How Barbara Lynch Talked Her Way into Her First Executive Chef Gig
Lynch had no skills to back up the title. But her home economics teacher and a former boss had faith, and her back.
She had never worked in a professional kitchen before.
“I had no cooking skills at the time,” Lynch says. She swears it, actually. With bombastic language true to her South Boston (Southie) upbringing, Lynch simultaneously talks, walks, and gives her lit, lipstick-rimmed cigarette to a homeless person because she doesn’t have any cash on her. She’s walking between the seven restaurants she owns around Boston today – her “epic love letter to Boston.”
But back then, she’d applied for a sous chef flaunting a faked resume. Yes, she’d worked in a beachside snack bar, then heated canned soup at a chowder shack. But she hadn’t graduated from high school with honors, as claimed. (She hadn’t graduated at all, actually.) And she hadn’t worked her way from line cook to executive chef of the St. Botolph Club in Back Bay. But no one checked her references. She got the sous gig. Then, right before she started, the chef quit. They offered her the spot.
“I just said ‘yes!’” she remembers now. “Like, seriously, this is the Lynch move. I talked my way into it. Now, prove it.”
Lynch had grown up one of seven kids, with a single mother who often balanced three jobs at once. “I literally raised myself,” she says. “It was hard for me to open up and ask for help because at home I didn't get it. My mother was like, ‘Figure it out.’"
This infused in her both high risk-taking desires and a quick tongue. Plucky “I can do it” self-confidence then shifted to a mantra of, “I'm going to kill it. I'm going to nail it!” she says. “I think people probably thought I was snobby, but I was just so insecure. I had to find people to help me.”
And she did.
“She was the nicest, calmest, most elegant teacher you could have,” she says of Susan Logozzo. Lynch found high school unbearable. She wanted to learn, but struggled to capture or retain information; in adulthood, she was diagnosed with ADD. Her need for mischief and low fear threshold found her facing low grades and multiple suspensions. But amidst the chaos of a contentious public school system was home economics teacher Logozzo. “She believed in me, whereas my own mother didn't even believe in me,” Lynch says. “Forget my brothers and sisters—they had no clue. She saw talent in me.”
Logozzo saw so much talent in Lynch that she made the school let her repeat the one-year class, knowing she would probably drop out entirely otherwise. She had Lynch assist her cooking classes in Cambridge. She loaned her Gourmet and Time Life, developing a collection of recipes in place of the cookbook Lynch didn’t have. “She was a huge support. She actually just made me feel like I could do it,” Lynch says. “Isn't that nice? A high school teacher. It's so important.”
Then, there was Mario Bonello – the real executive chef at the St. Botolph Club, where Lynch had been a waitress alongside her mother since she was fifteen. Bonello was trained in the L’Escoffier tradition, preparing sweetbreads under a bell, jellied consommé, squab, and sole fileted tableside. He'd have a packed dining room and five dinners going on and master every minute. In the kitchen constantly, Lynch “didn't feel insecure going to him and asking him some questions.” Watching him helped her realize cooking was what she wanted to do.
So when faced with the very real possibility, she first called Logozzo. She asked if she should quit her current job as a telephone operator, move to the Vineyard, and pursue cooking: “She was like, ‘Definitely. And don't look back,’” Lynch says.
And when the sous chef position turned executive, she called Bonello: “He started laughing, ‘You’re screwed!” she says. But then he walked her through every recipe, like how to make the sabayon sauce she was calling “that Zamboni sauce.” She defied ADD, reader-butchering books at the library so she’d be able to break down beef into filets. She worked the line for a night at with a friend at a steak-and-potatoes restaurant. There, she learned how tickets come into a kitchen, orders go out, how to sear steaks to “rare, medium-rare, well-done, black-and-blue, and Pittsburgh style, and how to keep food warm on a banquet line—the stuff they don't teach you in books,” Lynch says. She figured out how to order ingredients from the daily Cisco delivery. And how to cook in a galley kitchen with bungee cords holding the salamanders closed in case the ship hit rough waters.
“I had no idea, no clue,” she says. “But I didn't want to fail.”
Then, her first night. People came on the boat and ordered their steak or lobster—at least ticketed dining meant she didn’t need to cost out a menu. Entrées were out in thirty minutes. Dessert was dropped by the time Neil Diamond started to growl, "We're Coming to America."
“It was somewhat chaotic,” she says. “Again, ADD! You don't really organize.” She hadn’t arranged the walk-in. She didn’t know where to store dirty dishware. But the guests thought the food was amazing. The staff responded well. “It was a blur. I was just like, "I can do this! But how the fuck did I do it?” She figured the other stuff out. The dinner cruise became popular. “We were all in shock.”
Lynch went on to work with Todd English at Michela’s and Olives. She traveled to Italy. As executive chef at Galleria Italiana, she was recognized as one of Food & Wine’s “Ten Best New Chef’s in America” in 1996. Then in 1998, she opened No. 9 Park – named one of the “best new restaurants” by many publications – then building restaurants in her home of the South End. She looks for passion in her cooks more than anything. Because she had passion. And she believes passion moves people more than anything else.
But without Logozzo and Bonello, Lynch guesses she would most likely still be working in a warehouse today. Maybe she’d have a catering company on the side.
“For the first time in my life, I felt I was worth something,” she says of Logozzo’s believing in her. Bonello broke down her shyness and insecurity, and let her curiosity feel safe. “You know these people are going to be in your life for the rest of your life. They’re gonna steer me in the right direction. It's a support—a support system, more than just help.”