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Barbara Lynch, from the Southie projects to super-star chef

Barbara Lynch in the dining room of one of her restaurants, Menton, in Boston.John Blanding/Globe staff

Adapted from “OUT OF LINE: A Life of Playing With Fire” by Barbara Lynch. Copyright © 2017 by Barbara Lynch. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

When I’d been working at Harvest in Cambridge for a few months, I started getting phone calls asking when I was coming to Michela’s to meet the chef, Todd English. I’d never heard of Todd but thought I should check it out.

In the late 1980s, the East Cambridge waterfront was undergoing a huge revitalization, so streets were barricaded and torn up. I didn’t know my way around Cambridge that well to begin with, so on the day of the appointment, I got hopelessly lost. When I finally arrived, two hours late, they stuck me in the atrium area to wait for Todd. A young, tall, handsome guy in whites came by, and I started [complaining] about how tough it was to find the place. “Who the [expletive] in their right mind would put a restaurant here?”

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“Aren’t you a sassy one?” the big guy said. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

It was Todd. I had no idea that he was just a little older than me. But he liked my attitude enough to give me the job.

Todd was fierce in the kitchen — a screamer — and so manic that he scared me. Since I had almost no professional experience — just a cruise ship and a few months at Harvest — I hadn’t yet developed much discipline. “Get organized, Lynchie,” he’d say. “Get your [expletive] together, or I’m going to [expletive] roast you in this [expletive] oven!”

Under Todd’s supervision, I was allowed to riff, trying flavor combinations that excited me. I had a tiny workspace, with a proper Hobart commercial oven behind me. This was serious cooking now, the miracle of creation, and I was super energized, percolating with ideas. Early on, I got interested in clay-dish baking and developed entrees to make in that Hobart oven, like pasta shells with mascarpone and Gorgonzola cheese, and lamb marinated overnight in yogurt and juniper berries, then roasted, served with very crispy golden potatoes, fresh rosemary, and a red-wine reduction sauce. Both were [expletive] delicious — and big hits.

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Before the exhilaration, though, there was terror. It was shocking that I was in charge of anything at a prestigious Cambridge restaurant. I never went to cooking school, I brazened my way through the cruise ship gig, and my apprenticeship consisted only of peeking over chef Mario Bonello’s shoulder when I was a waitress at the St. Botolph Club, then spending a few months at Harvest before working the line under Todd. Todd wasn’t technique-driven, luckily, so my poor skills weren’t a problem. He’d never peel a tomato or beautifully brunoise (mince) vegetables, but just shove things into the Robot Coupe. He was a big man, with huge hands and a huge personality, who made food with huge flavors. Somehow he recognized me, female and a foot shorter, as a kindred spirit.

The Olives era

Todd English had put Michela’s on the map. So it was a big upheaval when he and his wife, Olivia, a fellow CIA graduate who ran the dining room, left to start their own restaurant.

Olives, Todd’s first restaurant, was a tiny 50-seater in Charlestown near his home. Today, because of its beautiful redbrick townhouses, Charlestown is super gentrified, but back then, it was mostly Irish and mob-infested, known as the home of gangs that rivaled Whitey Bulger’s. Todd’s first investor, Jack Sidell, was leery about the location. He told Boston magazine, “The only thing in Charlestown are bank robbers.”

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But Olivia, especially, believed in the neighborhood — and in Todd’s magic — and that faith paid off. Right away, there were hour-long lines out front.

Olivia and Todd English in Olive’s in Charlestown in 1989.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/file

I remained fascinated by Todd, convinced that he had a lot to teach me. I was remembering his boldness and creativity, I guess, and forgetting the pain. So, one afternoon, I rode the T out to Charlestown, on the chance that I might run into him.

I could hear the music blasting as I approached the restaurant: Black Box, “Strike It Up.” Looking through the window, I could see Todd on the line rocking out and prepping.

When he caught sight of me, he unlocked the door. “Lynchie!” he said. “What’s up?”

Quite a lot, I told him. I described a trip I had taken to Tuscany: train station tortellini, turkey with fennel pollen, a porchetta truck, gnocchi and Bolognese, tomato sauce simmering over a wood fire. He smiled. “Wow,” he said, “you got the bite.”

I had. Italy had bitten him hard too. That’s why I wanted to work for him, I explained, and why I was ready to leave Michela’s.

Todd wasn’t ultra-sure of my cooking skills, though he’d put me in charge of Michela’s cafe. “But I’ll work my ass off,” I told him. “You know that.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll give you a shot.”

The pay was [expletive] — $6 an hour, as I recall — and the commute would suck, two trains plus a long walk. “Just say your prayers that you made the right decision,” my mother said. She thought I was crazy to give up what looked like security at Michela’s. But even more, she was scared that I might be getting ahead in a world that she didn’t understand. “My kids are all the same,” she kept telling me. “Don’t think you’re special. You’re not better.”

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‘Blood sisters forever’

Cat Silirie, who’d been the sommelier at Grill 23, was one of few women in the wine business back then, and very young. At 19 or 20, she’d come to Boston from Boca Raton, Fla., looking for culture — opera, art, food, and wine. Like everyone else in the restaurant business, she’d checked out Olives and spotted me — the rare woman — on the line.

Cat Silirie, wine director at No. 9 Park.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file

Then Todd asked me to collaborate on a more-casual pizza and pasta restaurant — offering me my first major creative job as sous chef of Figs. Cat came in a lot, sometimes with her new boss, Patrick Bowe, from Rocco’s, a 180-seat restaurant, with a wacky fusion menu, that drew the theatergoing crowd.

We were on the same wavelength. We were both in our 20s (Cat was a few years younger); both self-taught, from unusual backgrounds; both trying to make it in male-ruled fields. We liked the same food. “Would you consider coming to Rocco’s?” she asked. “No, no,” I said. “I’m happy here. I’d never leave Figs.”

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Finally Patrick made me an irresistible offer: I’d be the executive chef, charged with reimagining Rocco’s. “I want you and Cat to take the lead, in terms of food and wine pairings, and make Rocco’s a destination restaurant.”

And so we did. Then, for some reason, Patrick started stressing about food and wine costs. “Your costs are too high,” he told me. “You’ve got to cut your food budget way back” — to a figure that is unheard of in the industry.

I was outraged. “You’ve got the wrong [expletive] chef,” I told him. “Go get some fast-food flunky.”

I stomped out, then told Cat.

So we quit on the spot, the two of us.

We left together and went to sit in Park Square. “Someday,” I said, “I swear to God that I’m going to own a restaurant. It will be all about education — surprising people with flavors that go together. The staff will get educated too — giving them pride and a chance to learn about food. And when I open my own place, it will be with you.”

I smashed a bottle and, with a sharp edge, we each cut a finger, then pressed the cuts together. We pledged: “Blood sisters forever.”

One night I had a dream. While we were at Rocco’s, Cat and I used to sneak around the corner for an espresso at Galleria Italiana, a breakfast-and-lunch place run by two Italian women, Rita D’Angelo and Marisa Iocco. It was like a hidden treasure, known mostly to the faculty and students of Emerson College. We often fantasized about setting up a dinner service there. In my dream, that fantasy came true. The next morning I called Cat, who was as up for a new challenge as I was. So I popped the question to Rita and Marisa, who went for it.

Barbara Lynch at Galleria Italiana in 1995.John Blanding/Globe staff/file

Our Galleria dinners pulled in a steady clientele right away. When the reviews came in, they were raves. Boston magazine called Cat — then barely in her 30s — one of the city’s “most knowledgeable sommeliers.” As for the food, the reviewer said, “Everyone’s talking about Lynch’s cooking,” and that the restaurant was “not to be missed.” It must have been those reviews that attracted the notice of Food & Wine magazine. When I got the FedEx letter, I nearly threw it out, assuming that it was some [expletive] scam. But I showed it to a friend, who said, “This is for real! Food & Wine has named you one of America’s Ten Best New Chefs!”

I fantasized more than ever about opening my own restaurant.

A place of her own

When I started looking for a space, I identified an area to target. It was the stretch of Back Bay — along Commonwealth Avenue leading to the Public Garden and on the streets ringing the Boston Common — where the private clubs are clustered: St. Botolph, Algonquin, Harvard, Somerset, Union, and others. The Massachusetts State House is right nearby. Around there, I knew I’d find a core clientele to sustain the kind of restaurant that I envisioned.

It wouldn’t be one of those intimidating places that try to make you feel, “Oh, I’m so lucky I get to eat here.” I hate that mystique thing, which also puts a [expletive] of pressure on the chef. But beautiful china, glassware, and silver, as well as professional service (and interesting food), create a mood. The mood I wanted was warm hospitality.

Realtors had shown me lots of uninspiring places, but there was one that stuck in my mind. It was a former shoe store, right next door to the Union Club on Park Street, overlooking the Common.

I asked some Southie girlfriends to come see it and give me a second opinion.

“My God!” Cheryl said when we pulled up. “We know this building.”

The ground floor was the shoe store, and upstairs was the place that sold the uniforms for South Boston Heights Academy. I’d attended it so briefly before getting bused to Roxbury that I didn’t remember uniform shopping there.

We walked around the cavernous space as I tried to visualize a design. “The kitchen could be over here,” I said. “Then, maybe a bar up front with some tables — that would be the more casual, fun place to eat. You’d walk through the bar to the dining room, which would be kind of formal but cozy and warm with banquettes . . .”

“I don’t know how you can picture that,” Cheryl said. “You’d have to tear everything out. I just don’t see it.”

Mary agreed. “This place is gross. How can it be a restaurant?

Then, of course, there was the money. You’d think it would be scary as hell to raise — and then have to repay — $3 million. But in a way, my Southie background paid off. The words “financial obligations” didn’t mean much in a culture where scamming and theft were reasonable, acceptable options for getting by.

So when I got a bill, I’d chuck it in a drawer, assuming that I’d hear when I was really in trouble. For years, I viewed paying taxes as optional, the way I saw getting licensed to drive. Since I couldn’t both live on my income and pay the IRS, I chose life. Who wouldn’t? There was no difference, in my mind, between $30,000 and $3 million. Both sums were unimaginably huge and out of reach.

Lynch in 1997 as she prepared to open No. 9 Park in the shadow of the State House.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff/file

What I could imagine was cooking good food — maybe even great food. All I needed was professional space and the freedom to create, without limits. I was twitching with energy, flooded with ideas, aching to get back in the kitchen.

I’d been mulling over what to call my place, the precious expression of my dream. “Lynch” doesn’t make you think of elegant food with French and Italian influences, and there was nothing in my personal history to suggest the kind of restaurant it would be. I couldn’t exactly call it The Projects. The solution I finally reached was the simplest, an easy-to-remember name highlighting the historic neighborhood — No. 9 Park, the building’s address.