Platelist: Lydia Shire's Boston Thanksgiving

Boston's finest dishes on her favorite food memories, making it as a chef.

Nov. 25, 2009 — -- Lydia Shire, the pioneering chef behind some of the hottest restaurants in recent Boston history, does Thanksgiving a little differently than most New England homemakers.

For one thing, the family turkey usually shares the spotlight with a skin-on pork rack. It's not that the Shires are extra-hungry -- although it is a house that looks down on dietary fads such as not buttering one's meat. It's that Shire's husband has not quite caught on to his adopted country's holiday obsession with massive fowl.

"My husband is from Colombia, and unfortunately he detests turkey," Shire told ABC News. "So we -- I have to have turkey and the rest of my family has to -- but I always cook a skin-on pork rack for my husband, and for us, too, we always have a little bit too."

Judging by the recipe for her pork rack special request, the family passes a happy holiday. This year, in the spirit of getting that warm glow started early, she shared with ABC News other details from her private kitchen, as well as memories of and reflections on her steady climb from "salad girl" to top chef.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m.

Click HERE for Lydia Shire's favorite Thanksgiving recipes.

Shire got her start slicing pate and opening oysters as the "salad girl" at Boston's Maison Robert. After a stint at London's Cordon Bleu Cooking School, she returned to Maison Robert as a line cook. Three years later she was head chef. In 1986, Shire opened the new Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. In 1989, she returned to Boston and launched BIBA (Back in Boston Again).

She opened Pignoli in 1994, and the James Beard Foundation nominated her as "One of America's Top Five Chefs" in 1996. In 2001, she took over the city's venerable Locke-Ober, becoming chef and owner of an institution that had prohibited women from its dining room for 97 years. She also runs Scampo and Excelsior in Boston and Blue Sky in Maine.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. Shire traces her industriousness to her parents, both illustrators, and to one image in particular of her mother.

"I remember my mother bringing in extra income to the family," Shire said. "She would take freelance work home. She would sit -- I would see her sitting at her drawing board at night when I was going to bed. I'd wake up the next morning, and my mother was still there. She would take a bath and put clean clothes on and go to work, and she'd work another whole day before she crashed. So, you know, I think people that know me know that I'm pretty tough chick."

Shire took something else from her parents: a knack for making it happen in the kitchen.

Saturday Night Dinner at Home

"I was born in 1948 and moved from Connecticut to the Boston area, grew up in Brookline," Shire said. "Both my parents were fashion illustrators and book illustrators. Sort of like the Norman Rockwell look. My father, who was Irish, happened to be a great cook. And you know what they say about the Irish, but there are exceptions to every rule, and he was definitely an exception. And my mother was a great cook too. You know they both had just beautiful taste, so I grew up in a home where I was surrounded by art, color, good cooking. And I think that was hands down what set me on my way.

Shire has a way of talking about food that can make it feel tantalizingly close to the tongue. It's as if language, for her, is just one more kitchen tool.

"When I was little, I remember cooking, we would have spaghetti aioli on Saturday night, because [my father] didn't want his breath to smell like garlic when he went to work on a Monday. So we would always have that on Saturday and we would have flank steak. You know my father just knew innately, you know he never took a cooking class at all, but he innately knew that he had to pat dry the flank steak to get it dry, and he would season it heavily with salt and pepper.

"He would spread newspapers out on the floor and get or black cast iron griddle smoking hot, put a little bit of oil and he would sear the flank steak, you know have it really rare in the middle and he would slice it on an angle and he would pour butter on it. You know of course to this day you should always use a little butter on your steak. And he just was a great cook. That was our Saturday night dinner."

Not shockingly, the Shires' dinner table was popular with her childhood pals.

"My friends loved to come to our house for dinner," she said. "You know I'd come home from school and my father was cooking, or my mother, and I'd say, 'Daddy please I have three friends that want to eat here tonight!' And of course we always made room for them."

Shire's actual entry into the world of professional cooking reads like a cross between Horatio Alger and Amelia Earhart -- although the self-effacing Shire would pooh-pooh any comparison so grandiose.

"Well you know I was married and I was married actually at 17," she said. "I had my first baby at 17. And my marriage did not last. And at that point, I knew that I had to work and what I liked to do was cook.

"So I went to Maison Robert in Boston and I applied as a salad girl, and they hired me as a salad girl, and I hated making salads and I hated opening oysters. It was just kind of boring to me, and I wanted to do the hot line. So finally ... I left, and took a little hiatus and went to cooking school in London. I came back. I went right back to Maison Robert, and I said, 'OK, now I can cook, so please give me a job in the hot line.'

"And they did. And I literally rose in the ranks to become the chef of Maison Robert. And way back then, in the '70s, there were really no other American women who were at that time a chef of a real French restaurant. So I would say that was a leap of faith for the Roberts who, you know, gave me the push to do that."

Shire Admits Career Not Without Missteps

In Shire's telling, it sounds like a cakewalk. But how could it have been, for a woman coming up in a notoriously gruff industry, 30 years ago?

"You know, I honestly, I think possibly as a woman, you know, people are wondering if I have horror stories to tell you," Shire said. "I don't, honestly. ...I'll never forget at Maison Robert, my first -- I made $2.62 an hour and, you know, once the Roberts trusted me, sure enough, I'd open my check and it was $2.72 an hour or $2.82 an hour. And I think the idea of you being able to keep going up the ladder without having to ask for anything, it means that you're doing something right."

Shire is the first to admit that her career has not been without its missteps.

"You know I owned my own restaurant when I was 39. Obviously that was sort of a crash course in learning how to run a business. Sure I made mistakes along the way. But you know, I hire a general manager for that.

"You know I always think that there are better chefs than me. I have my own style, I do things the way I like, I eat the way I like, I do put butter on my steak. I worry a lot about what young parents now are teaching their children about food. I worry that a younger generation is trying to make food into a villain."

She said that with success comes pressure. It's a lesson Shire has tried to impart to her youngest son, Alex, a chef who works at Scampo.

"I've actually tried to tell my -- teach my son that every day," Shire said. "If you don't have a pit in your stomach almost every day, it means you're relaxing too much. You know, how can you stay in that tip-top form, shape, without that little pit in your stomach? I think it's important. It think it's -- you know they'll be a day way off when I -- I guess I'll retire when my son's able to take over. ... But right now, I work hard."

Shire's Travels With Julia Child

Shire's love of food has opened doors in all areas of her life. It was over food, for example, that Shire became friends with Julia Child.

"Julia Child was a very good friend of mine," Shire said. "When I was the chef at Maison Robert, she used to come in there for dinner. ...and -- all of a sudden one day I was in the kitchen, and the telephone rang, and it was Julia on the other end. And she said, 'Lydia, would you like to come over to lunch tomorrow?' And I'm telling you my knees were shaking, I almost fell apart right there, and of course I said, 'Well of course I will!' So I did, and I went to her home the next day for lunch. Talk about a pit in your stomach. That was a little scary," she said.

Shire said that Child made a Roquefort tart, but revealed that the chef's real mission was networking.

"She -- this young girl wanted to get in the business and here was Julia simply trying to put two people together. And that was to me, was the beauty of Julia. It was never about herself. It was about how she could make things better for other people. She was a true -- she was a true networker. But way back, before that word even came into being.

"And then after that we you know became very close. ... Just before she died, she asked me if I would go to London with her on the QE2 and, because she called me and she said, 'Lydia, I want to eat oysters at Harrods at the oyster bar and drink Sancerre.' And once again, you don't say no to Julia Child. So I was off on the ship and we had a great time. ... She lived life right up to the end."

We asked Shire about the irony of her having a pit in her stomach meeting Julia Child, when young women who want to meet her now must have the same pit.

"I guess I just don't -- well, growing up I was very shy," Shire said. "I don't have grandiose thoughts about myself. I just simply am a little shy girl from Brookline trying to do well in America. That's kind of it."