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Keith McNally Doesn't Like Parties and Feels 'Fraudulent' Much of the Time

The famed restaurateur looks back on three and a half decades of running some of New York's most popular dining establishments

On a Friday afternoon in late October, Keith McNally took a seat in a brown-leather corner banquette inside his new restaurant Augustine. With a quick yet sheepish delivery, only occasionally making eye contact, the restaurateur discussed his latest project, the state of his company, London and New York, the joys of throwing a good party that you don't have to turn up to, his strengths, the veneration of chefs, and life after opening his final restaurant.

[McNally is talking about seeing bands in the early 80s]

Going down to the Manhattan Ocean Club, on Chambers, from the West Village, seemed like miles and miles away. Around then, I opened the Odeon, which wasn’t quite as far down as Chambers, but even then, it seemed so distant from Soho, which felt like the end of the island when I was first in New York.

Now Chambers, considering where we are now, feels like Midtown. It’s like getting old: 40 seems old, then you get to 50, and you realize 40 feels young.

I’m 65.

How did Augustine come about?

It began five years ago, when André Balazs contacted me. He had seen this property, which was an old Victorian insurance building. It was dilapidated. I came down, I saw the space, and I liked it. It didn’t go any further, since the deal never materialized.

I wasn’t very bothered, since I hadn’t invested much emotion into it. Then, nine months later, the new owner contacted me by coincidence. I looked at both spaces available for restaurants, and I liked this one. There wasn’t much to it: I liked the proportions and shapes and the idea of being this far south.

Then, I negotiated the lease, which was a drag. It’s something I’m not quite good at and takes time. Starting three years ago, without even being in the space, I started working on it. I worked on the tiles and, strangely enough, the menu. I knew I was going to be working with these two guys whom I’ve worked with over the past five years. Two years ago, we got into the space and started working on the food and construction simultaneously.

In that aspect, it was quite nice. They were part of the whole process. The menu, to some degree—it may not succeed—had more of a connection to the building itself. It seemed more organic than it normally is. As the chefs started to see the place, they realized that certain ideas wouldn’t fit. Similarly, when I saw things that they produced and tasted, I slightly changed ideas, too. The menu was just as difficult to extract from the air, as it were. They both took a long time. I got quite pessimistic about things at times.

What happened?

The water gushed down, and we had water everywhere. It set us back five weeks.

We had these biblical issues. We had a flood and a fire. We had a fire two weeks ago in the kitchen. Not terrible, but bad enough that Con Ed and the Department of Buildings closed us off. So, we had no gas until two nights ago. [Before that] we had finished the space, and it looked sparkling and really good, and there was a leak through our ceilings—we have quite elaborate ceilings. There’s more to it than you see: there are panels behind this burlap, and the sound barriers are complicated. The water gushed down, and we had water everywhere. It set us back five weeks.

It was really difficult and expensive. In many ways, this is the hardest restaurant I’ve built. As compensation, it was really nice working on the menu in conjunction with the space.

Can you give some concrete examples of how the food and location informed one another?

I’m often saying that food should be more rustic and less fussy. When I realized that the place—and I don’t want to give it an importance—had a certain elegance to it, I realized that perhaps my ideas of the food being more rustic were out of sync. I felt that the food should be more composed without being precious. I’m not someone who particularly likes composed dishes, but I changed my mind with this place. The look of the food—the presentation—there was more time and effort put into it than normally.

What do you think about the veneration of the chef, and the fact that some people consider them artists?

I’ll tell you what I think. It’s probably not what most people want to hear. As much as I respect my chefs and chefs in general, and know that [cooking in a professional kitchen] is something I’m incapable of, I’m still suspicious and probably critical of the adoration that has come about in the last ten to fifteen years. Before, in my mind, they were really great forgers, blacksmiths. They could mold and put things together and didn’t require a lot of praise. For me, I respected them much more for that, in general. I’m not saying that they’re all like this.

I just liked that aspect of chefs. I liked the fact that they were working and that it wasn’t about being at the front of the house, like me or the maître d’s or the waiters, who required attention and sought out praise from customers. They didn’t seek out these things, and I admired them even more for that. I’m afraid that it might be an old-fashioned thing, but I liked people who worked hard and well and didn’t think of themselves as artists or ever use the word "creative." Those are the people who probably [embody] those very things.

Augustine by Nick Solares

So it probably makes your blood boil when people refer to you as an auteur?

I just find that silly. Also, I don’t deserve it. Lots of things make my blood boil. Even though there is an argument that many of them are artists, there’s something deplorable that they think of themselves as artistes or that people call them artistes, because they were something greater than that before. The people who use the word are the ones who least understand what it’s about. And it’s bandied about by everybody. It’s like, "He’s a genius." How many geniuses are there? It doesn’t mean I have any less respect for them. But I just had more respect when there wasn’t this idea that they were on shows on TV.

And you’ve got this other issue: Lots of people in the kitchen who work as sous chefs instantly think they are chefs. I’m not saying I’m right, but it seems like there used to be a slower learning process before you ventured out. Now, there are people out of culinary school that believe that within a year they should be the chef of a restaurant. In some cases, they should be, but not every case.

Do you like to go out for dinner?

I quite like it when things go wrong in other restaurants, because it’s a relief.

I don’t eat out that much, to be honest. I like staying in. I like cooking at home. I like going to places that are very ordinary. I get a lot of pleasure from eating out only because I am not affected or upset when things go wrong. But I quite like it when things go wrong in other restaurants, because it’s a relief. It’s like when other people are late for an appointment. I feel so great, because usually, I’m late. I get a lot of pleasure from it. It’s not a schadenfreude, but it’s a pleasure to see that it’s not happening to me.

At my own places, I tend to see things that bother me and upset me, because they can’t be run perfectly. In a perfect world, I’d have one restaurant and run that one restaurant. I’m not at all pleased with myself for opening and running more than one. The people I respect have one place and do it perfectly and stay there and look at every detail, every night. I respect those people far more than I respect people like me.

You’re 65…

I am. How many more times are you going to remind me?!

Do you pay attention to what’s "hot"? Do you ever feel like you’re repeating yourself or losing your edge?

All of the above.

I’m afraid I don’t pay attention to what’s hot, and I probably should. I probably should go out more. Ecclesiastes, I think, is the one who said that everyone has their season…

Actually, he didn’t pay his bill last week at Lucky Strike, Ecclesiastes. He ran out on his steak frites, medium rare.

With most bands, their early work is the best. With writers, it might be slightly different. With scientists, their early stuff is exclusively the best. Most people’s burst of creativity comes before 35, generally. There are exceptions.

Do I think I am past it? Yeah, half the time, I do think that. But look, this is what I do, and I have to face up to it. And part of what you do is actually just putting off thinking about worse things, like dying or what you are here for. I do it partly to take my mind off those things, since I would much rather worry about the gas being turned on than the chances of me getting cancer in the next ten years. So, I’m quite grateful that Con Ed often comes in and disturbs the calmness of a restaurant.

Do I repeat myself? I think there are many aspects of what I do that you can see in other restaurants. I think there’s always something that’s new. Other people travel great distances to travel, but I can travel from one room to the next and see as many differences, and enjoy that. I can get pleasure from very minute variations. I’m more interested in small changes than sensational, big changes. It’s just the way I am. If you observe people’s behavior, it’s the minute changes and differences and eccentricities that are interesting, not the outlandish ones. I suppose that would apply to acting, on screen, with someone that is overacting.

So, with this restaurant there are things I have done and things I haven’t. Obviously, I’ve done similar things with mirrors. There are these lights, which I have never used before, there are these tiles, which I have never used before. I think that if one searches to be different or looks to be different, it’s like an old person intentionally wearing young person’s clothes. I can only do what is true to me and build the sort of places I would like to go to.

I could do a minimalist Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn, but it wouldn’t be me and I wouldn’t enjoy it. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the places are an extension of me, I suppose. But, I agree, at my age—I often think that what I do is not au courant.

There’s the other argument that you might be pursuing longevity or timelessness.

I hope. When I am most critical of myself, I’ll look at restaurants I’ve done in the past, and see that they are still there and they still work and there is something that people like about them. Last night, I went by Balthazar, and it was absolutely packed, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. For an instant, I felt quite good: "Maybe I’m not completely past it the way I often think of myself."

For me, I’m not any different than I was when I built The Odeon. I second-guess myself as much or maybe even more. Some of my places do better than the others, some of them don’t work at all. Pulino’s didn’t work at all. There are times when I have failed miserably.

How do you do deal with a mistake or failure like that?

I deal very badly with it. At first, you tend to strike out and think it’s this or that, but in the end, no, the place I did on that corner—I got it wrong. The pizzas weren’t as good as I wish they had been. There were lots of pizzerias opening at the time, and it was a bit of a trend. I wish I had stayed away from that. And I think I overestimated that corner. For some reason, I don’t think it’s a very good corner. In the end, the issue lies with me. I built the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong food.

How do you feel about Cherche Midi, the restaurant you opened in that space after shutting Pulino’s?

Strangely enough, I may like it the most of any of my places. It doesn’t work phenomenally well, because it doesn’t have a lunch business—it has some, but it doesn’t take off. To succeed, unless you are phenomenally successful at night, in a way that Minetta Tavern possibly is, it’s very difficult to make it financially unless you have a decent lunch. I’ve come ‘round to realizing that if I do more restaurants, I should think more about location than I have in the past. And it’s just not just about the financial aspect. It’s great having the life in the restaurant in the daytime.

You talk with great ease about your weaknesses. So, what are your strengths?

I shouldn’t talk about my strengths, but I think I’m good at recognizing talent in people very quickly. I tend to keep staff a long time and promote people from within. I like recognizing something small in somebody like a busboy and then promoting them and seeing that they can be great in a larger role. I like when that works out. I think it’s because I’m not especially talented myself.

You don’t think you’re talented?

I feel fraudulent. I do. That’s not a put-on.

I cringe at the idea that somebody would say they are talented. I think I’m workmanlike. Underneath it all, without being coy, and like a lot of people, I feel fraudulent. I do. That’s not a put-on. The only time you don’t feel fraudulent is when other people accuse you of it and you say, "No, I’m not so bad."

But I think I rely on and work well with people who contribute a lot more to the project than they are credited for. I’m good at bringing out the best in those people. If I was more talented, I’m not sure that would be part of my makeup.

Obviously, there are people who loathe me, but generally—

I have a busboy who has been with me for 35 years. His name is Khun. He works at Balthazar. I’m actually firing him tomorrow. No, I’m not. Only kidding. He started in the second year of Odeon. You should ask him, if you can understand his English.

Are you living in London, where you now have a Balthazar?

I’m doing both now. I have a flat in [London’s] Soho—a large room—and I’m dividing my time, I suppose. I haven’t been back in six weeks. See, I went over there to take a year or two off and try to do something else, but I got roped into building another Balthazar there. In many ways, I wish I hadn’t. Even that’s a struggle, building it there and working with English people.

Maybe it’s because I’m accustomed to it, but Americans are more enthusiastic and easier to work with. And there’s not that class issue. English people are horrified at the idea of working in a restaurant. Coming from a working class background, I tend to adore that.

Maybe it’s not the right word, but how do you "reconcile" the working class sympathies with owning hot spots?

I think that is the right word. I reconcile it by treating the staff as decently as is possible and informing them of the reasons why I enjoy restaurants, and the reasons the restaurants they are part of can work: they can work by us being decent to the people who least expect it. The people who are the least affluent-looking. The people who are the least famous. If we can stretch out and make those people feel good, then the job is being done well. That’s all I care about.

And so—I think all of my staff will tell you this—if the door is really busy, always go to the back of the line. Those are the people who will be least comfortable and most intimidated. Those are the people I want, because I grew up with my parents’ looking at the menu of a restaurant and checking their wallets outside the door to see if they could afford the place. Without dismissing the people who are affluent, my sympathy is totally with people who have less.

My places may not reflect [this spirit] entirely, but the reason we have a burger at Balthazar or something like that, is because restaurants—even if they look a little bit elegant, like this one—can’t work, for me, unless they attract diversity. If you can get someone who is having a hamburger next to someone who is having foie gras, then it’s great. My staff can confirm this: If someone looks ragged or looks young, we put them at the best table. That’s how I reconcile it.

You seem to be the type that would prefer to operate the restaurants from behind the scenes, not on the floor. How do you do that effectively?

I think by concentrating on each restaurant when it first opens and spending a vast amount of time there, it lays the tracks for the future, to some degree. If one’s stamp is on it, and it is distinct, I think the chances of it succeeding long term, without huge amounts of time being spent there, is greater. The less of an identity it has, the more difficult it is to keep it on track.

The people who work with me generally know the identity of the place and know when the place is off-track. I suppose this analogy of tracks is very strong in my mind. I think that most of the people know the way it should be, most of the time. That’s probably how I’m able to keep them running, to some degree. They don’t all make money. There are some I keep open even though I am putting money into them.

Lucky Strike doesn’t make any money, Schiller’s doesn’t make any money, and same with Cherche Midi.

Schiller's by Daniel Krieger.

Why do you keep them open?

Because I like them and I like the staff. People see [I have] all these restaurants, but they don’t all work, at all. The others that work, work really well. I am fond of all of them, even if I’m not there every night. I don’t know how I manage to run them. I have very good people.

Do you just focus on being consistent, or are there incremental changes?

It’s always changing. They are incremental, yes. I’m not sure everybody sees them, but we are changing the menu in small ways and criticizing things. I don’t think I ever feel pleased with myself. There isn’t one of my restaurants I can walk into and feel 100 percent good about or doesn’t make me flinch to some degree. Maybe that’s why they are still there. It’s not out of perversity or to attract attention. It’s just the way I am.

What does make you happy about your restaurants?

It’s nice when someone else enjoys it. That’s why I don’t enjoy parties. I like organizing parties or dinners. I probably get the most satisfaction from hearing that other people like it.

Just after Balthazar first opened, I heard two women on the street talking about how much they didn’t like it. I was so upset that they were disappointed that I approached them and invited them back. I told them I was sure it was an atypical experience. I took down their numbers, and they came in for dinner about ten days later. I was quite pleased with myself for this minor achievement of turning something around. So I went to the table after the dinner, after giving them everything on the house, including a nice bottle of Bordeaux, and asked how it was. They said, "Listen, we need to be really frank with you: it’s really great of you to invite us in for free, but we still don’t like it." That put me in my place.

To go back to the idea of you preferring to stay off the floor and behind-the-scenes…

I probably would prefer that, but during the tastings, I need to be here. I know a vast number of people minimally, in a very superficial way—obviously, better to know fewer people in a deeper way—and there are people I’ve seen since Odeon, and it’s nice to see them.

I feel terrible saying it’s hard, because all I’m doing is saying hello to people, when there are people working their tails off all night long. I feel it’s indulgent to say it, but I don’t enjoy it. I’m always thinking of how to get out of talking to somebody. And the best way is if you say something slightly funny—not that I’m terribly capable of it—but if you do, for some reason, people laugh and it gives you an out. It’s as if a smokescreen suddenly exists and it gives you permission to depart. I don’t know why it works, but I’ve noticed that unspoken permission to break up the party and leave.

How do you feel about New York these days?

I love New York. I absolutely love it. The nice thing about going away is coming back. I like going to the theater in London, and I go several times a week. There are certain things I don’t enjoy and walk out of, but I’ll sometimes go to one show more than once. I like the ease with which I can go to the theater. Here, there’s the trudge, the getting uptown to a Broadway show, which doesn’t exist in London, I don’t know why.

I adore New York. I’ve got this room in Soho, on Mercer and Spring, that’s fantastic. Not the room, but the mornings, between 7 and 10, before the crowds arrive in Soho, and the cast-iron buildings, and the mansard—everything about it reminds me of when I first came to New York and lived on Thompson Street. The winter light is great, unlike in Europe, where it can be grey and low. Sometimes, you get these fantastically brilliant, blue skies, and the shadows they tend to cast. I take pictures all the time.

So you don’t bemoan a vanishing New York or anything like that?

You can’t. It’s always changing.

I tell you what I do bemoan: not a past New York, but the way rents have been allowed to rise for restaurants and anybody in retail. It doesn’t so much affect me, but it does affect people starting out. Now it’s full of older, somewhat successful people like me, Jean-Georges, Mario Batali. People who are new and entrepreneurial can’t make it. That sucks the life out of the city, and I regret that. If I were here now in my 20s, I couldn’t afford the rent for the Odeon. It was a minimal $138,000 for fifteen years. Minimal. There’s something wrong about it. It’s maybe not immoral but it is a shame.

The more interesting and dynamic people are those young ones. To some degree, those that are here, especially me, are repeating something they’ve done. The people that can come out of nowhere have to be somewhere else. It’s good for other places, but not for Manhattan.

Photo: Balthazar by Daniel Krieger

Balthazar New York is OK, and Pastis is coming back?

I signed a new lease about two years ago. It’s astronomical, but yeah, I signed it.

Pastis is coming back. I’m not convinced I’m doing the right thing, but I’ve signed a lease on Gansevoort Street. I’m going to resurrect something that was around. I’m not 100 percent sure that was the thing to do. It’s like being in the neighborhood and calling an old girlfriend you haven’t seen in twenty years: "I’m around the corner, do you want to have a drink?" There is that aspect to it that I am embarrassed by.

I’m going to try to do it very differently. I want the food to be very different, that’s what I want. I always thought that the food at Pastis, good as it was, was a little bit on the heavier side for me. I think it should be lighter and crisper, maybe a little Californian, with a lot of grilled fish. Maybe it will disappoint people, but that’s the way I see it.

I reproduced Balthazar in London. I don’t want to do that with Pastis.

Has that been a success, the London Balthazar?

Yeah, it’s doing well. It could never match the Balthazar here, but it’s in the Theater District, so we get a lot of directors and writers in. I like that aspect. And it’s busy at lunch and breakfast. I struggle with the idea of Pastis, because I don’t want it to be a pastiche of Pastis.

The open letters to the critics: Did you do that because you delighted in trying to put the reviewer in his place, or because you were genuinely upset?

A mix of both. It’s an outlet to work things out in a seemingly witty way. I hope those days are long gone, because in the end, it’s a bit pointless.

I now respect a lot of the people I’ve criticized.

You know what, since living in London, I’ve noticed the differences. I now respect a lot of the people I’ve criticized. I got a couple of good reviews in London, and a couple of bad ones. What is peculiar is the fraternizing between critics and restaurateurs. They meet together, they talk together, they go to awards ceremonies together. In New York, there is a real distance. The good ones take it seriously. There, they are more corrupt. People get fired here for writing a blurb they shouldn’t. I like that respectful distance.

If I get dreadful reviews for this place, I don’t think I will ever respond the way I have, since there’s an appropriateness here.

What happens in ten years for you?

I think that Pastis I have to do, since I have committed to it. I won’t be doing any more after that. There are a couple of things I’d like to do—I don’t want to talk about them—but when I have a few hours left, I’d like to do them. I used to make films, you see. But I also like restaurants. I like the organization of it, the building of it, the getting together with chefs and tasting food. And I like putting together a group of people that works fairly harmoniously and productively, together. It’s very satisfying to see that. I don’t for once think it’s all about me. One of the reasons I like doing this is that I am reminded every day that it’s a vast number of people who produce nice things. I feel very fortunate at the end of the day.

The food is important, but it’s not everything. You’re essentially encouraging engagement and conversation. It’s about creating a feeling.


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