When remembering the highs and the lows of her long career as one of Boston’s most pioneering chefs, Lydia Shire always returns to two things: the lessons she learned, and food. The dinner she was making when her husband announced he was leaving, the heavenly smell walking up to Julia Child’s home in Cambridge, or the rice she insisted would be on the menu of one of her restaurants, even when investors questioned her judgement. Shire may not have always had it easy, but she always followed her gut. Learn how she went from being the “salad girl” at Maison Robert to being one of the most lauded and revered chefs this town has seen.
I grew up in Brookline, and I was a problem child for a while. I was very wild, so my mother and father put me into a very strict foster home with other children when I was 15. That is why I moved from Brookline to Dorchester—Fields Corner. This lady, Mary Kelly, had foster children and kept a very strict house. But actually, believe it or not, she taught me things about food. She used to go to the butter store, and she would have her butter cut, a whole big round of fresh butter, and I loved it, but she never refrigerated it. And I asked, “why don’t you have to refrigerate butter?” and she said there’s no milk solids in it left to go bad. So it was just little things along the way that I learned from her. She was a wonderful woman. Every morning we would have to hang out the clothes out on the line, and even in the winter we’d go out and put clothespins, and even now I love the way laundry smells when it’s been outdoors. To this day, I never dry my pillowcases in the drier. So you can always learn something from anybody, really.
I went to Jeremiah E. Burke High School, and at that time it was all women. Donna Summers went there, too—she was my friend. I fell in love with my boss, Tom Shire, that was his name, at the movie theater, where I worked as the ticket person in Dorchester. And my father had just died a year before, and my mother was living in Brookline and struggling financially a little bit, but she was okay. And I got pregnant—I was seventeen. We decided to get married and have the baby. And I remember this night so well, it was a beautiful night. I went home to Brookline with my husband to be, and I rang my mother’s doorbell, we went upstairs, sat down on the couch, I introduced her to Tom, and in the next five minutes I said, “Mommy I’m here, and I’m letting you know this is going to be my husband and I’m pregnant.” And this is the most beautiful thing I am going to tell you. My mother was such a wonderful woman, that all she did was care about me. She didn’t care about herself, or what her friends would say. She looked at me across the room and she said, “How are you? Do you feel alright?” All she cared about was me. Not a bad word came out of her mouth. She didn’t flinch, she had no horror in her face. She was sweet and she was wonderful to me. You’d hope all parents would be like that.
I was married, and I had three kids right in a row. I moved to Syracuse with my husband for his work. All of the sudden, my youngest daughter was six months old. I loved to cook—even though I had three children and was a stay at home mom, I loved to cook. So one night, My husband and I went to the supermarket—I was cooking dinner the next day for my husband’s secretary and her husband. I was thinking about the dinner, focusing on that. Suddenly, my husband said to me, “Lydia I have something to tell you,” and I kind of heard it, but didn’t really hear it. And he said, “I just want you to know, I’m leaving you, I’m in love with my secretary, and by the way, I want you to know I’ve never loved you.” So, I said the funniest thing I’ve said in my life—I’m not a funny person: “Oh, does that mean dinner’s off?” I didn’t know if I had to put all the food back! I was 21 years old.
When my husband just fell in love with this girl—it was over. I tried hard to get him to take me back, but it was over. I moved home to my mother’s house. I had two jobs at that point, and I didn’t have any money—my husband had been fired from his job. I was working in a linen shop during the day, and at night I would go to work at Paul’s Mall. It was a club that had two rooms, and also The Jazz Workshop. That was a famous club back in the 1970’s. It was the place to be seen, cars would line up at night. I would bring drinks in to Miles Davis—he asked me out on a date, you know. Every jazz act in the world played there. "Cannonball" Adderley, Jimmy Smith, Ramsey Lewis. I was a cocktail waitress there. Lou Rawls asked me out on a date, too. It was a great time in my life, and I learned a lot about jazz. I am still friendly with Fred Taylor, who most recently owned Scullers Jazz Club. Fred Taylor is the jazz impresario in all of Boston. Scampo is actually doing a jazz night next month, in honor of Jazz Boston week, with a special menu that is a throwback to the early jazz days of New Orleans. It’s something that I care about a lot.
After that, I went to Maison Robert, and I applied there as a salad girl. I was opening oysters and slicing pâté and I hated it. I wanted to be a cook on the line. I decided I wanted to go to cooking school. I called the Cordon Bleu in London and I said, “I would like to come to your school,” and they said they were full. For some reason I wouldn’t take no for an answer. So every week I would call back. Finally they said “we’ve had a cancellation, you can come.”
I hawked my diamond ring and I had about $1200 to my name. I went to London and I didn’t know where I was going to live once I got off the plane. I went to Victoria Station and I looked in a phone book to try and find a YWCA. I found one and went there. I hated it, so they sent me to a nicer one, which I loved. It was on Devonshire Place. I had three roommates, and we all got along well. I was living on $50 a week, so I lived very cheaply during the day, and then at night we’d go to Ronnie Scott’s, which was a great jazz club, and we would dance until five o’clock in the morning, and guys would buy us drinks. When we’d get home, my friend Liz Kelly from Dublin would take out Kerrygold butter and she was in charge of frying the eggs, even though I was the one going to cooking school. She would melt a pound of butter in a frying pan, she would get it hot, and then she would drop the eggs into it. Talk about a luxurious way to eat an egg at five in the morning, after you had been dancing all night! She’d cut a thick piece of toast and we’d dip it into the butter and yolk. It was a great three months.
At that time, there was a clothing store in London called Biba—it was the days of Twiggy and Mary Quant (Mary was the real makeup guru back then.) Biba was a black store with black mirrored walls. Barbara Hulanicki was the owner of that store. I used to leave cooking school, take the double-decker bus, and go down to the West End to go to that store. I couldn’t afford to buy anything there, but just to be there with all the young people, it was so great. When I finally opened my first restaurant in Boston, that was the name I picked for it—Biba.
I came back to Boston, went back to Maison Robert, and worked my way up to the fancy dining room. I was working so hard. I didn’t go out to do fun things. I read cookbooks and I just immersed myself in the restaurant business. Honestly, I probably wasn’t very much fun back then, but it paid off later in life.
Julia Child used to come to Maison Robert a lot. I would cook special things for her—she was so wonderful. She liked me, because I was one of the first women to be in a french restaurant, in Boston for sure, as a chef. She was really a big part of my life early on. She would ask me to come over to her house in Cambridge, on Irving Street, and her husband was alive then, and she would be cooking dishes for cookbooks. And one day she called me into the kitchen and she asked me, “Lydia can you come over tomorrow for lunch” and I said, “Absolutely.” When I walked up the pathway to her back door, I could smell what was just the most amazing smell. She was making a homemade puff pastry jalousie tart with Roquefort cheese in it. So all I could smell was butter baking in the pastry and Roquefort cheese melting. And I just have no words for it. At this point I was 23.
That was so long ago—I guess the one thing I can say, I’m surely the oldest practicing chef amongst my peers. Some of my friends have retired—Jasper, he’s younger than me, Hammersley, he’s younger than me. I guess they are smarter than me!
Letters from Julia Child to Lydia
click to enlarge
Courtesy of Lydia Shire
The whole point of Julia asking me to come over for lunch that day was that she wanted to introduce me to this young girl who wanted to break into the restaurant business. That was the beauty of Julia. She was never about herself, she was the best example of a word I hate—and I never use this word, but I’m going to have to say it—networker. I detest that word–it’s the most stupid word. I love what it means, but I don’t like the word. But that is what Julia was, she was a conduit for people. She would have a lot of people over to her house and she would sit back on a stool in her kitchen with people over here, over there, all around her house. She was content because she knew that people were getting together. She could have been standing there and talking, you know, but that was not her. She really wanted people to meet. She just was so great.
She came to my restaurant Biba, years later—she was getting older, but she was very active. She came in with twelve people that night for dinner, and she sat at a beautiful long table by the window overlooking the public garden, and we fussed over the whole table, and I was in the kitchen the whole night cooking. At the end, when the meal was over, I went out and sat down next to her. And she said “Oh, Lydia that was delicious.” All of a sudden, she leaned over to me and said “Lydia, what’s the gossip?” I love that moment. At the end of the day, she is just a girl like all of us are—we’re all girls, and we all want to know gossip. You have to pick and choose your people you ask that to, but she just wanted to know what was going on. I don’t even remember what I told her. And then she said “By the way, we haven’t been to Chinatown lately.” She loved Chinese food, loved it. And every time she came to my restaurant, she only ordered one thing: duck. She loved duck more than anything in the world.
She was just wonderful. I will tell you this, I’m very proud of the fact that her last meal in Boston, before she went to assisted living in Santa Barbara, was at Locke-Ober, when I owned Locke-Ober. It meant a lot to me, because she could have gone anywhere. The last trip she took oversees, she asked me to go with her. She called me and said, “Lydia, I want to go to London on the QE2 [The Queen Elizabeth 2] and I want to have oysters and Sancerre at Harrods and Harvey Nichols.” I have wonderful photos of us there.
Julia was the one who got me the job at Harvest restaurant, which is still there today.
I went to Harvest from Maison Robert, and it was my first time being a chef of an entire restaurant, and I didn’t do very well. I was not strong enough or tough enough. My God, at Maison Robert it took me three months to tell one of the cooks that they weren’t browning the butter enough for calf’s brains beurre noir. What would you call that, I guess insecurity? I just wasn’t strong enough. I was at Harvest and I was there nine months, and there were two cooks there that just rode roughshod over me. They were kind of mean, they knew I was a quiet, soft-spoken person, and they really terrorized me while I was there. I wasn’t strong enough to give anything back to them, or reprimand them. So I quit.
It is the only time I’ve ever quit a job. One day, I couldn’t go back there. So I went to the Copley Plaza Hotel, and I spent four years there. When I quit Harvest, I knew what was wrong—it was me, it was the fact that I wasn’t strong enough. I said to myself, “Lydia, this is the last time that that will ever happen to you.” Because no matter what, when you are paid to do a job, it’s not personal. But at Harvest, it was mixed up for me. I felt that things were personal and put too much on myself. And I think a lot of women do that. So that taught me a lesson. From then on, I was totally different. I’m the same person, still nice, but I say it like it is. Just today I was in the kitchen, I told someone they were doing the lamb incorrectly—I don’t embarrass them, I don’t put them down, but I just say look, if we, and I include myself, do it this way, we’ll be better. And that’s a very nice way to tell somebody. I guess I learned a lot in those years.
Next, I was at the Copley Plaza Hotel for four years, and I was the chef for the fancy dining room—Cafe Plaza. After that, I went to Florida for one winter and worked at a seafood restaurant in Boca Raton, Bill Muer’s Seafood. They were from the famous family in Detroit—the Muers. They owned that crab place in Boca Raton. It’s a very famous seafood restaurant. And I learned a great mustard sauce - the mustard sauce I learned at the restaurant was the best mustard sauce I’ve ever tasted.
So I came back to Boston, and I went to the Parker House, and I was there for a little over a year, and I met my good friend Jasper White, who owns Summer Shack. We became best friends. I was the sauté cook, which was the top of the line, and Jasper was the sous-chef. And he would expedite. That was a great time. I loved the Parker House, but what happened that was so great, is that the Bostonian Hotel in Faneuil Hall Marketplace was going to open, and they were looking for people. They called me and they asked me for a recommendation and I said, “I think you should call my friend Jasper White.” I went as the executive sous-chef. And it was a great time for me—Jasper worked there just a year, but I worked there for four years.
That was the beginning era of American food, and we were the first hotel that had an all-American wine list, which was very far reaching at the time. If you didn’t have French wine on your list, it was considered, like, “what is this?” But we did it so well, we had great food, great American food. I give credit to the general manager of the hotel, Richard Palmer, for that. He was actually from England, but he was the one who really brought the all-American wine list to The Bostonian, even though he was a Brit. Richard Palmer was the one who sat us all down and said, “look we don’t want to be just pseudo-French anymore, we want to go with this and let’s celebrate American—American wine, American food.” And that’s when we put Johnny Cakes with caviar on the menu, things like that. He was the most interesting General Manager I’ve ever worked for. He was truly inspired. He would start his day down in the bowels of the hotel, he would come down and say good morning to the housekeepers, the cafeteria workers, me, the butcher. He was really an amazing man.
The Four Seasons called me and asked me if I would like to open the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. I was the first woman chef to open a Four Seasons hotel. My general manager was short—I was a lot taller than him. And he hated me. He wanted a tall, German, male chef. He couldn’t identify with me at all. We never got along—we had awful times together. Basically, he was the only person I’ve ever worked for in my life who wasn’t nice to me. So you could honestly say that I went through my whole career working with men all the time—never a problem except for with this one person. What could you do?
My brother called me. He was in commercial real estate and he found the Biba space. Biba was the first restaurant that I owned, so that was a whole different ball game for me. I had to go and raise $1.2 million. I did not know much about finances per se, and I was really a newcomer. I remember when I went to one of my first investors and he asked me a couple of questions that I didn’t know the answer to, and I said, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will get back to you.” And he said to me years later, “that is exactly the moment that I decided to invest with you, because you were honest enough to say ‘I don’t know the answer to that.’” That’s a very teachable moment—be truthful.
My son was born one year later—my fourth child, from my new husband. I met Uriel at the Bostonian, and he was married and he was not happily married, but he was married. And I had a boyfriend, but I was kind of out of love with my boyfriend. So then, we were together, and then I got pregnant at 41. So when I told my two daughters—my youngest daughter was 19 at the time—they looked at me and said “what, mom?! Pregnant?!” But in the end, how beautiful was that. I didn’t really raise my older children, they stayed with their father because I was working all the time. And then of course they went on with their lives and got married. So then I had this little boy, whose name is Alex, and he grew up with me. The only one of my children that grew up with me.
Opening Biba was really I think the most exciting time of my career. I interviewed six architects to design it. Both of my parents were artists, so I grew up in a home with art, surrounded by beauty. One architect was by far my favorite, and today he is one of the foremost restaurant architects in the world. His name is Adam Tihany. He designed Biba, he designed Per Se in New York, and he designs all over the world.
And Biba was great because I was the first person in this country that put offal on the menu. And people ordered it!
Boston had a lot of European travelers who would come over for business and they would come to Biba and sit in the little bar upstairs with six seats—it was great for single people, you know. They would order my kidney or my brains or whatever was on the menu.
When I opened Biba, the space for Pignoli came available. I was training the next generation of Boston chefs. And I was the second chef to be nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef in the North East, and I won.
I was really proud of Pignoli. I’ve been to Italy so many times, and I love Italian food, and we were one of the first places in Boston to have a real bar in the middle of the restaurant constructed for antipasto. It was a beautiful bar—I’d bought this Medusa head for the middle of the restaurant. I was very proud of Pignoli, but it was on the wrong side of Park Plaza, and because Biba was on one side of the building and Pignoli was on the other, it was one of those things where people would say “oh, let’s go to Lydia’s restaurant—well which one?” We cannibalized each other, and Biba was in the stronger location. So finally Pignoli closed, but I loved that restaurant.
In 2001, I opened Locke-Ober. Owning Locke-Ober was very special because women were not even allowed in there until 1971. At the turn of the century, women did not go out to restaurants except for a couple of holidays. Restaurants were more for men in the late 1800s, and women stayed home. It’s pretty shocking to think of. I would have to say, not bragging, I’ve always been pretty fearless.
I had Locke-Ober for ten years, and it was very successful. I had a lot of great chefs there that worked with me, and it was really a beautiful restaurant. We did it over; I uncovered the original floor—dug down six layers of linoleum to find a beautiful tile floor because I read that there was originally a tile floor. We had to have one of those asbestos people come in and tent the place. We really improved it. I had one partner, but then the landlord wanted it back, so it was over. Now it’s Yvonnes. And the man who bought it, he’s a great guy, and he did so much to save the original character. That was when Scampo was offered to me, back in 2008, in the middle of the financial crisis. You know, people always have to eat.
Patrick Lyons and Dick Friedman asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant in the Liberty Hotel. So I made a menu for them—it was very cool. It had handmade breads, pizza, a big spaghetti menu, and then some main courses. And they loved it, because it was in a beautiful hotel and fancy, and yet we had an $11 spaghetti on the menu. We never tried to be bigger than we were, you know, we tried to be approachable to people. At the end of the day, the older I get, the more I realize that that is what you have to do. You have to learn what people want—it’s not always about what you want. I love eating brains, but you know, not everyone likes eating brains. So, it’s half-and-half—I cook the food I like, the way I want—it has my seasoning, my fat ratio, but then I’m also conscious about what people are eating. It’s a two-way street.
The Italians, when they eat spaghetti, they don’t have a giant bowl of pasta. It’s a course, not the meal. Americans think of pasta as the meal.
Menus drawn by Lydia for dinner parties at home
The last place that I’ve done is Towne. It’s closed now and being morphed into a French brasserie café. When I opened Towne, I did some interesting things on the menu. I put a rice section on the menu. I wanted to pay respect to rice. I was the first American restaurant that I know of that had that. We did Tahdig—which is a Persian rice with saffron. You have to make it a certain way so that on the bottom of the pan, it gets crispy. You put a cloth over it and steam it. It’s one of the best things in the world and I felt like people didn’t know that. One day, one of the investors asked to come see me. He came with a Towne menu and had circled something like 25 words and said, “I don’t know what any of these words mean. And why would you have a rice menu? No one eats rice in Boston.” And I said to myself, “Really? Get over it.” I mean, I am here to do something unique. What can I do, you aren’t interested in food, you can’t google it? What do you want me to do, babysit? I’m not babysitting you, get over it! It’s crazy what you have to do in life. I say this because I think women, sometimes people think we’re crazy or something, and we’re not. We’re just doing what we do, in a good spirit. I’m sorry you don’t like it, what do you want me to do, change it because of one person?
I’m very happy here at Scampo. My son Alex has spent his last four years working with me at Scampo—he just left six months ago. Plus I worked with him at Locke-Ober, Biba, everywhere. He was starting to make pizzas when he was five years old. He washed dishes at Biba. So that was really special to have one of my four children with me in the kitchen. But they are all great cooks. Alex is the only one who became a chef.
My husband is still in the restaurant industry. He’s a butcher, and I trained him. He’s a kitchen manager at Tip Tap Room, and he’s a sweetheart, he’s a great guy. Quiet, likes nice things just like me.
One thing I love to do, and obviously this is from my parents, is that I love to design menus. I just had a big part of designing Scampo’s new menu that’s coming out this spring. When I have dinner parties at my house, I create these menus with illustrations. That’s fun for me.
What I’m working on now is thinking about what Scampo should be going into our next decade. Scampo is now almost eleven years old, and we have lowered some of our prices, we have decluttered the menu, made it more understandable for our customers, and we’re taking a hard look at our lunch menu. We have given thought to our portions, especially for lunch. People don’t want a spa food menu at lunch, but they also are eating less. We’re trying to respond to the current trends. I’m also very excited about our new menu cover that’s coming out. Dick Friedman was the one who said, “Hey Lydia, you are artistic, bring me a new menu cover.”
In the end, the most important thing is that my health is fabulous, I’m working full time, and I continue to bring creative dishes to this menu with Simon Restrepo. We love new challenges and it’s still so exciting. I continue to do what I’ve always done. So basically, Scampo as ever.
Recently, our pastry chef we had for eight years left—it was a hard commute for him and he found something closer to home. He was a great guy and it was a very nice parting of ways. But then we hired two other pastry chefs that didn’t work out, so guess who the pastry chef is now—me! So that’s what’s keeping me busy these days. I love pastry—love it. Sometimes it scares me because all my life I’ve been a savory chef. I’m probably the best butcher you’ve ever met, and I don’t say that lightly, I’m very serious about that. I love cooking savory foods—in my mind, I think the two greatest foods are Chinese and French—but Chinese first. But having to do pastry for the past few weeks, it’s been scary for me. My brain has not been geared around making pastry all my life. But, like anything, I tackle it. I can’t wait to get a pastry chef here—I’m telling you. Oh la la!
~As told to Lydia Carmichael Rosenberg/The Thirty-One Percent