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How Barbara Lynch Built Her Restaurant Empire

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The Boston chef and Time 100 honoree shares her secrets

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Photo: Michael Prince

Barbara Lynch is the key player on the Boston restaurant scene. The 2014 James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur has eight restaurants in her home city, including a collaboration with Eataly Boston, and recently published a memoir, Out of Line, in which she details how she rose from a poor childhood in South Boston to become a major figure in the restaurant world. Just last week, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year.

The Boston chef and restaurateur recently stopped by the Eater Upsell to chat with hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito, where she revealed some surprising insights into how she operates her business, and more:

1. Lynch’s Boston restaurant empire grew like a chain of gas stations.

She never meant to head up eight restaurants, but 20 years ago, when she says Boston didn’t have any great oyster bars, butcher shops, or Italian restaurants outside of the North End, she saw an opportunity. “It’s like the gas station effect. If you have more gas stations, then more people will come to fill up gas,” she says.

Lynch chose the locations for her restaurants carefully. “I had to create a destination because you don’t want to pay a lot of rent,” she says. She considers herself a “pioneer” on Congress Street, where her restaurants Sportello, Menton, and cocktail bar Drink are located, and says that if she had put just one restaurant in that neighborhood, it would be closed by now. Three restaurants, though, creates a destination-worthy mini empire.

However, don’t expect her to put down mini empires outside of Boston anytime soon. “I love being part of my community, and I have to have a purpose, and my restaurants have a purpose so I don’t feel comfortable going into anyone else’s city without having a good purpose.”

2. She has an unusual menu-writing process.

She still writes the menus at her restaurants, and, unlike many other chefs, Lynch takes the inspiration for every dish from the wines longtime wine director Cat Silirie is interested in showcasing, not the other way around. “I’m not like every restaurant. That’s my secret to success,” she says.

Once she decides on the elements of a dish, she paints it to get a better sense of how it will look on the plate. “You can have a sketch, but no matter what the first time you’re designing a dish, it’s still not going to come out the way you wanted because the colors are going to change,” she says. “It’s nice to paint and say, ‘Hm, it might not look right,’ so switch an ingredient, add lemon zest, something like that.” She then takes a picture of the completed painting with her phone, and sends it off to the kitchen.

Sportello/Facebook

3. Lynch hires for passion over experience.

When it comes to hiring in her kitchens, Lynch says she “[likes] to get them young and passionate.” Young, because she hates cleaning up bad habits, like sloppiness. Passion, though, is most important. “I can’t teach you passion, but I can teach you how to cook.”

Lynch learned how not to run a restaurant group from former boss Todd English, who she says threw a glass Coke bottle at her when she announced she would be leaving her post as sous chef of Figs. (Lynch has made this claim before; English denies it.) Her approach: “Treat your people with dignity and set them up for success. You want them to leave and you want them to be brilliant when they leave.”

4. There’s one tool she never allows in her kitchens.

Using tongs is Lynch’s most loathed bad habit, and she forbids the tool in her kitchens. “When I was on the line, I remember dirty chef pants with slimey tongs in the back pocket,” she says. She recounts that the cooks would also put tongs on the oven door, only to have them get smashed when the oven door opened. “It just freaks me out,” she says. Her staff makes do with spoons and a long, two-pronged fork.

5. Lynch doesn’t particularly like Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Although she may be the restaurant figure most associated with Boston, Lynch doesn’t love Dunkin’ Donuts. She doesn’t go to “Dunkies” often, but when there, she’d order a buttercrunch cruller over the coffee that’s, stereotypically, a favorite of Massachusetts residents.

Bonus: She had a few “crafty” ways to make money in her youth.

Every weekend we would go to Bermuda on stolen credit cards. We were flying on People Express, but they would [charge] the card up in the air, and then in order to get back from Bermuda, we would steal another card. We would siphon gas from mopeds. I would probably have to do some sort of stint in a liquor store, and my friends would just walk out with tons of liquor for a booze cruise. It was crazy.

Hear the complete interview with Barbara Lynch below, as she chats with hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito about educating home cooks, the best Italian pasta names, and that time she stole a city bus. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes   right here on Eater.

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