Starting a restaurant is challenging. Keeping it on the cutting edge in an ever-changing culture takes innovation and innate talent. After four decades on the Boston food scene, Lydia Shire’s iconic status remains electric. Having been at the helm of more than half a dozen restaurants, and keeping company with friends like Jasper White and the late Julia Child, Shire shares what it takes to stay on top and live an authentic life.
The A-team Choosing the right team is critical, says Shire, who takes pride in the fact that many of her staff members have been with her for well over two decades. “It’s crucial to surround yourself with people who are excellent and that you trust,” says Shire. She recalls how important feedback was when she first opened Biba in 1989. “The maître’d came to me and said ‘Lydia, the food is coming out of the kitchen too slowly. We have to speed it up.’ We changed the way we were expediting, and how the waiters were ordering,” says Shire. “It’s not just one person running a restaurant, it’s a village,” Shire says constructive criticism is critical – that one always needs outside eyes to gain proper perspective. Simon Restrepo, Shire’s chef de cuisine, has worked with her since 1985 when he emigrated from Colombia at the age of 16. Together they opened BIBA, Pignoli, Locke-Ober, Scampo and Towne Stove and Spirits, a restaurant that she opened three years ago with Jasper White, who Shire has been working with since the late 1970s. Trust is also essential when it comes to choosing suppliers and the behind-the-scenes support, such as an accountant and law firm.
She tells those who seek her advice that if they want to get ahead in this business they need to be checking out other restaurants in town and wondering, for example, how they make their short ribs, whose are better, and why. “If you don’t try new things you’re going to be somewhere in the middle,” says Shire. “You might be fine, but you’ll be mediocre.” At Scampo, the menu began as a concept incorporating a wide range of bread, pizza, flatbreads, pasta and a few main courses. They’ve held that formula close, and it has been working well. The restaurant, housed inside of The Liberty Hotel, has 136 seats, and an additional 60 on their outdoor patio. “My general manager, Jay Baker, is a real numbers guy,” says Shire. “He’ll challenge me if I want to buy too many flower buckets for outside, but also knows when I’ve done something creative that is right. It’s very good when I go to bed at night and I know he’s in charge of the finances and Simon is in charge of the food.”
On Julia Child
Child and Shire were friends for many years. In fact, it was Child who encouraged Ben Thompson and his wife to hire her to open Harvest. At the time, Shire was the chef at Maison Robert. “It was fortunate for me that Lucien and Ann Robert trusted a young American girl to be the chef of their fancy dining room,” says Shire. “It was pretty far-reaching in the 1970s that they’d allow a woman to do that.” Shire’s relationship with Child began in the 1970s. “I went to visit her at her home in France,” says Shire. “She would ask me to make lamb sauce and salad dressing and my knees would be knocking!” Before Child passed away, she went on a trip from New York City to England on the QEll and invited Shire to join her. “She said, ‘Lydia, I want to go to Harvey Nichols and Harrods and eat oysters and drink Sancerre,’” says Shire. “The last place she ate in Boston before moving into assisted living in Santa Barbara, was Locke-Ober, where I was the chef and owner. She came in with nine people, flew out the next day, and never returned”. Shire says the memories she has of Julia are fabulous.
Shire has a magnet on her home refrigerator with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that reads: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” “If you really work hard and want to keep putting yourself out there, you should always be walking around with a little lump in your stomach,” says Shire. It’s the only way I feel I’m doing the right thing—if I have that little agita.”