When No. 9 Park was awarded Boston Magazine's Best of Boston Award for Best Restaurant in 2003, chef and owner Barbara Lynch was already as well known as her former mentor Todd English, or maybe even Fenway Park.
And that was before she went on to open a stylishly casual oyster bar, B&G Oysters, a charcuterie and butchery outpost that serves $14 glasses of wine called The Butcher Shop, an ultra-modern speakeasy with the craftiest old-school cocktails in town, Drink, the modern Italian diner Sportello, and the contender for the Most Expensive Restaurant in Boston, Menton. Not to mention her cooking school Stir, or private catering company, 9 at Home. Her umbrella company, Barbara Lynch Gruppo, now rakes in more than $10 million a year.
So how does a self-professed "kid from the projects" transform herself into the hottest and most well-respected chef in Boston? According to Lynch, it all comes down to "taking educated risks, listening to your gut, and being good to your people."
"My upbringing instilled in me a very strong work ethic," Lynch says. "I had no choice, I had to work and I had to work hard because no one was going to hand me anything."
Growing up in the projects of South Boston, Lynch was one of seven children and raised by a single mother. Her taxi-driver father died before she was born. She first got behind the stove at the tender age of 13, cooking sausages and onions for the priests of the church across the street. "My mother worked three jobs at a time so it was normal to work that hard, and I'm now thankful for that example."
"My motto has always been 'fake it until you make it,'" she says. After dropping out of high school her senior year at Madison Park High School—the only class she excelled at was home economics—she finagled her way into a string of food-related jobs, stretching the truth or outright lying at job interviews to get her foot in the door before finally landing a job at Michela's, with a then rising-star chef named Todd English. She'd later go on to open both his flagship, Olives, and his haute-pizza mini-chain, Figs, before taking flight on her own as the chef at Galleria Italiana. In 1998, she opened No. 9 Park to almost instant acclaim before continuing to open a series of wildly successful and diverse ventures.
For Lynch, the secret to restaurant success is as much about recognizing her own limitations as it is exploiting her strengths.
"I love wine and great cocktails and have a very specific idea about service and hospitality, but I am not the person to lead in those areas and I know that," she says. Rather, she leaves front-of-the-house operations entirely in the hands of her general managers and Cat Silirie, wine director for all of Barbara Lynch Gruppo's endeavors. A friend and longtime collaborator, Silirie and her wine program exemplify the traits that Lynch says are the key to success: finding "dedicated, local, and passionate people."
While most chef-owners with multiple restaurants are kept busy enough in their roles as visionaries, managers, and administrators, Lynch—who stays fit by boxing in South Boston—is well known among Boston cooks as one of the few who can still outperform anyone on her staff behind the stove, often jumping onto the line when orders get backed up. "Some days I think it's a lot easier to just be in the kitchen and cook. There aren't as many moving pieces" as there are when running a restaurant empire. But still, she says, "The multitasking we do in the kitchen comes in handy for the business side."
"Trust is involved, as is instinct, and having a clear vision that you can articulate to people to get them on board and excited." Trusting fresh talent rarely pays off in the industry but is a gamble that that Lynch seems to have a preternatural gift for.
Take Colin Lynch (no relation to Barbara), who began his role in Barbara's empire as a young extern from the Culinary Institute of America. Under her guidance, he soon took the lead as co-executive sous-chef at No. 9 Park—a transition that can take three to four times as long at an average restaurant. He's currently the executive chef at Menton, Barbara's new ultra-swank French restaurant in Boston's burgeoning Fort Point neighborhood, helming the kitchen that serves meals commanding a hefty price tag of $95 to $145 for food alone.
Such trust in fresh blood is nothing if not courageous in an industry notorious for quick staff turnaround. "I don't know of any business owner who hasn't been burned," Lynch says. "The trick is to learn from those experiences but not let it prevent you from trusting others again. One of the best things I can do is to hire a young cook and give them the resources and guidance to grow into a fantastic chef."
"We've set up our company to offer our young employees as many opportunities to grow and develop professionally as they are willing to take," she says. You get the distinct impression that her willingness to trust in passionate but nonetheless relatively experienced cooks is a direct result of the resources that were noticeably absent in her own past.
Despite the array of experiences and price points on offer at her various establishments, Lynch maintains that they all have "the same common denominators: warm hospitality, excellent food, an inspired wine and cocktail program, and," perhaps most important, "a culture of education with staff excited to share knowledge with guests."
It doesn't hurt that "all of the concepts are very personal reflections of what I love. You'll probably never see me open up a noodle bar," she says, "that's just not me."