Barbara Lynch would never bake a tough cookie, but she is one, for sure. Lynch, 44, bailed on high school and was a runner for local bookies before nestling under the wing of celebrity chef Todd English. A James Beard Award-winner, she has built Barbara Lynch Gruppo (formerly No. 9 Group) into a more than $10 million amalgam of six high-concept restaurants and food businesses. She expects revenue to double with three new ventures: a '50s-style cocktail bar, a reimagined lunch counter, and the hautest haute cuisine restaurant to touch down in Boston. "Not bad for a kid from the projects," says Lynch.
As told to Leigh Buchanan
I grew up in a housing project in South Boston. It was mostly blue-collar Irish: A lot of politicians and Mafia came out of my neighborhood. My father drove a taxi. He died of a heart attack the month before I was born, leaving my mother with seven kids. We never ended up on welfare, which was great.
My first paid cooking job was at age 13. Father Sullivan, from the church across the street, put out word that he needed someone to make dinner for the priests living in the rectory. Two years I cooked for them. Mostly sausage and onions.
I went to high school at the height of forced busing. The white kids from Southie got shipped seven miles to Roxbury, and the black kids got shipped to South Boston. It was a zoo. If you went to the bathroom wearing jewelry, you had to watch your back. I started my first business venture in high school, placing bets for some of my teachers with bookies in Southie. They would give me cash to bet on a horse race or a dog race or a football game. Usually I would say, "Hmm; that's not going to hit," and I wouldn't even call in the bet. I would keep the money. I liked clothes, so I would go shopping.
The one good thing about Madison Park High was the home economics program. The teacher was a master pastry chef from Cambridge. We would make éclairs and roasts for the faculty. The teacher saw something in me and arranged to have me in her class all four years instead of just one.
I never did homework. I was failing everything. Senior year, they said I would have to go to summer school. There was no way I was doing that, so I dropped out.
My mother waited tables at a private club called the St. Botolph Club, and I worked there after school. It was a different world: Rhodes scholars and doctors. I was afraid to talk. I used to watch the chef preparing meals for 10 parties at a time: Dover sole and grouse and sweetbreads under a bell. I told him, "I want to be a cook." He said, "You don't know what you want."
After quitting school, I worked at a food products warehouse. We would get in boxes of Durkee spices and StarKist tuna and send them out on 18-foot trailers all over the country. I was there six years. One day, a friend came to see me at work, and she said, "You have to get out of here." So we moved to Martha's Vineyard and got jobs in a restaurant there.
A guy who ran a dinner cruise was hiring an assistant to the chef. I applied, and he said, "Do you know how to cook?" I said, "Yeah, I'm a chef in Boston. I make great chowder." I lied through the entire interview. Afterward, I went to the library and looked up how you actually made this stuff. The next day, he hired me. Three days before the boat was supposed to sail, the chef quit. My boss asked if I could take over. I said, "Sure."
At a party in Boston, I met the sous-chef at Michaela's, a very hot restaurant. I started getting calls from this guy Todd English, who I had never heard of, asking me to come to Michaela's for an interview. I was two hours late, because I couldn't find the place. I finally got there, and this big, handsome chef comes out and says, "I didn't think you were going to show up." I said, "Well, what stupid person would put a f---ing restaurant here?" He was like, "Oh, I guess you're sassy." He hired me as chef for their café.
Todd English left to start Olives, and two years later, I followed him. I worked there eight years and then helped him open Figs, a pasta and pizza restaurant. After two and a half years, I took a job as executive chef at an Italian restaurant in the theater district. When I told Todd I was leaving, he was so mad he chased me around the restaurant.
I wanted my own place. But I never wrote anything down -- not even recipes -- so the business plan was a challenge. I raised $2 million from local investors who were fans of my cooking. At that point, I was back living in the projects, and I probably owed the IRS 70 grand. But I said I wasn't going to take a salary until I paid them all back. I did it in three years.
I opened No. 9 Park in 1998, and it was named one of the 25 best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit. We have done better every year. Around 2002, I decided to open an oyster bar, with simple food and a great wine list. I signed the lease on a place and then noticed a storefront across the street was also empty. I thought, Why do construction on one restaurant when we could do two at the same time? I wanted a place where you can sit and have a meal but also buy meat to take home. I always loved butchering things.
The first few years at No. 9, I didn't know the business part. It was tough enough trying to run a kitchen and deal with staff and not get overwhelmed. I really didn't know what a P&L was. One of my sous-chefs had a business education, so she and I worked together to tighten things up, and I learned much more about business. The restaurants started to grow.
In 2004, I started a catering service called Niche Catour; in 2006, I opened a produce market called Plum; and last year, I opened Stir, which is a cookbook store and test kitchen where people come for cooking classes and companies do team-building exercises.
Two years ago, a partner in Berkeley Investments was having dinner at No. 9, and he asked if I would be interested in opening a restaurant in an old wool warehouse his company owned. They were putting in 96 condos and had 16,000 square feet of commercial space. They gave me such a great deal, I would have been crazy not to take it.
I thought, OK, what do we need in this city? We don't have a really good bar. So I opened a bar that sells cocktails and canapés. We don't have a Relais and Châteaux restaurant. So I'm bringing the next level of formal dining here. The last thing is a cool sort of counter. My mom used to take me to Woolworth's, and I would have a grilled cheese sandwich and a piece of pie. It will be like that: grab and go but sleek and stylish with my food.
To deal with tension and get in shape, I box in Southie. I work out hard: I'm training to be a fighter. I haven't sparred with anyone yet. But I'd love to.
I'm known nationally, and I will be better known when my cookbook comes out next year. I want to do more books and videos. I would love to be on Oprah. But I don't want to be that person selling my own line of branded cookware. I'm a chef, not a personality.