Barbara Lynch never thought she would end up in South Boston.
The chef is a fierce daughter of Southie, a nickname for this neighborhood (and, she said, an old local term for the people who built it that’s rarely, if ever, used today). Generations of Irish-Americans forged iron and steel, built ports and ships and hauled sugar and molasses in the area’s now-decrepit industrial buildings.
When Lynch, 53, was growing up in a housing project here in the 1970s, Southie was notorious for clannishness, racism and crime (organized and otherwise). But she was at home, surrounded by a network of relatives, by other children growing up on the streets, by other families with absentee fathers.
“That’s where Whitey Bulger lived when I was young,” she said, pointing to a brick building identical to the one next door, her former home. She remembers one night when a teenager dribbled a basketball a little too loud and a little too late at the playground down the block. Bulger, then already a felon, came storming out of the house with a carving knife, stabbed the basketball, then yanked it out and stabbed the kid. Then he bundled him into his car and drove him to the emergency room.
“The really strange thing,” Lynch said, “is that no one in Southie thought this was strange.”
In a new memoir, “Out of Line,” she charts her route. Cooking was the way out, starting at age 12: To help her mother make ends meet, she took an after-school job keeping house for the priests at St. Monica’s rectory. By the time she dropped out of high school, her studies had been reduced to one area: home economics. A teacher taught her knife skills and introduced her to pesto, stir-fries and crepes — each one an exotic revelation to a girl raised on basic pre-food-revolution fare like fried pork chops, instant pudding and canned peas. That was her entire culinary training.
Like many chefs in those days, she lied her way into her first kitchen job, could barely read a recipe (she is dyslexic) and had never eaten in a restaurant when she began working in one.
But for someone who stole a city bus at 13, begged for cash from neighbors for “charity,” spending it on fried clams and mescaline, and shoplifted clothes as smoothly as she now carves a chicken, a restaurant kitchen held no terrors. She got by on nerve and hustle (the cocaine the line cooks used to snort through dried penne probably helped, she said).
Todd English first put her in charge of a kitchen, and she became the chef at his influential restaurants Olives and Figs.
She survived, persisted and opened her first restaurant as chef and an owner, No. 9 Park, in 1998. She traveled to Italy and finally, in 2004, to France. A dish she tasted there called poulet en pain — chicken in bread — inspired one of her favorite home-cooking recipes: a whole chicken, stuffed with carrots, celery, onions and herbs, sealed inside a pie crust and roasted.
“Restaurants should be able to do more things like that, instead of inventing new dishes all the time,” she said. Like most of her food, it is rooted in European tradition, demanding no special ingredients and no revolutionary technology. It takes the basic flavors of chicken noodle soup or potpie, concentrates them and transforms the textures into an indescribably good dish.
Since 2000, South Boston has been steadily gentrifying, and in a way, so has Lynch. (She still curses like a longshoreman, but without the Southie accent.) Since 2008, three of her six restaurants have been housed here, in a giant renovated warehouse full of warm light, smooth surfaces and winning food like tiny macarons in Froot Loops colors and perfect fried oysters served in oyster shells.
“Never in a million years did I think people would be eating foie gras in this neighborhood,” she said. “Or that I would be cooking it for them.”
Roast Chicken in a Butter Crust
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 1 hour, plus 3 hours’ cooking and cooling
For the crust:
3 cups/360 grams all-purpose flour, more as needed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
6 ounces/170 grams cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into large dice
For the chicken:
1 whole chicken, about 3 1/2 pounds, giblets removed
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
2 large celery stalks, cut into small dice
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 onion or 2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, thyme or a combination
1 egg white
1. Make the crust: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour, salt and sugar and mix briefly to combine. Add butter pieces and mix until butter breaks into smaller pieces and is evenly mixed with flour. Add 1/2 cup cold water and mix until dough begins to come together in one lump.
2. Turn off mixer, remove paddle and attach dough hook. Knead at low speed until a smooth mass forms, about 2 minutes. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand: push dough away from you with the heel of your hand, fold it over toward you, give it a quarter-turn, then repeat until dough feels elastic and moist. If dough feels sticky, knead in flour as you go, 1 tablespoon at a time. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.
3. Make the chicken: Cut off wing tips and discard (or save for stock). Pat bird dry and sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper. Refrigerate, loosely covered, while you make the stuffing (or longer, up to 2 days).
4. Heat oil or butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add vegetables, herbs and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, at a gentle sizzle until vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat as necessary to prevent browning. Set aside to cool.
5. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
6. Stuff chicken with the vegetables. To secure stuffing and keep the bird in a compact shape, cross legs at the “ankles” and tie together with twine.
7. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out into a rough circle that’s large enough to enclose the chicken. Place stuffed chicken, breast side down, in the center. Wrap dough up and around the bird, encompassing it completely. Overlap the edges and pinch them closed to make a seam. Turn wrapped bird over and place seam side down on a baking sheet.
8. Whisk egg white with 1 tablespoon water and brush all over dough. Sprinkle very lightly with salt. Bake until crust is golden brown and meat is cooked through (165 degrees; it is OK to puncture the crust with the thermometer), 1 to 1 1/2 hours depending on size.
9. Let cool 1 to 2 hours before serving. The meat will remain hot and the juices will be absorbed into the meat and the stuffing.
10. To serve, use your hands to break off the top of the crust and place on the baking sheet. The breasts will be on top: peel off skin, discard, and carve the breast meat off the bone. Continue carving, without turning bird over. The juices will soak into the crust and pool on the baking sheet: this is exactly what you want. Cut the twine and use a spoon to remove stuffing and divide on serving plates. Add chicken and pieces of crust to each plate. Tilt pan and spoon up juices to pour over meat and vegetables. Serve immediately.