Lydia Shire has been a powerhouse in Boston dining for decades, a force at landmarks like Biba, Excelsior, Locke-Ober, Maison Robert, and Pignoli. Now you’ll find her at Italian restaurant Scampo at the Liberty Hotel, where she’s the chef-owner. The Coolidge Corner native doesn’t hold back behind the stove — or in conversation.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I would probably say it was Locke-Ober, when I was about 8 years old, and shortly thereafter, it would have been Marliave. I always had their braciolettine — veal that they’d roll with a little mozzarella, a sage leaf, maybe two or three of them, grilled on a skewer. Very delicious. It’s classic, beautiful Italian food.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? Sometimes what leaves me disappointed is when a new chef comes on the scene, opens his or her restaurant, but you find some pretty glaring examples of not understanding the basics. In my case, I grew up revering French food. Way back then, French food was where it’s at. How to make a soufflé, an éclair — how does that thing puff up? There are certain basics, if you know and understand that formula of cooking, it leads to other things with your own creative talents. I’m not saying everyone should be schooled in French basics, but I think it’s pretty important at times. When I see a lot of young cooks, they’re just getting by with little background knowledge, and that gives me a little pause.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived? My parents were fashion illustrators in downtown Boston. They had nine-to-five jobs, and they had these lunch places they’d go to, like Thompson’s. These were places, like luncheonettes, that had roast beef and pastrami sandwiches. You can’t look down on those places. They don’t exist anymore, and they were serving very good food. The vegetables were cooked and beautiful. We didn’t have McDonald’s then, though there’s a time and a place for that. We had these cafeterias.
What other restaurants do you visit? I love Ken’s Steak House in Framingham. I lived in Weston for years. I’d go to Ken’s on Route 9. It has one of the best salads. Their iceberg lettuce salad, with their dressing, it’s a little soggy. It sounds horrific to you, but it’s absolutely delicious. I order the same thing: Ken’s salad and a prime full-cut sirloin with extra butter and Worcestershire. It’s very comfortable. We sit at the bar and watch sports.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants”? My father was the cook in our family. He would make flank steak. He would get his cast-iron pancake griddle, pat the flank steak dry, and salt and pepper it. The sheer fact that he did it was mind-blowing. My father understood that in order to cook a piece of meat, you have to dry it off, or else you’ll be steaming it. He would dry it off, then lay on the flavor. He would put newspapers on the floor. He knew he would be splattering when you put the oil on the hot griddle, so then my mother wouldn’t get cranky with him! He understood it and knew about letting it rest before carving it. It’s a basic thing, but I’m sure there are a ton of home cooks who don’t understand letting something rest. We’d have spaghetti aglio e olio with it, with fresh garlic. This was way before that crap they sell in jars, which is the most nasty stuff in the world. I only use American garlic. The smell of it cooking in oil is what cemented me to being a chef. I can’t have enough of it in my life.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I was in London, and I ordered sausage with innards, andouillette. I was staying at the Capital Hotel on Basil Street. I went out with three friends, and I barely made it into the bathroom. I power-vomited. I cannot eat that stuff to this day.
How could Boston become a better food city? I’m getting tired of the steakhouse restaurants popping up everywhere. No one knows how to make creamed spinach! I take great pride in making creamed spinach. I have tasted the worst creamed spinach coming from a multitude of steak restaurants.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Intelligent. Adventurous. Savvy. Oh, and generous, if they know you’re giving them value.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Dry, boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I mean, give me a break.
What are you reading? “The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America.” I’m Irish, so I wanted to know more about my heritage. My favorite book of all time is about the meatpacking industry at the turn of the century, by Upton Sinclair [“The Jungle”]. I couldn’t put it down.
How’s your commute? I’m on Marlborough Street, a hop, skip, and a jump to Scampo. But I’m a princess, so I do drive.
What’s the one food you never want to cook again? I made my own lard to fry lobster, just once, because I thought it would be interesting. But I liked that. What didn’t I like? I’m not a very big bean fancier. I don’t like beans, baked beans. I could do without beans in my life.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I think the greatest cuisine in the world is Chinese. Who gave us Peking duck? Who gave us pasta? The Chinese brought pasta to the New World. I think there should be room for even greater Chinese restaurants. My husband is Colombian, and I don’t think there are good enough Spanish restaurants, where they can really show what they can do. Spanish food is beautiful, but they’re relegated to little mom-and-pop places. I don’t think they have had their full due.
‘Sometimes what leaves me disappointed is when a new chef comes on the scene, opens his or her restaurant, but you find some pretty glaring examples of not understanding the basics.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? I remember when the Capital Grille closed for lunch. That made me so sad. Now they open at Christmastime, I guess. Their steak tartare, I miss that a lot. I don’t have that type of place to go to. I miss the original Locke-Ober, but I love the new reincarnation, Yvonne’s. Locke-Ober just had a certain level of cooking, and I miss it.
Who was your most memorable customer? [Gourmet Caterers president] Bob Wiggins. He’s very honest. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you. He’s my good friend. I have this cool apartment. I said, ‘Bob, I figured out something we can do at my new house. We should do a truffle dinner. I’m going to make a beautiful menu, for up to 16 people!’ It will be an expensive moment in time. He loves his friends. He wants to give back to people. He said, ‘Let’s find the date.’ To me, that’s a customer that you want, a friend, that you love. They’re in it for the fun of it, to enjoy. And what’s better than that? I’m hosting [the dinner] in November. It will be so over the top, with all my flourishes. Can you imagine the beauty of knowing someone so receptive to doing something crazy? He’s a true gourmand.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I would go to Tony Maws — Craigie on Main — and have some sort of a pig something. Absolutely. I think Tony Maws is an amazing chef. I love to be around him. I love to think about his brain and how it works. And I love pig! I’m thinking of doing pig’s feet at Scampo for the winter.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.