Barbara Lynch, Founder/CEO, Barbara Lynch Gruppo
Boston magazine has called Barbara Lynch “the erudite bad girl behind a small kingdom of restaurants.” Although she’s still definitely streetwise, Lynch has come a long way from her childhood in the housing projects of South Boston. Today she is a world-renowned chef and restaurateur, having built the Barbara Lynch Gruppo (formerly No. 9 Group) into a more than $19 million amalgam of eight high-concept restaurants and food businesses. A protégé of celebrity chef Todd English and a winner of the prestigious James Beard Award (which honors U.S. food professionals) as well as North America’s only Relais & Chateaux female Grand Chef, she has a passion for food and cooking that has inspired her from a very young age. We spoke to Lynch about what drives her and what’s next for her.
Monster: When did you realize your passion for food and cooking? And how did you decide to make a career out of it?
BL: Growing up in South Boston, I thought that one day I might own a bar or a restaurant. There were plenty of both in the neighborhood, and they were always busy, so I figured I’d always have a job. At the age of 13 I remember seeing a recipe for a Chinese dish in my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazine; it must have contained at least 20 ingredients, many of which I had never heard of. I wondered, “Who would make this?” I went to Chinatown to purchase the ingredients and then went home to make it – and in the process, I discovered I really liked cooking. Soon after this, I got a job cooking for the priests at the local rectory and then a job changing beds at the private St. Botolph Club in Boston’s Back Bay. My mother and some of the other women in the neighborhood were waitresses there, and I worked my way up to eventually join them in the dining room. It was there that I saw a glimpse of a different world. Mario Bonello, an Escoffier-trained chef, oversaw the kitchen and made the guests so incredibly happy with his cooking. There was great ceremony and theater involved in the presentation of the dishes: from Dover sole served tableside and sweetbreads under a bell to white gloves on the servers and formal cheese service, the level of detail and refinement was incredible, and these memories stayed with me.
During this time, Boston’s busing crisis unfolded, and I was sent across town to Madison Park High in Roxbury. I wasn’t a very disciplined student and often cut class. But there was one class I never missed: home economics. The teacher, Susan Logozzo, realized this and convinced the school to allow me to take the class for all four years – she knew it was the only way I’d stay in school. For the first time in my life I was good at something in school. I enjoyed cooking, and it came naturally to me. My experiences at the St. Botolph club observing Chef Mario Bonello and at Madison Park High with Susan Logozzo instilled in me a desire to one day become a chef and tapped into a passion that has stayed with me. I left high school and, after a series of dead-end jobs that left me unhappy and unfulfilled, I finally took the leap to follow this passion, talked my way into a kitchen job, and never looked back.
Monster: Were there naysayers?
BL: I do remember that when I was about to open No.9 Park, most of the neighbors said I would fail and that it was not the right area for a restaurant like No.9. But 16 years later it’s doing better than ever, and I couldn’t be happier with the location.
A few years ago I opened Plum Produce, a small (and perhaps too precious) produce shop between Stir and The Butcher Shop that, in the end, was a failure. After the fact, I realized I hadn’t done my homework during the research phase; I was competing against larger supermarkets, and the demographics were not there to support this type of concept. Early on, I also discovered how challenging it can be to have partners – and what happens when they do not share the same vision. Ultimately, I trusted my instinct and believed in my vision. We parted ways, and I went on to successfully open five more concepts.
Monster: How do you balance the business part of what you do with the creative part? How do you know which compromises are acceptable and which are not?
BL: As a chef/owner, that’s definitely the challenge. When I opened No.9 Park, I really focused on the food and stayed in the kitchen. I let other people handle the finances and operations while I concentrated on what I did best – what I enjoyed – and I stayed in my comfort zone. Without a doubt, I’m happiest cooking or thinking up new concepts. A few years into owning restaurants, I realized that while delegation is key, I had to take a more active role in all aspects of the business – I couldn’t effectively hire and delegate until I truly understood the business. This required pushing myself and trusting myself (that I could do more than cook). I’ve come full circle now, and the years spent taking a more active role in HR, finances and operations have allowed me to be a more powerful and effective leader and to hire a team that is incredibly strong and that performs in their areas of expertise far better than I could. This then allows me to do what I do best, which is to mentor members of my team, brainstorm new ideas and concepts, and truly be the visionary of the company.
Monster: How did you feel after you opened your first restaurant? And each one after that?
BL: When I began professionally cooking, I set a goal for myself to open my first restaurant by the age of 32. Although I was off by a year, I was incredibly proud that I reached that goal when I opened No.9 Park, and I remember also feeling a mixture of pure happiness and nerves. There was enormous pressure to succeed, and it was the first time that I was not just the chef but also the owner. The first few years were challenging because I had two partners, and we realized we had very different ideas about how to operate a restaurant. I ended up buying one out after we opened two more restaurants. After running the company by myself for 2.5 years, I hired a COO who believed in my vision and was instrumental in bringing to fruition a multimillion-dollar project that involved the opening of three concepts in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood. While this was my largest project to date, with a clear vision and leadership, these three openings went incredibly smoothly.
Monster: What was winning the James Beard Award like?
BL: Winning the James Beard Award was an incredible honor and an unforgettable moment. It was amazing to be recognized in this way by the industry, and it made me so proud of No.9 Park and the team. It also made me want to strive even harder and set another goal for myself and the team, which was to create Boston’s first Relais & Châteaux property. We opened Menton in 2010 and were inducted in 2012, and I was named a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef -- I am currently the only female Grand Chef in the United States.
Monster: Can you share a couple pieces of advice – first, what's some great advice you received early on in your career; second, what's some advice you wish you'd gotten but didn't?
BL: The best advice I ever received was around the time I was opening No.9 Park, and I was told: Don’t ever feel like you can’t do this alone or worry about who will leave you.
Advice that I wish I had gotten would have to be the recommendation to become a bit more business savvy when it comes to lease negotiations... I’ve learned a lot along the way! When people come to me looking for advice on opening a restaurant, I always tell them to believe in themselves and stick to their vision.