You could call it the first Thanksgiving. And in many ways it was for 42-year-old Barbara Lynch, the chef at Boston’s elegant No. 9 Park, in Beacon Hill. Lynch had been eager to prepare her own version of the holiday meal, but she felt compelled to wait. First she needed to wait almost a full year to finish remodeling her Winchester house and installing her high-tech dream kitchen, complete with a built-in pasta cooker, an induction stove and a professional convection-steam oven. And she waited a respectful two years after her mother, Barbara, passed away, before she felt comfortable updating the old-fashioned Thanksgiving menu, which included celery sticks with cream cheese and pickled pearl onions from a jar. "This year," Lynch says with a hint of defiance, "I’m making my own traditions."
But not everything is changing. Lynch’s menu, combining French technique with an Italian respect for ingredients, will be refined but simple, following one of her two entertaining rules: Never let the food overpower the party. "The conversation shouldn’t be dominated by, ’ Oh what is this? This is so good,’ " she says. "You should be able to sit and chat and laugh and have fun." Many of the recipes are also an homage to her mother. The traditional cheese-and-cracker plate has been replaced with a quick, caraway-tinged Gouda fondue. The pickled onions have morphed into a luscious, creamy pearl onion gratin. And instead of classic stuffing, which her mother made with celery and carrots, Lynch mixes whole wheat bread with three kinds of wild mushrooms—chanterelle, oyster and hen-of-the-woods—which give the dish an earthy complexity.
As the guests arrive, Lynch pours each a glass of Aubry Brut Rosé Champagne, one of her favorite sparkling wines. She’s prepared much of the feast ahead of time, following her second rule of entertaining: Never design a meal that requires you to slave in the kitchen while your guests enjoy the party. And if you do have to slave, put your guests to work, too. Friends who linger in the kitchen too long are put to work on finishing touches. For the fondue, Natalie Carpenter, who owns the trendy Lekker Unique Home Furnishings shop, grates a hunk of aged Gouda that her mother smuggled in from Holland especially for Lynch. Annie Copps, a food editor who cooked with Lynch at Todd English’s first Olives restaurant, sets up in front of the Vita-Prep, a restaurant-quality blender, to puree batches of sautéed celery and shallots for a creamy soup, which Lynch will finish with fresh-from-the-boat Nantucket bay scallops. "I’m just making what I want," Lynch says as she chops four varieties of squash, which she’ ll later roast and serve with sage-infused cream. "My mother used to serve us Birds Eye frozen squash with nothing added to it," she recalls. "When I was a kid I’ d go behind her back and throw cinnamon in it, just to jazz it up. She hated it when I touched her recipes like that. I guess now I just go to the extreme."
Doing things her own way has always been Lynch’s nature. She grew up in a housing development in South Boston, a predominantly white working-class neighborhood. During the height of Boston’s controversial and violent school-busing crisis, the kids from Lynch’s neighborhood were sent to Madison Park High in neighboring Roxbury, a predominantly African American neighborhood. There Lynch explored her budding interest in cooking in the school’s home economics program, where she learned how to make éclairs and lasagna. At home, she tuned in to watch Boston’s own culinary star, Julia Child, on TV. When she was 18, she worked up the nerve to call Child at her Cambridge home but hung up when "the French Chef" answered the phone.
Lynch never completed high school, finishing a few credits shy of graduation requirements. At first, she worked as a chambermaid at Boston’s historic St. Botolph Club, where she eventually worked her way into the kitchen. At night, she continued her culinary education by studying cookbooks—first Italian ones by Marcella Hazan and Waverley Root, then, with the help of a translation dictionary, French classics by Paul Bocuse. "I fell in love with the culture of food," she says, "the way Europeans don’t live to work, but live to eat and live to celebrate."
Lynch’s first chance to run a kitchen came when she was 21 and working as a kitchen assistant on a Martha’s Vineyard dinner-cruise ship. When the head chef quit before the season started, Lynch, with little prior professional experience, took over. The toughest part, she still insists, was keeping everything tied down with bungee cords on rough seas.
From there, Lynch worked at Michaela’s and Olives, where she spent eight years under the tutelage of Todd English. After cooking abroad in the kitchens of local Italian women, Lynch returned to Boston and took a job at Galleria Italiana, where, in 1996, she was named an F&W Best New Chef. Two years later, she transformed a shoe store and card shop on the corner of Boston Common into No. 9 Park. Five years later, she helped turn the up-and-coming South End neighborhood into a gastronomic destination by opening B&G Oysters, Ltd., a fresh-seafood and oyster bar whose name is short for "bivalves and gills," and the Butcher Shop, a cozy European wine bar and retail space. "Yeah, it’s amazing," Lynch says dismissively of her successes. "I have friends who are dead or have been in jail. But I didn’t let anything stop me. This was my path and I was chosen to do it."
Despite her success, Lynch has maintained her close ties to South Boston. Witness her Thanksgiving guest list: She’s known almost everyone for at least 20 years, and some of her friends date back to her Southie days. This relaxed familiarity is evident when, at three o’ clock, everyone sits down to eat at the new dining room table. The crystal, the linens and the china are pristine, but there’s no pressure to behave. Lynch’s husband, Charlie, wonders aloud which fork to use for the delicate baby artichokes stuffed with a sweet crab salad. Copps plays peekaboo with Lynch’s two-year-old daughter, Marchesa. "This is what I love about celebrating with close friends," says Lynch. "Whatever is fine. Everyone is just themselves."
Jane Black is the food editor at Boston Magazine.