GLOUCESTER — Chef Barbara Lynch is telling me about her shaman.
“You give him what you want to work on, what’s troubling you. He’ll tell you what’s going to happen and give you mushrooms. They’re mixed with chocolate and hot water,” she explains. Even her mind-expanding hallucinogens come with a recipe.
I am already leaving something out of this story. The F-bombs. Lynch is constitutionally incapable of speaking without them. She even went to speech therapy to try to stop. When she told friends about it, they laughed and took out their money, put it on the table. What’s this, she asked. The money we’re betting it doesn’t work, they said. For accuracy, imagine an expletive every few words.
“Then you lie down and go on a journey,” she continues. “He’ll monitor you the whole time in case you go way too far. It takes you through the history you don’t know. My grandparents, my father, I didn’t know them. My mother, she raised us, I didn’t know what her favorite color was. Me, I was in Winchester, I’m married, I have a child — then I’m gay and I’m like what the [heck]!” She laughs. She is very funny, and very frank. She regularly risks going way too far. She is very much on a journey.
One of Boston’s best-known chefs, Lynch is on the cusp of opening a new restaurant, her first in a dozen years. The last one was Menton, the crown jewel among her concepts, which are located throughout the city: B&G Oysters, the Butcher Shop, Drink, No. 9 Park, Sportello, Stir. Menton earned local and national acclaim for its approach to haute cuisine (along with concern from some investors); it was designated a Relais & Chateaux and a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant.
This place will be different.
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It’s called The Rudder.
Nestled among the galleries in the historic artists’ community of Rocky Neck, right on the water, the building is a Gloucester dining landmark. Since opening in 1957, The Rudder has always been operated by women — first by founder Evie Parsons (”she’s iconic,” Lynch says), then by daughters Paula and Susan after she passed. Next came the Attaya sisters, Jeannie and Ginger, who purchased and renovated the former canning factory. Now it is Lynch’s.
“Every 28 years in our lives, we see a major change,” the chef opines. She is 58. She moved to the village of Annisquam in Gloucester in 2016, the year before she released “Out of Line: A Life of Playing With Fire,” a memoir about her path from a South Boston housing project to celebrity chefdom, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Lynch lights a cigarette and drinks from a tumbler of rose on ice. She wears a black caftan, her hair up in a glam nest. We are sitting in the dining room she has painted deep aqua, a shade somewhere between Aegean and public swimming pool. She is an artist, and her paintings decorate the restaurant, as well as the apartment above, which she has commandeered. There is a gold mermaid statue leaning against one wall, bosoms pointing skyward, head flung back in freedom. Beyond the white patio is a stunning view of the boat-festooned harbor.
It’s summer, still, at the time. The Rudder will open in two weeks, says Michael Dudas, Lynch’s director of operations: It always seems like it’s going to be two weeks. He laughs. (Spoiler alert: It will not be two weeks.)
The restaurant is almost ready. They’ve passed all the licensing. The health inspector needs to come through. They’re waiting on some kitchen equipment. “I’d prefer to be open in September, October, November,” Lynch muses offhandedly. “I like bird-watchers.” Dudas keeps breathing.
A couple walks through the door, tentatively. They want to know if The Rudder is open yet. They introduce themselves, and Lynch writes their names down to remember for later.
“People come in asking what’s up every day, all day, even when the doors are locked,” Dudas says.
“I’m sorry I’m pissing people off. I’m not ready to open,” Lynch says. “If they don’t come back, it wasn’t meant to be. It’s like giving birth. You can’t push it. We’re almost there, though.”
Lynch opened No. 9 Park in 1998, expanding to the South End five years later and Fort Point five years after that. This is not her first rodeo. Her plan for this new restaurant is both sweeping and granular, a collage of ideas grandiose and close to the ground. It is the kind of inchoate vision that makes perfect sense to the visionary. Everyone else nods, trusts, and comes along for the ride.
“Not only is her food authentic, but as a human being, she’s such a special person who loves with such intensity — what she does and the people she’s around — and she just pulls everybody in,” says her agent, Erica Silverman. “I feel what she wants to do in this area is really important.”
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The Rudder won’t be a fish house. It is harder to nail down than that: seasonal, personal, defined by the marine landscape and the life that takes place on and around it. The artists. The scallopers, lobstermen, fishermen’s wives. The boats. The Rudder has a dock for diners arriving by water (former L’Espalier chef Frank McClelland, now running FRANK in Beverly, pulled in one day to see what was going on), and for every conversation Lynch has about the restaurant, she seems to have two about boats and who can park them where, with the constant stream of visitors arriving and departing — Silverman and filmmaker husband Ethan, in from New York; Chip Coen of wine and spirits distributor M.S. Walker, with whom Lynch has worked for decades; people with nicknames that could belong to “Sopranos” characters; people who look like yacht club members. Gloucester contains many worlds, and Lynch is at their nexus, by nature and design. “What I’m trying to do is build a community,” she says.
That starts with keeping local seafood local, and using resources more efficiently. Gloucester claims the title of America’s oldest fishing port, Lynch says, yet it exports much of its catch while the country continues to import most of the seafood we eat. She has visions of a year-round operation for canning, curing, and smoking fish, of buying oysters by the ton and storing them in crates in the water rather than having them delivered each day. She wants, perhaps above all, to educate the next generation, to share what she’s learned over the course of 30 years. She envisions after-school programs and holistic training: “agriculture, netting, fishing, foraging, business entrepreneurship, how to build a barge, how to build a business on the barge.” To help accomplish all this, she hopes to get the Barbara Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit she originally launched in 2012 to help create healthy futures for Boston youth, up and running again in Gloucester.
She wants to do a podcast. Host salon nights. Offer online retail and cooking classes, hopefully with friend and fellow trailblazing chef Lydia Shire.
But first things first: the food. She’s nervous about opening, but not when it comes to that. “I can [freaking] cook,” she says. She’s looking forward to doing so at The Rudder. To kick things off, she plans to pay tribute to her Boston restaurants with a menu of classic dishes — beef tartare from the Butcher Shop, fried clams from B&G Oysters, gnocchi from No. 9 Park, butter soup from Menton. There will be a special here and there, some vegetables from her own garden, rustic French and Italian flavors.
“Just a cheerful place. Luxury is not going to go away, but in my dream world I want it to be community-driven and accessible and delicious,” she says. “I want you to be nurtured.”
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The Rudder marks a major shift for Lynch, a chef who has spent her career opening luxury-driven city restaurants, winning every major award (with some public turbulence along the way: struggles with alcohol abuse, management turnover). It’s not less ambitious. It’s differently ambitious. “I’ve been in the city 25 years. I think I have a lot more to offer if I’m here,” she says.
It’s not just that. Her Boston restaurants aren’t going anywhere; she’s in the middle of renegotiating leases and predicts at least another 10 years for them. But her heart isn’t in the city the same way it once was. “I can’t just run those restaurants. I don’t want to do it. I love them, but I don’t. I have more to do.”
To Lynch, The Rudder feels meant to be, bringing her back to where she began. She loves the water. (“I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I knew I would never get there.”) Her first serious cooking job was on a boat, as executive chef for a dinner cruise ship called the Aegean Princess (a gig she talked her way into without any real experience). Plus, her nickname growing up in Southie was Knuckles Lynch, and the piano player back in the day at The Rudder was called Knuckles O’Toole. It seemed like a sign. So did the little bluebird figurine she found sitting on the bar, a welcoming spirit, when the realtor first showed her the space.
“Now, in my life, I’m back to the real,” she says. “I love [freaking] change more than anything, and I can’t change without going through some sort of processes in life. My changes are healthy, although people think I’m crazy. I’ll just live the crazy life. I love my company and my family and Boston and my community. I love the history we’ll be making.”
The Rudder’s opening is imminent. Last Saturday, Lynch did a soft opening for friends and family. Her lifelong best friends from Southie were the servers. In the kitchen, it was just her and longtime employee Monica Marulanda, who makes the pasta at No. 9 Park. “What could go wrong, it went wrong,” she says. But it felt like home.
The Rudder could be Lynch’s final project. Some people retire; others open restaurants. She has too much frenetic energy to stay still — enough to take on the politics and drama of setting up shop in a new community, enough to make connections wherever she goes. One minute she’s introducing herself to an inquisitive stranger in front of the restaurant, shaking hands and talking astrology; the next she’s putting on old-school flowered roller skates that have just somehow appeared. She owns a five-seat bicycle. She drives a white 1970 Fiat named Fifi. She is very much on a journey. She is ready for the next leg.
“We’re going to make change. I love a snow globe. When you shake it, [stuff] happens,” she says.
Then she pauses.
“The snowflakes don’t always land where they should. I guess this is my last snow globe. But we’ll see.”