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10 Questions for Keith McNally

4 minute read
TIME

YOU MADE YOUR NAME OPENING FRENCH RESTAURANTS. WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO OPEN AN ITALIAN PLACE? I’ve spent a great deal of time in Italy over the past six or seven years. But my motivation was museums, not food. I went again and again to look at certain paintings. Not [Giorgio] Morandi’s, oddly enough. Eating and restaurants were truly incidental at that point but became less so the more I was there. After a while, I just thought I’d return to New York and give it a go. I’d also known [my chef] Jody Williams for some time and really liked her food. I also like her a lot.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF ITALY? Because the Galleria Borghese is my favorite museum, I’d probably say I like Rome more than any other place. But Bologna is dazzling also. Plus those beautiful towns nearby: Modena, Ferrara and Parma.

YOU GREW UP IN LONDON. WHY DID YOU START RESTAURANTS IN NEW YORK CITY? I find England stifling. I wish I could enjoy it, but I can’t. When there, I feel I’m in a straitjacket. It’s probably to do with the class system.

YOU’VE RECALLED NOT HAVING ENOUGH MONEY TO GO TO RESTAURANTS AS A BOY. DOES THAT EXPERIENCE INFLUENCE THE WAY YOU RUN YOUR OWN ESTABLISHMENTS? My family was poor and could seldom afford to go to a restaurant. The few times we did were embarrassing beyond belief. The result is I identify far more with someone who’s uncomfortable in a restaurant than someone who’s at ease. The same with my staff. I have an affinity for people who are uncomfortable with either themselves or the situation they’re in. I guess if I have such a thing as an asset, it’s probably that.

YOU DON’T “WORK” THE DINING ROOM, BUT CELEBRITIES STILL LOVE YOUR RESTAURANTS. WHY? I tend to treat celebrities with the disdain and contempt they deserve. They lap it up, too, because they always return for more. It’s the nobodies of this world I look up to.

THE CAST OF THE ORIGINAL SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE USED TO EAT AT YOUR FIRST RESTAURANT, THE ODEON, AFTER THE SHOW. WHAT’S THE CRAZIEST NIGHT YOU SAW? The night John Belushi took his clothes off and ate his dinner completely naked.

WHY DID YOU CALL YOUR COMPANY THEN ORWELL RESTAURANT ASSOCIATES? I happen to like George Orwell a lot. It’s also why I named my son George. I like Orwell’s essays because they’re clear, to the point and utterly without pretension. I also like his books. Homage to Catalonia, I think, is his best.

YOU HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING FASTIDIOUS. WHAT’S THE MOST RIDICULOUS DETAIL YOU’VE OBSESSED OVER? There are definitely some things I did at Pastis that I now look back on and shudder. For instance, staining the ceiling again and again until it had the exact mustard color it might have had if people had been smoking in the place for 50 years. That now seems ridiculous. And it looks a bit theatrical, which I can’t bear. The deliberately faded sign outside Pastis irritates me to no end. I could go on.

THE FOOD-NETWORK CULTURE LOOMS LARGE IN YOUR INDUSTRY. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THAT? It doesn’t mean a thing to me. I’ve no interest in being part of a group of any kind whatsoever, unless it’s one being persecuted for existing.

IF YOU HAD ONE LAST SUPPER TO EAT, BY YOURSELF, WHERE WOULD IT BE AND WHAT WOULD YOU EAT? Fresh Burrata [cheese] with roasted peppers eaten on the navel of Scarlett Johansson. The peppers have to be marinated, though. Otherwise, I’d eat somewhere else.

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