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Lydia the legendary
With the opening of Excelsior, famed chef Lydia Shire reinvents herself once again

IF YOUíVE FOLLOWED the Boston dining scene at all ó hell, if youíve lived in Boston and have ever eaten out ó you probably know about Lydia Shire. After all, her local culinary résumé, which dates back more than three decades, includes stints at such renowned restaurants as Maison Robert, Seasons, Parkerís, and Pignoli ó not to mention ownership of the place for which sheís most widely recognized, the now-defunct Biba. And though the awards, honors, and superlatives have been rolling in since she first picked up toque and tongs, Shireís not one to rest on her laurels; she now divides her time between her current babies, the legendary Locke-Ober and the brand-new Excelsior, both of which she owns with various partners.

Q: Howís the new restaurant going?

A: Itís going really well. I would have to say itís been one of the smoothest openings Iíve ever done.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: I think because we had a year to work on it. Biba closed June 8 last year, and we opened [Excelsior] late in May, so it was a year. It gave me plenty of time to write the menu, train the cooks. Also, the kitchen did not have to be done over because I had just done it over a few years ago. Very often when you open a restaurant, the kitchen is ready the same time the restaurant is, and you donít have enough prep time in the kitchen. But we had plenty of prep time. So it just was a smooth opening. Thatís not to say that we, like every other restaurant, havenít had our glitches and problems.

Q: What are typical opening glitches?

A: Usually itís mostly around timing. It would be the same thing if you had a symphony and nobody had ever played together before, because when you hire brand-new people and you all come together, itís impossible for it all to go smoothly, from a timing standpoint, because people are new working together. [Now] the runners in the kitchen are doing a great job, and the waiters kind of know the food now and know what to expect, and the cooks are helping each other. So the symphony is somewhat working now.

Q: Why did you close Biba?

A: Well, basically, Biba needed to be redone. Biba was very cutting-edge 13 years ago. It was, I want to say, like the first big-budget, privately owned restaurant in Boston, overĖ$2 million restaurant. Again, that was back in 1989. And we had had floods in the first-floor bar area, my gosh, the baseboards were totally trashed, and it was a little tired. Tim Lynch, my good friend from Grill 23, and I got together, and we just talked about forming a new partnership. So it was just great. It all worked.

Q: Whatís it like owning such different restaurants?

A: To me, this is the best of both worlds, because Locke-Ober, I think, is possibly one of the top-five most beautiful dining rooms in the whole country. What you see in Locke-Ober could never be reproduced today. It simply couldnít. All of that wood was carved on-site by French wood carvers, using Santo Domingo mahogany. And those beautiful silver domes, and the little dumb waiter that goes from the bar up to the second floor ... you know, it just could never be reproduced. So I feel as though Locke-Ober is the top of its genre, and now, to, so to speak, go back to the well and redo Biba into a spectacular restaurant, I think itís really the best of both worlds, and Iím very proud of both of them.

Q: Youíve obviously worked in Boston restaurants for a long time now. Talk to me about the changes youíve seen in the Boston dining scene.

A: The biggest change is that there are just a zillion, trillion more restaurants. Boston, when I first started working in the restaurant business back in 1971 ... there just werenít that many restaurants. And now, restaurants have just exploded everywhere. And also, on a great note, I think Bostonians are great eaters. I really do. Bostonians have always embraced specials; when you do specials, they love them. I think Bostonians are very smart, savvy eaters. Plus itís great to be near Georges Bank and our fish. Another change is that there are growers in New England who really respond to chefs now, and grow, like, little baby greens and things like that. So thatís been fabulous for us.

Q: What do you think about the whole celebrity-chef phenomenon?

A: All cooks are in a great business, because eating is leaving your workplace, typically, going into a restaurant, sitting down, and being fed, and youíre happy. So weíre in a happy business. Look at all the food magazines on the scene now: people really love cooking. Look at the amount of cookbooks that are on the market now. For most people, itís a great way to finish your day, when you go to a restaurant, or itís something people have taken up, men, women, and children ó they want to cook at home because itís entertainment at home. So for some reason, theyíve kind of locked onto these chefs, because itís fun ó itís not bad news, itís not like turning on CNN and you find out eight British soldiers were killed. Itís sort of a release for people, I think, the whole cooking thing. Not that anybody takes that seriously, you know, chefs donít look in the mirror in the morning and comb their hair a different way ...

Q: None of them?

A: [Laughing] Well, maybe some do! I think itís just a happy business. Like, I canít imagine wanting to be a meter maid. I couldnít do that. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and going out and being hated?

Q: In terms of ingredients and menus, whatís your favorite season for cooking?

A: I would have to say the fall. I love the fall. Itís everything about the fall ó first of all, itís being in New England in the fall. To me, the fall, of course, means my favorite thing in the world: football. Iím a major football fan. And my house has five fireplaces, so it means I can have fires all the time; thatís another high on my list. And then the whole idea of having that little chilly weather, and being in and roasting a chicken or roasting a duck, and grilling outside and having your fireplace on and your friends over. And all the great game and mushrooms and truffles ó of course, all chefs wait to have their first white truffles of the season, no matter how expensive they are; we have to have them. And a lot of exciting things happen in the fall. I look forward to Christmas and Thanksgiving, and I love cooking for people on weekends in the fall. Itís my favorite time of year.

Q: Whatís one dish weíll never see on any of your menus?

A: I had a really bad experience with [intestines]. I had them at Bibendum in London and they made me really sick, so the thought of eating them right now ó I canít do it. Also, I donít like black-licorice candy. But everything else I love. I pretty much like everything.

Q: Whatís your guilty-pleasure food?

A: Definitely bacon sandwiches and mayonnaise sandwiches. Those are my bad-girl things.

Q: Dunkiní Donuts or Krispy Kreme?

A: You know, I would have to say probably Krispy Kreme. I had a warm Krispy Kreme once and Iíve never forgotten it. But, I do like the maple-frosted ó not the maple with jimmies, but just the plain maple-frosted Dunkiní Donuts. Those are delicious. But not every Dunkiní Donuts store carries them. So that makes me cranky. And I like the crullers, the Dunkiní Donuts French crullers. Theyíre good.

Q: What are your thoughts on Bostonís new smoking ban?

A: I think itís absolutely ridiculous, personally. Iím not a smoker, I never have been, but I feel as though Americans have slid into this ... itís almost an age of prohibition. What I mostly hate about it is how it almost pits neighbors against neighbors. You know, your neighbor would look out the window and say, "Oh, can you imagine Sally over there ó sheís smoking." And I hate that, because come on, people should mind their own business. I think very strongly that if you own a restaurant, and you want to have that restaurant be a smoking restaurant, thatís your choice. If the restaurant down the street chooses to have a non-smoking restaurant, thatís their choice. And the employees ó which is what this law is all about ó if my name is Joe Schmo and Iím not a smoker and I donít want to go and work at, you know, Billyís Bar where thereís smoking, I donít have to. So I just feel it is wrong to force all people to adhere to that same one rule. I just donít believe in it, I donít agree with it.

Q: Whatís a typical day like for you?

A: Well, I get up in the morning with my son, and my office is at home, and thatís a big thing. I have a desk, I have files ó I just run my life from my desk here at home. It gives me a chance to see my son. Heís 13 now, so when he would come home from school at 2:30 or something, I would get to see him for a little while. And then I probably leave my house roughly at around three or so, and wend my way into work. Very typically, [Iím there] very late. Yesterday, for instance, I was at Locke-Ober for lunch, so I left my house at about 10, because I had to buy some different noodles for Locke-Ober. So I go to all my stores where I have to pick up things, and then I arrived at Locke-Ober, and we had some fabulous people there ó David Ober was there, one of the great-grandsons of Louis Ober, and heís so much fun, so I cooked a special lunch for him; I made the stroganoff for him, and he loved it. And then my brother came in late in the day and I had lunch with him at Locke-Ober, and then left, I had to do another errand, and then I went to Excelsior and I was there till the end of the night. So that was a really long day. I only sleep four to five hours a night. I donít know why, but Iíve always been like that. Iím not a good sleeper.

Q: If there was an Iron Chef competition of Boston chefs, who do you think would win?

A: Oh, I think Todd [English] would win. Definitely Todd. Oh my God, of course Todd. Todd, in my opinion, is bigger than life. First of all, heís a wonderful and crazy chef. If you look at the menu at Olives, I donít know how many items he has on the menu; Iím guessing 100 or 70. Nobodyís as crazy as Todd, that would put 100 items on a menu. And he does them all well. His imagination is amazing, and heís got the personality and the persona to go along with it. Heís just a great guy.

Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: July 11 - July 17, 2003
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