Lydia Shire is a pioneer of the Boston culinary scene. She became chef at Maison Robert in 1974, at a time when women were virtually unheard of in high-end French kitchens. She opened her own restaurants, from the departed Biba, Pignoli, and Excelsior to Scampo, which debuted more than a decade ago in the Liberty Hotel. While at Biba, she won a James Beard award; with longtime collaborator Jasper White, she helped teach diners American food was something to celebrate. (“A lot of people feel Jasper was kind of the beginning of us. It wasn’t so. It was the opposite. I kind of showed Jasper a lot of the ropes, especially in the beginning. But that’s fine.”) She later took over the historic Locke-Ober, where once women weren’t allowed to eat in the downstairs dining room. At 70, she is still working in the kitchen at Scampo. “I am so happy with my life. I think it’s been the best. I think I’ve been lucky,” she says.
For Women’s History Month, and with International Women’s Day March 8, I sat down with Shire at Scampo, to hear her story and find out what she has learned along the way. Here are some life lessons from Lydia Shire, gleaned from that interview, along with excerpts in her own words.
When bad things happen, be practical
Tom Shire owned the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, where Lydia worked as a popcorn girl. They married and had their first child when she was 17. Two more soon followed.
“I had three children. My littlest one was 6 months old. My husband told me one night in the supermarket: ‘It’s over.’ He fell in love with his secretary, and I was cooking dinner for his secretary and her husband the next night. . . . I was pushing my cart, thinking of all the food I needed to make dinner for the secretary and her husband, and he said to me, ‘I have something to tell you.’ I was ignoring him almost, thinking about what I needed. He said, ‘Well, I want to tell you I’m leaving you. I’m in love with Jenny, and just so you know, I’ve never loved you.’ The funniest thing in the world I’ve ever said, and I’m not a funny person, was, ‘Oh, does that mean dinner’s off?’ I wanted to know, should I put all the food back?”
(It worked out in the long run. “We’re friends and he’s been a great father. He’s a good man. I’ve actually had Thanksgivings and Christmases with my ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend, and my current husband.”)
To get what you want, sometimes you have to be blunt.
Shire later remarried. She and husband Uriel Pineda, a butcher at the Tip Tap Room, had a son, Alex. He is also a chef. (One daughter is an expert on Middle East politics who works for the United Nations, the other an architect; Shire’s older son is a truck driver.)
“I’m very happily married. We’ll be together ’til whatever. He’s a sweet guy. He’s from Colombia. I met him at the Bostonian Hotel. He was hired when Jasper [White] and I opened the Bostonian. He had been hired as the liquor and wine receiver. He’d put all the wines away and catalog them. I was the butcher at the Bostonian. I used to come in the morning and go downstairs and do the butchering. The butcher shop was in the basement next door to the liquor receiving. He used to hang around and talk to me. Finally I fell in love with him. I had to tell him I was in love with him. He didn’t understand me at first. We were sitting in a bar and I was sitting next to him and I said, ‘Uriel, I like you.” And he said, ‘Oh.’ Then I said, ‘No, I really like you.” He said, ‘Oh, well, thank you.’ He didn’t get it. So then finally I said, ‘Uriel, I want you,’ and all of a sudden his legs started shaking. Oh, thank God, he finally figured it out.”
Eat fat. Because we’re all going to die someday.
“If it doesn’t have fat, I don’t eat it. I would say maybe once in almost 11 years [at Scampo] I’ve had tenderloin on the menu. Maybe. I don’t even think I have. It’s the most boring piece of meat. . . . I’m a sirloin fan. I like cote de boeuf. I like it charcoaled outside, really crispy and rare, with some nice fat. Basically all I’m saying is you need to have fat. It makes your skin beautiful. At the end of the day we’re all going to live to be roughly the same age. Why deny yourself some of the luxuries in life? And to me fat is a luxury. It’s not something you eat a lot of, and you don’t eat fat from McDonald’s, but why can’t you come home — you eat your salad for lunch, your yogurt for breakfast — why can’t you come home and eat a steak that has some fat on the side of it? That’s what bugs me. It really bugs me. My two favorite things in the world are salt and fat.”
You catch more flies with honey. But persistence is good too.
“I really wanted to cook. I decided to apply to Maison Robert. I made an appointment to go in. I made a seven-layer cake with buttercream. I remember making my first buttercream and it broke and I didn’t know how to fix it. I threw it all out and I started all over again. I don’t know how many pounds of butter. It was a lot. I made this beautiful cake. It was 1971. I had to order an air-conditioned cab, and in 1971 there weren’t that many air-conditioned cabs. It was a big deal because I was going there on the hottest day in July and I had visions of this whole thing melting down. I made it to Maison Robert. I gave Roger Martell, who interviewed me, the cake. He was pretty blown away. I said, ‘I would like a job here. I’ll do anything’ He said OK, you’re hired, and they made me salad girl.
“I hated being salad girl. I hated it because I wanted to cook and hated making salads and slicing pate and opening oysters. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I kept looking over at the cooks every day, at what they were doing. I decided they’re not going to take me seriously unless maybe I go to school. So I started calling Le Cordon Bleu in London. They said, ‘No, we are full.’ I called them three times in a row: Do you have a cancellation? Finally, I think they were sick of hearing from me, they said, ‘OK, we have a cancellation.’ I hocked my diamond ring and got $1,000 for it, I believe, maybe a little more. I went to London. I had $50 to live on a week and I did not know where I would stay that night. I was like 22, and I said OK, I’m just going to call up a YWCA, and that’s what I did. . . . I lived off $9 a week in a YWCA, and my dinner every day was $3. I would go to Indian restaurants. They had buffets. That’s how I could live on $50. I would save like $20 of that $50, I met this great girl from Dublin and we would go to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which was the best jazz club in London. We would dance there until 5 in the morning. Guys would buy us drinks, so that was good.
“I came back to Boston and went right back to Maison Robert. They finally hired me as a cook. I worked in the downstairs restaurant, then they promoted me to the fancy dining room and I became chef there. That was in ’74. That was unheard of in that time. There were no other women [chefs] in a serious French restaurant.”
Never say no to the Julias in your life.
“While at Maison Robert, I started to become friendly with Julia Child. She called me one day. [Speaks in a Julia Child voice] ‘Lydia, would you like to come to my house for lunch?’ You don’t say no to Julia. I went over to Irving Street. She was making a dish for her book. It was the Roquefort jalousie tart. When I walked up the walkway to her house, there was this overwhelming smell of puff pastry baking and Roquefort melting. It was just to die for. I went in, and the whole reason she had me there was to meet this young girl who wanted to cook. The beauty of Julia was that it was never about herself. She was the most non-ego driven person. She just wanted to be a person who got everybody together. I hate the word ‘networking,’ so I refuse to use it. I can’t stand it. She was a connector. We became really good friends. You can imagine, back at that time in Boston, there were few restaurants, comparatively speaking. I think I’m probably the oldest still-working chef, maybe. So I was pretty young back then. I went to visit her house in Paris. She asked me to make the lamb sauce that day. My knees were knocking I was so nervous. She also asked me to make the salad dressing when I had that first lunch with her, and again my knees were knocking. She called me late in her life, she said, ‘Lydia, would you like to come to London with me on the QE2? I’m craving oysters at Harrods and a bottle of Sancerre.’ And I said, ‘Julia, I would love to go.’ So she took me.”
Be the respect you wish to see in the world.
“Julia introduced me to the owners of Harvest. That’s how I got the job there, after Maison Robert. It was the first time I was ever truthfully in charge of an entire restaurant. I did all the ordering. I wrote all the menus. I failed miserably in one area. I couldn’t manage people. I worked hard; the food was good. But two cooks really had it in for me. They used to make fun of me. It was hurtful, you know? So I quit. It was the only job I ever quit, after about nine months. I couldn’t go back in the kitchen; these people were really mean to me. I couldn’t get the upper hand. That straightened me out for good. It changed me in a huge, vast way. I said, ‘Lydia, you will never let that happen to you again. It happened and you can’t get out of it, but it will never happen to you again.’ From that moment on, I am totally a different person. I have a job; I hope you’re with me; if you don’t like something, let me know, let me try to work on it with you, but if you’re really unhappy, you should leave. I will never let somebody terrorize me again. I became so much stronger. My voice even changed. It became not ‘hello, hi,’ It became ‘HI, HELLO, HOW ARE YOU?’ If ever I have to tell somebody they’re doing something wrong. I never say oh, that’s awful. I say: Look, if we do it like this, then it will be like that. I include myself. Simon [Restrepo], my chef here, has been with me 28 years. That is pretty amazing. Most of these servers have been here since the beginning. This is a good place to work. We don’t scream. We’re not mean. We’re not nasty. We respect each other.”
Lydia’s advice for young women who want to be chefs (but it applies to everyone, really).
“What I always tell people is if you go to a job and you look around, you have to ascertain what these other people know, see what everybody knows, and then you have to do one more. You’ve got to work it and you’ve got to study and forget about music and stuff and go home and immerse yourself in cooking. You have to push. If you’re going to be in this business and you want to succeed, you have to rise to the top. You’ve got to push yourself until you start getting rewarded. If you’re going to do it half-assed, you’re spinning wheels. I think you’re wasting time. You have to know one more than everybody else knows.”
Interview was condensed and edited.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.