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The gambler in the kitchen

Are local foodies ready to fork over at least $150 apiece for dinner in this economy? With her newest restaurant, Barbara Lynch, who has built a career out of defying the odds, is betting big the answer is yes.

A cut above Lynch possesses an ability to attract talent to her kitchens, in part because she offers opportunities for advancement. A cut above Lynch possesses an ability to attract talent to her kitchens, in part because she offers opportunities for advancement. (Photograph by Tanit Sakakini)
By Bella English
December 13, 2009
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Barbara Lynch has donned thick black boxing gloves that are twice the size of the steaks she serves at The Butcher Shop, her South End restaurant. Lowering her head, she punches the hell out of a bag at Peter Welch’s gym in South Boston, not far from the housing projects where both grew up. She’s there four days a week and trail-runs the other days with some of her staffers.

“Left-right-left! Over, under! One-one-two-one! C’mon, go!” Welch, a former Golden Gloves champion, barks the commands. Lynch, 45, who has lost 20 pounds in the past year and wears a calorie counter on her wrist, dances back and forth, attacking the bag with a fury. Dressed in her signature black, she is more dogged than graceful, Mike Tyson instead of Sugar Ray Leonard. By the end of an hour, she’s killed 515 calories.

“I’m training her as if she’s training for a fight,” says Welch, who used to chase Lynch around the skating rink when they were kids. “She’s got the mental toughness of a fighter. I’ve got to kick her out of here; she wants to work too hard.”

After the workout, a drenched Lynch looks longingly at the boxing ring in the gym’s center. She hasn’t yet sparred with anyone, but she’s dying to try. “Ready to get my ass kicked a few times” is the way she puts it.

That tenacity has served Lynch well in the 20 years since she hit the Boston food scene as a green chef with a great back story and an even better palate and began her rise to national acclaim. And that fearlessness is reflected in her latest, momentous venture. Once again, she’s preparing to open another restaurant. And true to her personality, she’s going against the grain. But this time, she’s defying convention like never before. Lynch is launching an ultra-lavish restaurant in a weak economy that has shuttered other upscale establishments; in the middle of winter, normally an off-time in the industry; and in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood, an area of South Boston that has yet to truly take off commercially.

Menton -- named for a French town on the Italian border, and, s’il vous plait, pronounce it like the French (roughly, mawn-tohn) -- is scheduled to open in late January. Planned long before the downturn, this third, and final, jewel in Lynch’s Congress Street crown is behind schedule. Its long-awaited opening has created buzz among anxious investors with an eye on the bottom line, loyal customers who would eagerly dig in to her sole with tomato gelee, hazelnut tempura, and confit piballes, and fellow chefs who wonder if she can pull it off.

“She is betting the house on this,” says Garrett Harker, a former partner with Lynch (he’s the “G” in B&G Oysters in the South End, one of her eight other businesses). “I think if anyone has the sheer will to manifest something successful down there in a marginal neighborhood at extreme price points in this economic climate, it’s Barbara.”

Lynch is known for taking gambles, starting in high school when she was a runner for bookies in Southie. But Menton is her biggest one yet. Will it collapse like a fallen cake, or will it find just the right mix of ingredients, like her signature prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras?

Despite years of seasoning in both the housing projects and restaurant world, Lynch herself admits to jitters. “I’m nervous every time I open a restaurant. I get ulcers,” she says. “I’m always down for the count.”

* * *

Menton is meant to be Lynch’s piece de resistance, the culmination of her life in the food business, beginning at age 14 when she cooked -- and burned -- sausages and onions for the priests at St. Monica’s in Southie. For those who think an evening at No. 9 Park in Beacon Hill is the Big Night, reserved for anniversaries, engagements, or birthdays, Lynch is setting the bar even higher. “The concept is very refined, very glamorous,” she says. “You’re going to want to dress up. It’s going to be very luxurious, very elegant.”

And very expensive. Dinner, with wine, will cost at least $150 per person. The restaurant will seat 70, not including a private dining room. It will share a 3,500-square-foot state-of-the-art kitchen with Drink and Sportello, Lynch’s cocktail bar and her Italian “diner” next door, and with her catering business,

9 at Home. Menton’s own finishing kitchen will boast the best culinary equipment, including a custom-made Molteni oven suite from France. The china is coming from Germany, glassware from Austria, linens and silverware from France. Lynch plans to be on hand nightly, helping Colin Lynch (no relation), her restaurant group’s executive chef, finish and plate the tasting menu of four or seven courses. (There will be no a la carte menu.) In preparation for Menton, she sent the 27-year-old wunderkind to Paris, where he worked for six weeks at the world-renowned restaurants Taillevent and L’Arpege.

The dining room will have wooden floors, high ceilings, and a silver-and-gray palette with white Murano chandeliers. “It won’t be pretentious, it won’t be precious. She’s not, we’re not,” says interior designer Cheryl Katz, who, along with her husband, Jeffrey Katz, also designed No. 9 Park, Sportello, Drink, and Stir, Lynch’s cookbook library and demo kitchen where she teaches classes. (The couple redid Lynch’s Winchester home, too.)

Five years ago, when Lynch first had her grand vision for Congress Street in Fort Point, the economy was sturdy and restaurants everywhere were thriving. But she has watched more recently as other ritzy places have folded, including the venerable Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons in the Back Bay. Chris Douglass closed Icarus in the South End after 31 years and instead runs two casual Dorchester restaurants. Excelsior, in the Back Bay, and Great Bay, in Kenmore Square, also went under. A year ago, Lynch’s own catering business stumbled temporarily when private holiday events were canceled.

Still, Lynch believes in her concept. “When does upscale go away? Fine dining has been around for hundreds of years,” she insists. But she admits that “every one of my friends in the restaurant business says I’m crazy.”

Michael Krupp, who opened -- and closed -- Persephone one street over from Lynch’s Fort Point places, says the economy and the neighborhood did him in. Lynch, of course, faces both, though there is more foot traffic on Congress Street. “I think she will be able to succeed, given the success of Sportello and Drink, but it’s a tough time in this economy and particularly tough in that neighborhood,” says Krupp. “I don’t think she’s going to do [the business] she thought she was going to do, but no one is. It’s just a different world.” If she succeeds, he predicts, more restaurants and stores will pour into Fort Point, making it a hot area.

Lynch’s celebrity sets her apart from the crowd and provides stardust for her new place. “Barbara is going to attract people because of who she is,” says Daniel Newcomb, a principal in the Atlantic Restaurant Group, a real estate firm that specializes in selling restaurants. “She’s created a good brand for herself. The key is: Can she deliver? And I think she’s shown she can.”

But doesn’t Menton, where a couple will fork over more than $300 for a meal, feel high-risk, even to Lynch? “No, it’s part of the excitement,” she says. “I don’t get tired. I get bored.” People said she was crazy to open No. 9 Park in a garish building at a location that didn’t seem to be ideal for a restaurant. “They said we’d never succeed, and we’ve had a good run, 11 years later.”

* * *

No one, least of all Lynch, would have predicted her success in the fickle food field. The youngest of six, she was born a month after her father, who drove a cab, died of a heart attack at age 32. Her mother worked two and three jobs at a time to keep the family off welfare. Much of Lynch’s identity comes from growing up poor in South Boston in the 1960s and ’70s: very Irish, very loyal, very street-smart.

During the era of forced busing, when Southie was a hotbed of violent protest, Lynch was sent to Madison Park High School in Roxbury. At noontime each day, she’d leave school and walk to Cardinal Cushing High back in her neighborhood to see friends or to Northeastern to shoot pool. The only reason she stayed in school at all was “Miss Logozzo,” her home economics teacher, who encouraged her to cook after noticing her talents. But with lousy grades, she needed to attend summer school to graduate, and no way was she going to do that. (Years later, she got her GED.)

At 17, Lynch seemed headed for a life circumscribed by the boundaries of the gritty Mary Ellen McCormack housing project. Few people she knew left. As she writes in the introduction to her new cookbook, Stir, “The older boys I knew grew up to be policemen, politicians and criminals (often a mix of the three), but they stayed right there in Southie. And the girls I knew married them.”

Throughout her teenage years, she worked a series of menial jobs, from flipping burgers to making beds at the tony St. Botolph Club, where her mother was a waitress. It was there that she glimpsed the majesty of fancy dishes leaving the kitchen. “It was like every night was a party and the chef was making everybody happy,” she says. “I thought if I knew how to cook, I could always work. I was petrified of being on welfare.”

In her early 20s, Lynch got herself hired as assistant chef on a dinner cruise around Martha’s Vineyard by telling the boss that she could make Dover sole and quahog chowder, both lies. The day before she started, the chef quit. Lynch was it. Terrified, she stayed up at night, reading cookbooks. (To this day, she has a serious cookbook habit; her library includes hundreds.) Her best friend, Kerri Foley, came on board to waitress. “You are the [expletive] chef on a boat!” a disbelieving Foley told Lynch.

Foley, who also grew up in the projects, remembers riding bikes with Lynch down to the “big milk bottle” takeout joint near the Boston Children’s Museum. “We’d get a sandwich, and Barbara would say, ‘I want a restaurant that floats on the water here.’ I would just roll my eyes,” says Foley, who with her husband, Marc Orfaly, now owns local restaurants Pigalle and Marco.

Thirty years later, Lynch would own not just one but three restaurants down the street from that milk bottle. In the interim, she would work for Todd English at Michaela’s, Olives, and Figs before becoming executive chef at Galleria Italiana and finally, in 1998, opening No. 9 Park. And she had never taken a cooking class.

Arnold Hiatt, former chairman of Stride Rite, was one of her first investors. Amid debris from the long-abandoned shoe business at 9 Park Street, Lynch pointed out where the kitchen and bar would be. Hiatt shrewdly asked her to come cook dinner for his friends. “It was awfully good,” he recalls. “We raised a good deal of the money that night.”

In a little over two years, all the investors were paid back. Hiatt, who is retired but runs the Stride Rite Foundation, remains a key investor in all of Lynch’s properties, which include No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, Sportello, and Drink. There’s also Plum, a small and struggling produce market (currently being reworked) near The Butcher Shop and Stir. And there’s 9 at Home. All of this has catapulted Lynch into the stratosphere of Boston chefs who have helped transform the city’s food scene from hinterlands to high-end in the past two decades.

Lynch is a study in contradictions: Both low-key and driven, earthy and sophisticated, she has a forward-looking entrepreneurial mind-set, but she always remembers where she came from. (She lived in the projects with her mother until she married 11 years ago.) One constant in her career, however, is her uncanny ability to entice talent and big money. She attracts employees by giving them, through her ventures, opportunities to advance. She attracts investors with her edgy vision -- and her record.

In 2002, Lynch approached Hiatt about opening a couple of neighborhood places on Tremont Street in the South End. “I told her I’d be happy to invest in B&G, but I thought her imagination had gone too far in The Butcher Shop,” he says. “She listened respectfully but opened anyway.” Both restaurants went on to gain stellar reviews and loyal customers.

In 2004, Lynch was in the kitchen at No. 9 when a customer sent back word that he wanted to meet her. It was Young Park, president of Berkeley Investments, which was developing condos in a couple of turn-of-the century warehouses on Congress Street in Fort Point. Would Lynch consider opening there? Park told her she could have 1,000 or 5,000 square feet or, for that matter, however much space she wanted.

“I said, ‘How much is there?’ He said [about] ‘Fifteen thousand.’ I said, ‘I’ll take the whole thing, and I’ll put three restaurants there.’ He looked at me like I was crazy,” she recalls. In the autumn of 2008, just as the economy began to plummet, Lynch opened Drink, a bar serving classic cocktails, and, upstairs, Sportello, a stylish counter that serves re-imagined Italian food. Menton was to open last spring, then pushed back with a target of late fall/early winter. The three projects together total $7.5 million and have doubled the assets of her business, Barbara Lynch Gruppo, to a projected

$18 million in 2010. Though Lynch won’t give details about her restaurants’ finances, she says that they’re all doing OK except for Plum, her urban produce market, which she has closed for renovations; she hopes to reopen next year. Stir, the cookbook library/demo kitchen, doesn’t make much money, but she loves it for its educational value.

Park, who touts Lynch’s presence in the brochures for his condos, loves their partnership. But he has sold fewer than half of the 92 condos over her restaurants, which were more complicated and costly than he anticipated. Workers had to excavate 10 feet underground to lay the plumbing and the three grease traps that Lynch required. “She wanted everything to be first class, and it all cost a lot of money and delayed the project significantly.” Still, Park says he’s excited to be part of what he calls Lynch’s “very bold gesture.”

But he admits to a case of nerves. “I’m very supportive, but I do question the price points in this economy at this location and in this season,” he says. He, too, echoes what others are saying: that if anyone can pull it off, Barbara Lynch can. “She has confounded critics from the very beginning,” says Park. “Pats fans say, ‘In Bill we trust.’ We say, ‘In Barbara we trust.’ ”

Hiatt says he warned Lynch that she was getting too caught up by Berkeley Investments’ dream of filling those luxury condos with built-in customers. He reminded her that if any posh restaurant could make it, it would be Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons. “But I’m a Barbara believer, and I said yes,” says Hiatt. He still isn’t sure that people want a formal prix fixe dinner. “But you know, I presented an equally compelling argument about The Butcher Shop, and she turned out to be right.”

If diners don’t come out for a grand evening, he believes Lynch will have the resilience to adapt, much like one of his favorite New York restaurants, Per Se, one of the city’s most expensive. “I had stopped going because of the 12 courses,” says Hiatt. (It’s actually nine.) “But in their lounge, you can order one, two, or three courses. It’s fabulous.” He told Lynch she should include a more casual menu, too.

Her reaction? “She’s going to do what she wants to do,” says Hiatt. He adds: “To her credit, she reopened the bar menu at No. 9.” Hiatt believes that despite the recession, there are still plenty of people with money to spend. “But I’m not sure they want to spend it except on a birthday or anniversary. And whether people come to Congress Street is a little optimistic. Barbara should not necessarily count on it.”

* * *

Lynch has been a risk taker since she was a girl drinking beer in the housing project tunnels and running from the cops after a joy ride. Her tongue is as salty as her black olive ravioli; she’ll toss an

f-bomb in a heartbeat. She’s not worried about those other restaurants that closed. That was them. She has always followed her instincts.

A dozen years ago, she also had a gut reaction to Charles Petri. She was introduced to him at Galleria Italiana and told her mother that night that she had met the man she wanted to marry. Six months later, the day after she signed a lease for No. 9 Park, the couple wed. A widower with three grown children, Petri is 25 years her senior. He and Lynch have a 5-year-old daughter, Marchesa, named for Lynch’s favorite chef, Gualtiero Marchesi, the first Italian to receive three Michelin stars. (Her cookbook is dedicated to Marchesa, “the best carrot-peeler/sous-chef ever.”)

Petri, who owns a frozen-food distribution business in Somerville, shakes his head when describing Lynch. “One of her gifts is cooking, and the other is to have amazing people come and jump on board. We have 150 employees, and they just walk on water.” Still, he says he’s somewhat nervous about Menton. “How many people from Wellesley and Weston are going out with any regularity? I don’t know. It’s certainly better than last year, but dining is discretionary.” He adds: “I’m comfortable it will make it if the economy continues like it is.”

Heck, he says, both Sportello and Drink started off “at the pointy end of a spear,” in shaky shape. “There are not a lot of walkers-by on Congress Street like in the South End,” says Petri. “People couldn’t see [the business]. We put a sandwich board up. Drink has flowered, and Sportello is doing well now.”

Lynch hasn’t always been lucky. Her biggest disappointment came in 2000, when she and Petri were in the process of buying the old European Restaurant in the North End. The permitting was in place, the demolition complete. But when construction costs got too expensive for them, the couple were forced to back out and lost $200,000. “It took us a long time to pay that puppy down,” says Petri. “There’s no way you hit a home run every time.”

Several years ago, it became apparent to Lynch that she needed help on the business side, even though she always showed good instincts. “I can start up a business, but how to keep it running is a challenge,” she says. (Asked if Gruppo is currently in the red or black, a puzzled Lynch responds: “Red is good, right?”)

She hired Jefferson Macklin, a West Point graduate who served in the first Gulf War and has an MBA from the University of Virginia, to be her chief operating officer. “Barbara is known as a girl who grew up in Southie by her bootstraps,” he says. “But her business instincts continue to amaze me. I think there’s something to be said about street savviness.”

Still, no one knows what will happen when those doors open. “We joke that we’re not scared,” Macklin says, “but any time you enter into a project of this magnitude, you’re concerned about investors, employees, and guests.”

One of the first guests is likely to be Andy Thomas, one of Lynch’s most loyal customers. In October, he and his now husband held their rehearsal dinner at The Butcher Shop and their wedding reception at No. 9 Park, and they dine at her restaurants weekly. “There was no place else we would celebrate such an event except with Barbara and the family,” as Thomas calls her staff. What odds does he give Menton? “Let’s put it this way,” says Thomas, former president and CEO of Heineken USA. “If there’s anyone who can bring that experience to Boston, it’s Barbara.”

Her childhood friend, Kerri Foley, agrees. “She’s very lucky; she always lands on her feet. We’ve always said that Barbara has nine lives.”

In fact, Menton will be Lynch’s ninth venture. She is banking, literally, on the fact that Fort Point will become “a little Beacon Hill or a little South End,” as she puts it. “I hope I can look back in 20 years and say, ‘Oh, my god, it’s everything I thought it would be.’ ”

“Or,” she adds, “I could be wrong.”

Bella English is a Globe staff writer. E-mail her at english@globe.com.

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