Rising to the Top
For Lydia Shire, finding a place in the kitchen meant breaking stereotypes about women
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``I failed miserably at management. The cooks were making fun of me behind my back. I wasn't strong,'' she says. ``I'd ask, instead of tell, and there are times when you just can't do that. In the kitchen, everybody needs a leader.''Skip to next paragraph
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Shire eventually became a strong leader. She worked her way up to executive chef at the Bostonian Hotel, and was then invited to go to the Four Seasons in California where she had 43 cooks on her staff and the second lowest turnover rate in the entire hotel chain.
But she missed the cosmopolitan flavor of Boston. Having been born and raised here, she felt this was where she belonged and where she wanted her restaurant.
Some of Shire's staff, like Susan Regis, have worked with her for many years - in California as well as in Boston.
``Lydia has a way of transforming a dish by the smallest addition or the slightest change,'' says Ms. Regis, Shire's kitchen partner for six years. ``I'm continually learning from her. I think women do have a different way of cooking than men. Women are more instinctive. Men are more goal-focused and a woman cooks with her heart,'' she says.
One of Shire's special talents is blending Eastern and Western ingredients so they are in harmony, but also form intriguing tastes with an element of surprise. This instinct and talent for good taste and balance may come from values instilled by her parents, both artists.
Biba's menu contains considerable variety: Novelty is tempered by familiarity, and new seasonings accent old Yankee concepts. Desserts include bread puddings, warm plum tart, and Concord grape and ginger bombe. Souffl'ed Indian Pudding, for example, evokes the same flavors associated with grandmother's recipes from the past - a delicious gingery-molasses flavor with the airy lightness of a souffle. An old-fashioned family dish, beef pot roast has the addition of ginger or horseradish and smoked tomato.
Reading the menu takes a little getting used to. It doesn't follow the usual listings of appetizer, soup, fish, meats, and so forth. Instead dishes are grouped in categories like fish, meat, starch, dessert, offal, and legumina (vegetables).
``This way,'' Shire explains, ``people can feel free to order as much or as little as they want.'' A customer can order two desserts or two appetizers or a winter salad of greens with hot flaky cheese pastry pie or a lasagna of many layers with game bird ragu.
Offal is a word not found on most menus. Here it includes calves brains with crisp fried capers and sherry vinegar; South American picada of wild boar, yuca, ears, and chorizo; penne with tripe Fiorentino; and roast whole foie gras on a ``dish'' of crisp potato, vinegared chard leaves.
Women looking for respect in the kitchen have had to prove themselves, and many have paid their dues. But more and more, young women are finding good chefs to work under, and haven't been confronted with male hostility.
``It makes sense for me to be where I am right now: The 90's is a good time to be a woman cook or chef,'' says Ms. Regis.
But despite these strides, being a chef is not easy for a woman, says Shire. ``You can't relax in the kitchen. You must set a standard.
``Women haven't gone to the top as fast as they should have but it's going to happen in the next generation. It's just a matter of time from here on,'' she says.