Barbara Lynch on Food, Memory, and Being Her Own Boss

Barbara Lynch, world-renowned chef and restaurateur and the author of the memoir Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, joins the Clever Cookstr to talk about her food philosophy, her seven renowned Boston restaurants, and her new book.

Kara Rota
4-minute read
Episode #151

Below is an excerpt from the Clever Cookstr interview with Barbara Lynch. To hear the full interview, listen in the top right hand player, or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify.

Clever Cookstr: Each of your restaurants really has its own culinary narrative. From Sportello, which reimagines the diner as an Italian trattoria, to the Menton’s tasting menu with courses in the double digits. Where do you start when you’re designing a restaurant concept and how specific of an idea do you have about who the audience is for a particular restaurant? 

Barbara Lynch: Well, I think I was hoping not just Boston in general for customers. I felt like if you limit yourself to just the neighborhood, then I’ll never last. Neighborhoods change, especially in Boston. You know, like Beacon Hill. No. 9, for instance, is almost twenty years old, and if I considered that a neighborhood restaurant, I wouldn’t be here for twenty years. Once the kids are off to college, they all—you know, it changes. And really, they actually move down to the South End once the kids are gone so, I’m feeding them. You know, at B&G and The Butcher Shop. Now and then, a new style of customers come in to Beacon Hill so, I wanted all the restaurants to be more international or national than just neighborhoods. And really, all the restaurants are nostalgic for me and that’s where the design came from. And I have the same architect and designer team that I’ve had known for thirty years.

CC: Can you say more about the nostalgia? I feel like that’s such an interesting word because restaurants really are this sort of experience through a world. You walk in and you can be transported. Why did you want to achieve that end? How do you think you have?

BL: So, based on memory really. Like, Sportello is a counter and it’s from my years of working at Brigham’s on Park Street from when I was like fifteen. The cook would never show up––I was a server. Cooks would never show up, the manager would never show up, and so here I am. I’m serving, pouring tea, flipping grilled chesses, going to make ice cream sundaes, and cashing them out. But it was a formula. The way that was built, these little pods––counters––worked for me. It was like, ‘Oh my God,’ I was making cash. So, that’s the way Sportello was built. Butcher Shop. It was based on the first trip I ever went to, which is Italy. And I’d go to this bodega where I went to a wild boar butchering. You could buy your meats, you could fill up wine bottles white or red, get your gas, buy cigarettes, have a shot of Vin Santo, go to the market. I’m like, ‘Wow, this is so cool! Why can’t everybody have this?’ B&G Oysters is, like, my memory from Kelly’s Landing in Southie, where we would get fried clam plate and fried scallops and chowder on Fridays, if we hit the lottery. And then Menton is, like, my later memories of traveling to France and two Michelin, three Michelin star restaurants for lunch. Oh, and No. 9 is my memories of the Saint Botolph Club when I worked there. So yeah, and they’re restaurants that are doable, like I knew I could handle them. They’re not gigantic, two-hundred and fifty seats. They’re more like sixty, sixty-five.

CC: It’s sort of an autobiography through restaurants.

BL: Yep.

CC: How would you describe your food philosophy and approach? I think a lot of chefs do one kind of food; but I think all of your restaurants, as we’ve talked about, really have their own inspirations, their own culinary dialect. So, is there sort of an overarching philosophy that drives you or that makes you interested in cooking different kinds of things?

BL: I mean, I think my cuisine is really French and Italian, really. I would say it’s sort of like European, French, and Italian, but with my twist on it. I really like good food––I just really like simple food. I’m not like the molecular girl or the Nomad plating. I kind of like really good food. Just a beautiful bowl of really good chicken soup would be great, you know? I hope we go back to that, like the basics and just not all the––although it’s beautiful to look at, it’s art that’s gorgeous––but you know, do you know what I mean?

CC: I think there’s a preciousness, right? There’s this sort of fetishization of something for being so much itself that disregards, really, the quality and the experience of taste. Is it good? Is it delicious? That’s always what it should be about.

BL: Like a rainy night or a misty night, with a bowl of steamed potatoes and extra virgin olive oil and creamed leaks and a glass of burgundy.

CC: That’s very European, I feel like. That simplicity, but also elegance.

BL: Yeah but, you know, you can hear the rain, you smell it and oh my God. You’re damp and you eat that and it's heaven.

Check out Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire. And tune in next time on the Clever Cookstr, your guide to everything new and noteworthy in the world of food and cooking.

About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.