At Barbara Lynch’s restaurants, growing concern over a toxic culture
One person wasn’t there: Lynch.
She has long been one of Boston’s best-known culinary success stories, a South Boston native who climbed her way from public housing to the pinnacle of fine dining. In 1998, she opened No. 9 Park, then came B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, Drink, Sportello, Menton. Each brought something unique and ahead of its time, all presented with Lynch’s distinctive sensibility.
The praise poured in: She won multiple James Beard awards, and was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2017. Her group also took pride in helping employees build sustainable lives in an industry known for burnout, offering benefits, education, and even mental health counseling long before such things were common.
As executive chef, Crofter oversaw the kitchens of all seven of her restaurants. So when Lynch missed his memorial, it felt strange, staffers said.
She had visited Menton the night workers learned of Crofter’s death, but said nothing. She attended his wake but never addressed the staff directly. Lately, Lynch has been spending more time in Gloucester preparing to open her latest endeavor, The Rudder, but as the weeks went by, her absence increasingly rankled Crofter’s former kitchen mates.
“We all supported each other,” said Dearing, who had stepped into Crofter’s role and was holding “betterment meetings” to encourage and support the chefs. “Everyone in the company besides Barbara.”
Then in March came another blow: Mohammed, too, died suddenly, at age 24. The following day, Lynch came to address Menton’s kitchen.
Instead of offering support, she launched a tirade that appalled many of the nearly two dozen employees in the room. People who were there say Lynch was visibly intoxicated as she issued an ultimatum, asking for the team’s commitment to working alongside her. An argument ensued. Someone recorded it on their phone.
That recording, which was played for a Globe reporter, captured a heated exchange. Dearing said he was upset that Lynch had failed to talk to the crew after Crofter’s death. She fired him on the spot. Enraged, Dearing told Lynch he would “drag her.” She threatened to put his head through a window.
Clearly, the conversation had devolved. Dearing told Lynch sarcastically how glad he was that she had finally come to speak with staff. Lynch’s response: She obviously hadn’t come soon enough. “I’m here way too late for another one to go down,” she said, referring to Mohammed’s death. When Dearing told her he thought she’d been disrespectful at Crofter’s wake, she responded, “I don’t give a [expletive].”
The incident would result in the departure of much of Menton’s kitchen staff. It was also an inflection point for Lynch and her restaurant group.
For years, employees say, Lynch’s success has been borne out of a toxic culture that had festered within her restaurants unchecked. And so, as that phone recording ricocheted among staff and alumni, many have become more emboldened to speak out. Last month, two former employees filed a lawsuit alleging that Lynch’s collective had shorted them tips in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. A March 23 anonymous review of Lynch’s company on jobs website Glassdoor issued a warning: “The Emperor is Naked.”
Now, some are willing to speak openly for the first time about Lynch’s inappropriate treatment of her employees. The Globe spoke with more than a dozen people who have worked under Lynch. Those who are speaking out say the fight at Menton was not only a disrespectful exchange about colleagues many of them loved, but indicative of a much larger problem within the Lynch empire.
In a statement provided to the Globe, Lynch called the loss of her two staffers a “personal tragedy.”
“Losing these two individuals who I cared for deeply and championed was a personal tragedy for me,” she said. “It is difficult to put that type of loss into words, and finding the strength to comfort the team in the aftermath of those losses was incredibly difficult. I’m human, and looking back, I wish I had the capacity to have handled it better as a leader and as a friend. I continue to grieve for them and for their loved ones.”
Lynch has, by all accounts, lived both a difficult and remarkable life: She’s a survivor of sexual assault and grew up with alcoholism in her family. As a child in South Boston, she was routinely exposed to violence. She described how that trauma shaped who she’s become in her 2017 memoir, “Out of Line.” She also acknowledged struggles with clinical depression and alcohol abuse, and her staff’s effort in 2014 to intervene on her behalf.
Lynch wrote that she quit drinking for a time. But she also refused to go somewhere to recover, writing: “I might have risked my own health (maybe, once or twice, my life), but I’d never done anything to harm the business. That’s what I cared about most.”
But those who have worked under the chef describe a culture where her intoxication at work routinely led to inappropriate behavior that often made it difficult to do their jobs: lashing out at staff and guests, unwanted touching, and threats of violence. They hope that coming forward will push Lynch to get the help she needs.
“I just feel like the behavior in the industry has to end, and she is at the forefront of it,” said Michaela Horan, who served as a manager at The Butcher Shop for three years before leaving in 2021.
The last straw, Horan said, was the evening Lynch came storming out of the kitchen and grabbed her from behind the bar.
Lynch was enraged: A table had selected their appetizers first, then put in a main course order during a server’s second pass. It’s annoying for the kitchen, Horan said, but Lynch’s reaction was out of line. Lynch “came behind the bar and slapped me on the shoulder and grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me out from behind the bar to yell at me,” she said. “She manhandled me right in front of the staff, in front of guests.”
Horan spoke to a former colleague, Zoe Wilkins, shortly after the incident, who confirmed the exchange with the Globe.
Like many in Lynch’s orbit, Horan was so attuned to “Chef’s” needs and moods that she initially failed to recognize how inappropriate that was. But as Horan spoke about the incident with friends and family, she became more upset. There had been times before when Lynch had made her uncomfortable. But this felt different, and after Horan reported the incident to HR, she decided to leave. “I’m not one to quit like that,” she said. “But I was uncomfortable. I was upset. I felt really betrayed.”
Lynch did not respond directly to Horan’s allegations, but in a statement, said that she recognized that “at times I can be a hard charging boss,” with high expectations for her 160 employees. “I now face a range of scurrilous accusations from former employees, the timing of which seems more than coincidental to the pledge by a former chef” — Tim Dearing — “that he was going to ‘take me down.’ ”
But others who worked under Lynch say that such altercations were not uncommon when Lynch was on the scene, particularly at Drink, her subterranean cocktail bar in Fort Point.
“Drink was her playground,” said one former manager at the bar, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their identity. “She would go to all of her other restaurants with her fancy rich friends and then bring them to Drink after she had had bottles of wine and just wreak havoc.”
That included one instance in 2015 where the manager said Lynch went behind the bar and groped them during service.
“She’s touched me inappropriately, she’s touched other people inappropriately that were working, she’d get confrontational with guests,” the manager said. Within the company, the common refrain was just that it was “Barbara being Barbara.”
“Working with her often was just trying to do damage control,” said another former manager at Drink, who asked not to be named because they remain in the industry. They described a protocol for when Lynch would arrive at the bar after hours: Staff would take her keys and bag and isolate her in a section of the room where she couldn’t interact with guests or staff.
“We were trying to take care of her,” the second manager said, but “at the cost and expense of the staff’s comfort and feeling of safety.”
Erik Salvucci, a bartender at Drink from 2016 through 2021, said he witnessed “a number of incidents where people’s jobs were threatened if they didn’t comply to the demands of Barbara Lynch.” In one instance, he said, she demanded he serve her 19-year-old nephew during a New Year’s Eve party. Salvucci refused. As a reserve officer with the Army National Guard, there was too much at stake for him.
“If I get put under investigation for serving an underage kid or something like that, it doesn’t just affect me in the bar industry. I lose my security clearance with the military,” he said.
Salvucci and others say they routinely saw managers drive Lynch home from Drink after she’d become too intoxicated. He saw her get into altercations with guests. Once, he said, one of Lynch’s friends slapped Salvucci’s co-worker after he had asked them not to wander into the kitchen. But anytime he would voice his concern, Salvucci said, he was rebuffed.
“If anyone were to say anything, then they were pretty much told to do your job or you won’t have one,” Salvucci said.
In her statement, Lynch acknowledged being a “a creature of the alcohol-steeped hospitality and restaurant industry” and said she is “committed to taking responsibility and working on myself.” She called the accusations “fantastical” and said they seemed “designed to ‘take me down’ and lump me in with peers accused of behavior that is absolutely criminal.”
“I expressly reject the various false accusations lodged against me that I have behaved inappropriately with employees or crossed professional guideposts that are important to me,” she said. “I cannot put out all the fires that flare in this high stress environment and my very modest roots allow me to recognize that I’m far from being above reproach.”
One of Lynch’s longest-serving employees, Menton’s captain, John George, supported her claims in a statement provided to the Globe.
“It’s upsetting to see a woman with her level of success and stature be publicly crucified by former staff she once worked closely with and cared deeply about,” said George, who has worked alongside Lynch since 2000. “Barbara maintained her professionalism on site as the owner and leader, always keeping her personal life and work life separate. Additional claims that she was physically violent, sexual in nature and engaged in some level of emotional abuse towards her staff are also untrue and part of a smear campaign.”
Stories about Lynch have always been a bit larger than life. It’s part of her persona: She’s a woman who once stole a bus at the age of 13. Her memoir follows her struggles as a female chef in a male-dominated industry. It also highlights the efforts she’s made to set a new standard for education and advancement in the field.
“I wanted to create a different kind of restaurant, staffed by professionals,” she wrote. “I wanted them to have predictable incomes, not crumpled wads of random dollars at the end of a shift, so they could raise families, buy houses, pay taxes, and lead regular adult lives. . . . I wanted them to find dignity in their work.” Staff were given dining and education budgets, and health insurance. The company began offering mental health counseling through an employee assistance plan after the death of a co-worker in 2013.
Struggles with alcohol and substance abuse are common in the restaurant industry, said Mickey Bakst, cofounder of Ben’s Friends, a sobriety support group for food and beverage professionals.
“Alcohol and drugs are embedded in our culture. We’re in an industry where people are working 10 to 12 hours a shift, five, six, sometimes seven days a week. . . . We get off and there’s nowhere for us to go, nothing for us to do, so people resort to alcohol as a way to calm themselves down,” said Bakst, who spent 47 years working in restaurants and has now been sober for 40. “That leads to addiction.”
Lynch’s memoir documents her struggles with alcohol, clinical depression, and ADD. She also struggled with how to balance her obligations to her team with her desire to be a host at her own establishments, said Ben Kaplan, who worked as her director of operations between 2014 and 2017. She was always trying to figure out the right way to lead, he said.
“I don’t look at her being a perfect person as necessary to being a viable leader for the restaurant collective,” Kaplan said. “More importantly, her imperfections as a human being enabled her to empower others with her story. That’s what she’s really good at.”
Lynch’s story helped draw talented young staffers, like Wilkins, at least until the culture at her restaurants drove them away.
As a young team member at the financially beleaguered Butcher Shop, Wilkins recalled an effort to have front-of-house staff wear T-shirts with lewd slogans.
“People who had worked there for 13 years were being told to wear a shirt that says ‘I heart tongue,’ ” she said. “It’s dehumanizing to wear a shirt that says ‘I heart sausage’ on it in your place of work, in an industry where you’re already overly sexualized. It was gross.”
Wilkins said the T-shirts got shot down, but the issues continued.
In her mid-20s Wilkins was essentially managing The Butcher Shop, and recalls Lynch coming in drunk one evening and lighting a cigarette at the bar, which is not only banned in Massachusetts, but could leave Lynch subject to a fine. When she talks about it now, Wilkins calls it a “‘hero is dying’ moment.”
“It was really my first time spending time with her and it was just, I was embarrassed for her,” Wilkins recalled. “When I started with the company, I was so excited to work for her because she’s such a powerful, strong female chef.”
Over time, Wilkins said, her disappointment with Lynch and the company would only grow. Like the night she had to carry Lynch into a cab after she’d been drinking. Lynch demanded an Uber Black. Or how, after sparring with upper management about the dress code — Wilkins prefers not to wear bras — she said she was called in for a meeting with a boss once, and thought she might be getting a promotion. Instead she was handed a bag of second-hand bras.
Wilkins said she and other members of the company put up with the poor culture, and low pay, for the chance to work with Lynch. She now works in fine dining in New York and credits having the Barbara Lynch Collective on her resume with helping her get jobs there. But mostly she looks back on her time at The Butcher Shop with disdain.
“Honestly, the worst part about working for her was watching her take all this credit for these things that we were all breaking our backs over every day when I knew she just wasn’t present,” she said. “I could have been Barbara’s servant.”
Those who’ve known Lynch longest say that they’re worried that the inappropriate behavior has escalated over the past few years, amid the combined stress of the pandemic and economic upheaval.
In her early years, Lynch could certainly be tumultuous, said one long-ago colleague, drinking too much and throwing the occasional pot, but working at No. 9 Park back then “didn’t feel all that different” from any other restaurant, he said. “And the fact that she was a woman almost made it feel better, honestly.”
Today, that old friend worries about her, and the fact that she’s pushed so many of those who care most about her away.
What’s more, restaurants have changed, in part reshaped in part by both the #MeToo movement and the pandemic. Long overlooked behavior is no longer being tolerated. Workers are demanding fairer treatment. And Lynch’s world of fine dining is shifting beneath her feet amid staffing shortages and rising food costs, particular challenges for the pricey, labor-intensive model of haute cuisine.
And indeed, on a recent evening, Menton seemed to have lost the luster of its early days, when the food was plated like precious jewels, both delicious and beautiful, and customers were cosseted by multiple servers at once. Menton now serves one $180 six-course chef’s tasting menu each night, but the dishes feel less inventive and refined than they did a decade ago when it first opened. Flavors are less precise, portion sizes are small, and the lag time between courses can be overly long. It was fine dining in the most literal sense of the word.
Many former staffers say that in the last few years, those closest to Lynch in the company knew to keep her away from the restaurants, because any altercations with staff would often lead to firings or people walking out. Upper management “actively kept her in Gloucester,” said another former manager at Drink. “They need to keep her away,” he said. “Barbara shows up and then they lose key members of the restaurant team.”
Employees say Lynch’s capricious management has become a vicious cycle. She alienates team members, who then walk out, leaving the restaurants short-staffed. Lynch will often step up in the kitchen to fill in the gaps, only pushing out more employees in the process.
Things improved, some say, when Crofter took over as executive chef.
“The way when Rye was running his kitchen was like night and day,” one former Drink bartender said. “Rye was one of the best people I’ve ever known. He was an incredible chef and a team player. He was in that building sometimes 20 hours a day, getting things together, deep cleaning the fridge, running between the Menton line, the Sportello line, the line at No. 9 Park. He’d still be prepping when I was done cleaning the Drink bar,” after a shift’s end.
That’s another reason Crofter’s death hit so hard. And his death — and the blowup in the kitchen after Mohammed’s — seems to be taking a toll. There are currently five jobs posted at Menton on the Barbara Lynch Collective’s careers page, from line cook to an assistant general manager.
Lynch, on her Instagram page, recently posted that she’s hiring, with an updated spring menu. She included this note: “[Y]ou may just catch me in the Kitchen.”
Devra First and Dana Gerber of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.