Celebrity Chef Lydia Shire Debuts at Tanglewood
by Sally Helgesen
Lydia Shire has been to the Boston restaurant scene what Alice Waters was to Northern California: a creative force, influencer-in-chief, modernizer, experimentalist, provocateur and muse. Now Shire brings her outrageously delicious cuisine to the Berkshires as guest chef at Tanglewood’s opening night Gala at on Friday, July 8. It’s the first time the BSO has asked a celebrated chef to design the menu and oversee cooking at one of its event. We can only hope this establishes a tradition!
For the all-Italian program in the shed—excerpts from Bellini’s Norma, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Verdi’s I Lombardi and Respighi’s symphonic Pines of Rome–– Tanglewood asked Shire to put together an all-Italian feast. A dedicated Italophile when it comes to food, she responded with a Tuscan-themed menu as sumptuous and irresistible as the music.
Passed hors de’oeuvres include tiny lamb ribs (the kind known in Florence as scottaditi, or burn-your-fingers) fried squash blossoms, and a notable Shire invention she calls “elephant ears walking” –– a semolina cracker grilled with tomato and smoked scamorza cheese. The first and main courses feature crabmeat with a pepper crust and Tuscan melon puree, thinly sliced crisp duck with port, roast sole, and ravioli with tomato and kale.
Dessert promises to be truly operatic, with the encore guaranteed in advance–– served following the meal and then again post-concert. Housemade cannoli (hardly Tuscan, but who cares?), zabaglione with berries and melon shots, plus a whole gelato station will be accompanied by coffee, chocolates and limoncello.
Shire, who achieved culinary fame with the ground-breaking Biba in 1989, has multiple Boston restaurant credits to her name; her present home in the city is the award-winning Scampo (right) in the Liberty Hotel. She also serves as executive chef at the historic Locke-Ober, where she offers updated versions of Boston classics (JFK lobster bisque, who could resist?) in the gorgeously restored Boston institution that famously declined to serve women in its main dining room for 100 years.
Shire is known for her extravagance (she once opened a kilo of caviar when Julia Child came to her house for dinner), her passionate style of cooking, and her love of brilliant color, which makes her restaurants a multi-sensory delight and gives her a highly distinctive presence—flame colored hair and Pepto-Bismol dyed chef’s “whites”. Her damn-the-expense (and often the arteries) approach has not always been in sync with our recession-hobbled era, but Shire’s 35 years as an innovator who thrives on challenge gives her work currency whatever the zeitgeist.
Her success came against the odds. As the divorced mother of three at the age of 21, she pawned her engagement ring to put herself through Cordon Bleu in London while living in a $9 a night room at the Y. Returning to hometown Boston, where her children had been with their paternal grandparents, she landed a series of ever-better positions at famed dining spots such as The Parker House, culminating in her being named executive sous-chef at Jasper White’s influential Seasons. With the opening of Biba, her sassy but meticulous style of nouvelle New England came into its own, spelling the end to a restaurant scene often focused reverently on chowder. She inspired a host of local acolytes, including Jody Adams of Rialto and Gordon Hammersley of Hammersley’s Bistro. By the 90’s, Beantown had been transformed into a food destination.
Times change, but Shire keeps on cooking. Bravo to Tanglewood for bringing her our way.