FROM RUNNING NUMBERS for Southie bookies as a kid to captivating the Beacon Hill set at some of Boston's toniest spots, Barbara Lynch stands as a poster child for the American dream. Lynch's climb to the acclaimed No. 9 Park and beyond is no accident: It's the result of hard work, tenacity, a canny sense for yawning market gaps and a gambler's guts. After learning at the hands of some of the best, Lynch has gone on to create five restaurants, a bar, a cookbook store/demonstration kitchen and a catering company, all Boston-based; she's also won over the critics, earning a James Beard Award and Food & Wine Best New Chef honors. Her latest concept, the stylish Menton, opened in 2010 to raves. Lynch recently gave us a brief glimpse behind her creative process.
RH: What do you like most about your job?
Lynch: I love that I am always learning and growing as a chef, restaurateur and businesswoman. It's also a pleasure to watch my team and my company grow in a positive direction and become stronger in so many ways.
RH: What aspects of the job do you try to avoid or dislike most?
Lynch: I am not the type to avoid anything. Part of growing is understanding the negatives as challenges with positive outcomes. I will say that I dislike it when people don't give it their all to get ahead and evolve, especially when they are given the tools to do so. One of my favorite metaphors is the leaves of a tree. Some of the leaves will die and fall off the tree. This is only natural and in a company, these leaves are the people who can't or won't thrive. The upside is that healthy leaves will always replace the ones that fall.
RH: You had quite a colorful early life. How did your upbringing and experiences prepare you to run your own business?
Lynch: Growing up the youngest of seven with a single mother in the projects of South Boston, I learned from an early age to be self-sufficient. I was on my own, and I learned to rely on myself first, and the right people second. This has definitely helped me build a team around my vision. I lied about my age when I was 14 to get a job at the St. Botolph Club, where my mother worked, and I have always been a hard worker. I am definitely not afraid to get my hands dirty. Also, I was never really disciplined as a child or young adult, so I had plenty of freedom to create and do what I knew how to do, which was cook. Even though I didn't finish high school, or go to culinary school, I felt like I could take risks, because I basically had nothing to lose. Opening No. 9 Park was a risk, and I am so glad that I took it!
RH: You have an excellent track record when it comes to new concepts. Where do you get your inspiration, and — without giving away any trade secrets — how do you proceed from an idea to a finished, successful product?
Lynch: For me, it usually starts and ends with instinct. It is so important to have a clear vision and to stick with it. My concepts are mostly based on nostalgia, which allows me to remain true to my vision. Sportello reminds me of Brigham's, the ice cream counter where I worked when I was younger. Other concepts are inspired by places I love. France and Italy inspired The Butcher Shop, No. 9 Park and Menton. Menton, the newest, also reflects memories of extraordinary meals and service. It was my ultimate goal and is a goal my team and I work to achieve every day.
RH: With so many pots on the stove, how do you manage your time? Do you sleep?
Lynch: I have a great team that I trust to delegate to, and we definitely overcommunicate for a restaurant group. I work closely with my staff every day. They are the ones that help me achieve my vision, and I enjoy the fact that we continue to learn as we go. It is fun to have so many irons in the fire, but I definitely stay healthy and get plenty of sleep. I know now just how good sleep is for you.
Lynch: We have a strong philosophy of education that really allows people to grow and explore within the Barbara Lynch Gruppo. It's so important to create the right work environment, and education is key to that for my team, as are respect and dignity.
RH: Do you think female chefs are regarded differently than their male counterparts? If so, how? And do you think things have changed over the years?
Lynch: Honestly, I didn't think very much about being a “woman chef” until a few years ago. It has become more clear to me as a restaurateur that women in my position are a rare thing, that there are biases that have been in place for years — but not in my kitchens. I think women are intuitive decision makers, but I don't consider myself a “woman chef,” just a damn hard worker, and I think hard work will always garner respect in this industry.
I get asked this question frequently, and it makes me feel like a minority, which is not how I usually think. My job is about craft and hard work, and vision pays off in every job for every person. I take risks, I go after my dreams…does that make me different than a man?
I'm still getting asked this question, so I'm not sure that things have really changed over the years in the industry.
RH: Which individuals do you admire most in the food world, and what do you admire about them?
Lynch: There are many chefs whom I admire, but definitely Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Gabrielle Hamilton, Suzanne Goin….It's hard to name them all. I admire all the chefs who do great things with what they know and love with total respect for their product and an incredible power to create.
RH: Favorite cookbooks from your extensive collection?
Lynch: I think I have over a thousand cookbooks. I always have and always will love the Alain Ducasse books because of his love for French and Italian cuisine. I actually translated them from French to English with a dictionary, way before iPads were around. I love Jean-Louis Palladin's amazing intensity, I think Gualtiero Marchesi's books are fantastic. It is tough to pick just a few.
RH: We hear you have dabbled in boxing. How did you get started, and what do you get from it?
Lynch: A friend I grew up with opened a boxing gym. He was a champion fighter and trainer to the Wahlberg boys (actors Mark and Donnie). It was an interesting new way to work out and it was super tough. I trained religiously for about two years and then I started to get bored because it was hard to find time to spar. Now I mostly run and do yoga, because they are easy to fit in when I travel.
RH: When you are able to get away for a vacation, what do you like to do?
Lynch: I can usually do five days away, sometimes more. I like to stay in a rental house or with friends so I can cook dinner. I love exploring markets and finding amazing produce. It's so inspiring! Some of my favorite places to visit are Menton (of course), Nice, Truro, MA, where I rent a house every summer with friends, Northern California, Piedmont, Puglia and, of course, Rome.
RH: What's next for you?
Lynch: I always have something new in the works, and I can't say what that is, but it will be good! In the next five years, we are looking forward to focusing on branding.
RH: Fast forward 10 or 15 years from now. What will you be doing, and how do you see your company?
Lynch: I'm so focused on the next day, week, month, year, so actually I don't see that far but I will keep working with my team so that the company reaches the goals I set for it. I'm looking forward to expanding on our philanthropic goals and encouraging healthier eating in Boston's public schools.
RH: What about your career has given you the most gratification?
Lynch: Feeding people, so I'm pretty lucky. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the people I have worked with grow to new professional heights that they never thought possible. That is an awesome feeling.