you were. No one was allowed to scream and yell. I came up through the ranks working for people like that, and if that wasn’t the case, I would have left. I know that wasn’t the luxury that a lot of people had. They worked in places where people screamed and yelled and threw pans. But when I first became a chef, there was a moment at Michela’s when the team got together to talk to me. They said, “You are way too high-strung.” My level of perfectionism was…I was way over my head. It taught me something. I needed to breathe and be a better manager. And so, when—God bless his soul—Anthony Bourdain wrote that book that essentially celebrated bad behavior again, it was like, wait a minute. The bad behavior gets a lot of attention, and the “I’m really sorry” that comes after gets a lot of attention. Whereas those of us who keep a healthy, steady, respectful environment don’t get the same attention.

Lydia: I only really have one horror story. When I opened the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, which was a big undertaking, the general manager wanted a German male chef, big and tall. He got me: a short, pudgy Irish girl. He was just nasty.

Jody: I have a million stories. When I was a chef at Michela’s, the New York Times was writing an article about chefs in Boston. They came to interview me, we had a nice conversation, and a week later, a photographer came around to take pictures. He took pictures of my food, and then he started packing up his gear. I said, “Don’t you want a picture of me? This is an article about chefs.” He said, “I already have a picture of a woman.” Which was Lydia, I assume. I went into the office, called Gordon on the landline, and said, “Did he take a picture of you?” Yes. “Do you think he took a picture of Todd?” Yup. “Jasper?” Yup. I hung up the phone, went back out, and said, “I really think you want to take a picture of me.” And I was wearing this goofy chef hat with blue stars on it. They chose that picture. I learned that day, you don’t get what you don’t ask for, and women will be marginalized. Lydia, you probably don’t know this, but when I was working in the kitchen at Seasons, I leaned over, and the kid working next to me hit me on the butt. I had steam coming out of my ears. I said, “Don’t ever fucking do that again.” He said, “You tempted me.” Gordon said he’d talk to him, but I said, “No, no. I’ll take care of it myself.” I cold-shouldered him. It was so fucking passive-aggressive.

Barbara: You become that way.

Jody: I never spoke to him again, and he had to work side by side with me. But those kinds of things happen all the time.

These three chefs share more than a spread: They all have new restaurants opening in 2023. / Photo by Pat Piasecki

Photo by Pat Piasecki

Boston’s culinary landscape continues to change with the skyline. Decades into their still-evolving careers, the chefs discuss the city’s food scene, how they fit into it, and why out-of-town talent so rarely sticks around.

Lydia: I was lucky that both of my parents were artists. They were fashion illustrators in Boston. My mother was known for her furs; she would do ads for furs in the newspapers. I grew up in Coolidge Corner in a home surrounded by paint and art and color—that’s my foundation. As far as Boston is concerned, I think we live in the best breeding ground for ingredients in the country. We have Georges Bank and the best fish—better than the West Coast. We have Macomber turnips in Rhode Island and farms in Vermont and Maine. I think we have the best produce. Everything is right here. Maybe not the best meat because I still believe in Nebraska beef, finished on corn and the whole nine yards. I hate grass-fed beef. But I think Boston, to me, has it all. We’re lucky. And I was very lucky to grow up with the background I had. My life now is about pushing myself to be creative. But that’s what I like to do. I like to push myself.

Jody: When I started working in restaurants, the city was divided by chefs. Chris Schlesinger had Cambridge, Inman Square. Todd English had Charlestown. Gordon Hamersley had the South End. Lydia had the Back Bay. When we started, that was the group. There was a time when people were mourning the simplicity of that division—of course, it can’t ever stay the same. However, think about it: Gordon’s gone. Todd’s essentially gone. Jasper is gone. Chris is gone. We’re still here. Lydia’s opening another restaurant. Barbara’s opening another restaurant. I’m opening little fast-casuals and perhaps another big restaurant. Outside chefs have come in. We will see about Gordon Ramsay. We will see about Guy Fieri. But outsiders haven’t been hugely successful.

Lydia: No, they haven’t. Even Daniel Boulud…

Jody: …or Mario Batali, even before his demise. Or Jean-Georges [Vongerichten].

Lydia: It’s interesting. Why do we keep moving forward while all of these transplants from New York come in and make it only one year?

Jody: Because we’re connected to the people. I think Bostonians are really interested in that overused word, authenticity.

Barbara: Also, we’re the faces of our companies. They know us.

Jody: Bostonians love their people. I think we’re fortunate to be in this city, a small city where there’s mutual respect and caring for who we are. They’re supporting us and investing in us to open our restaurants. It’s a community.

Barbara: Our city has changed. I’ve gone through a lot. I’ve gone through busing; I survived it. I’ve gone through Menino; I survived it. I’ve gone through Walsh; I loved that. I see Boston continuing to come up—getting good press, all that. But it can’t be a flash in the pan. We have to really make this a great city, truly, because we have the best colleges and universities. We have the best medical institutions. We have the best chefs. We have the ability to change shit.

Jody: The Seaport is a new part of Boston, right?

Lydia: Barbara was the pioneer there.

Jody: Barbara was on the border.

Barbara: It’s still Southie, A Street and Congress. I grew up there. My family was all welders. The Lynches are still there. I used to walk home from Summer Street all the way to the Old Harbor Housing Projects.

Jody: When I go to the Seaport, I don’t feel like I’m in Boston. Unless I’m at the ICA. Lydia is going into the Seaport now. Barbara started it, though, for sure.

Barbara: I also started it with the false information that it was going to blow up. Where are your amenities? Where’s your healthcare? Where’s your dry cleaning? Where’s your supermarket? Trader fucking Joe’s is your kingpin? The rent is outrageous. Fuhgeddaboudit. I have to say, though, I’m grateful. These seven restaurants are my life. My salary. We’re not billionaires by any means, but we live a good life. I still feel the urge to move on, though. I’m 58; I have 10 more good years, hopefully.

Jody: Don’t say that! Lydia is 74. We have a lot of good years.

Barbara: We have a lot of good years.

Photo by Pat Piasecki

The Matriarch

Lydia Shire

Past: Even in a groundbreaking career like hers, Shire’s 2001 takeover of Locke-Ober—the über-grand Boston restaurant that once banned women from its dining room—stands out as a special accomplishment.

Present: Shire’s signature lobster pizza, made famous in the ’90s at her late and famously daring restaurant Biba, lives on today at Scampo, the chef’s Italian-inspired spot inside the Liberty Hotel.

Future: Seaport, meet Lydia Shire. She’s opening an American restaurant in the city’s newest neighborhood this year.

Photo by Pat Piasecki

The Maven

Jody Adams

Past: Adams’s studious culinary research and attention to detail shone especially bright at Rialto, the acclaimed regional Italian restaurant she owned for 22 years in Harvard Square.

Present: In addition to co-owning the Back Bay’s Mediterranean-minded Porto and downtown’s chic Greek spot Trade, Adams has pushed into fast-casual dining with Saloniki, her growing chain that serves Hellenic salads, pitas, and more.

Future: She’s tight-lipped on details, but Adams is opening another full-service Boston restaurant in 2023.

Photo by Pat Piasecki

The Maverick

Barbara Lynch

Past: Long before Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2017, Lynch made an impact working for—and, according to her memoir Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, bumping heads with—chef Todd English at his restaurant Olives.

Present: A quarter-century after it opened, Lynch’s No. 9 Park is still going strong as the flagship to a seven-restaurant empire.

Future: Get ready for the Rudder, Lynch’s upcoming seafood-oriented restaurant in Gloucester.

First published in the print edition of the February 2023 issue, with the headline “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? No Way!”