Ellen Freeman Roth                      

July 14, 2005

At Home with Chef Lydia Shire

Her stew of old and new gives farmhouse its flavor

Approach the Weston home of chef and restaurateur Lydia Shire, her husband, Uriel Pineda, and their 15-year old son, Alex, and you'll witness the same reverence for history that Shire engendered in resurrecting Boston's venerable Locke-Ober restaurant.

Shire and Pineda bought the abandoned 1847 Greek Revival farmhouse 1l years ago. "It was in bad shape," Shire recalls. "The contractor and architect who built my restaurants Biba and Pignoli took one look and said, 'No way, Lydia,' but I loved the place and grounds."

When renovating, Shire remained faithful to the house's heritage, maintaining the exterior wide-board siding, staining the floors ebony, and creating a master bath with classic-style sinks and a mosaic tile shower. But she also struck a deal between Old World and New Inside the original front door, the house bears the modem aesthetic that guided Shire in creating her restaurant Excelsior.

"My daughter Lisa, an architect, designed [the renovation] so that when you walk in, you see curves," explains Shire. "I don't like anything symmetrical." The curved walls, off-center kitchen cabinets, and bent bamboo balusters on the staircase testify to that.

The airy layout lends itself to entertaining.

"My idea of a great Sunday is to have lots of people here," Shire says. "Uriel jokes that I know how to cook for 33 but not for the three of us. He does most of the weekday cooking here. He's Colombian and specializes in stews with ingredients like oxtail and pigs' ears. Pineda is kitchen manager at a Boston eatery.

Shire, who once considered studying art rather than food, cooked up her own vibrant decor. "I can't imagine not being surrounded by color," Shire says. "My parents were fashion illustrators. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that both black and white are the absence of color. That stuck with me."

Her parents' artwork is exhibited through the house along with Shire's collections of glass, vintage clothes, golliwogs, and other antiquities. "What would life be like without appreciating the old?" Shire posits, reaching for original Mickey Mouse molds used to make balloons. "On family trips I buy treasures, and my husband and son cry, 'More junk!' But I love all this stuff. It makes me happy."

Yet there's not a single doodad or gadget in Shire's cooking area. The functionally minimalist galley is compact, with no more than a few steps across the concrete floor between her red 1940s industrial stove, Gaggenau wall oven, appliance garage, oversized sink of granite sealed with beeswax, and clear work surfaces. The curved island has a granite lower level and an upper level of concrete patterned with wells and inlaid copper and glass. "There's nothing on my counters. I put all the nice clutter in the open pantry," Shire explains, pointing to copper cookware, miniature stoves, eclair molds, and other culinary antiques.

"And look at this," she adds, pulling a 30-gallon trash bucket from under the counter. "I hate little housewifey garbage cans."

Shire's favorite color, red, punctuates the kitchen. A single red pendant light dangles among three greens ones over the island. A red Murano glass chandelier hangs like an octopus over the kitchen table. Red steel rims frame floor-to-ceiling windows on the only exterior facade that was revamped, offering a vista of the fields.

Reflecting Shire's philosophy that "you have to mix things up in this world," the kitchen chairs are mismatched. One was found on the property and Alex claimed it years ago with his inscription. The kitchen's latest addition is a television. "I'm a huge football fan, and when I cooked for parties I missed the games." Shire is also a self-proclaimed news enthusiast. "When I get home from work I watch CNN, even if it's 2 a.m."

She awakens daily at 6 a.m. and sits in her computer-free office. "I still handwrite everything, including the restaurants' menus I develop seasonally."

She gestures to her bookshelves. "I read cookbooks for inspiration. To get mine written, I'll finally have to get a computer."

And what's in Shire's refrigerator? She offers a look. "Heavy cream, strawberries, good mustard, butter (always), marinated skirt steak (my favorite), and Christmas plum pudding, which can be aged a year."