PW met McNally, who owns four New York restaurants, on a recent afternoon at Balthazar. Late afternoon lunches were just wrapping up, and a few hopeful job seekers were filling out applications to work at the restaurant. (PW almost wound up completing one, too, until the waiters realized "the interview" we referred to was not a job interview but an interview with their boss.) Schiller's is McNally's fifth restaurant to open.
PW: How did you get art critic Robert Hughes to write the introduction to The Balthazar Cookbook ?
Keith McNally: At first, I met some journalists who write for the Times and for various magazines, but they were all food writers, and I realized as I was talking to them that [they were part] of a clichéd world I wanted to avoid. Instead of having a food writer, I wanted a writer who liked food. So I had a list of people, and Bob was at the top of that list. I called him, and of course he said "no" right away. He was finishing a book on Goya, which was marginally more serious than some Balthazar soufflés. And then he came back and said, "Maybe... I quite like the restaurant, and it might be interesting for me to do it. I only do jobs where I think I can learn something."
PW: In his foreword, Hughes discusses the remarkable difference between the calm of Balthazar's dining room and the calamity of its kitchen. Do you think the situation at Balthazar is any different from that at other restaurants?
KM: There is a huge difference between what goes on back of house and what goes on front of house [in many restaurants]. I think there's been a sudden interest in that, with Kitchen Confidential [by Anthony Bourdain] and that reality show [NBC's The Restaurant]. Most of what Bourdain says is true; it's a completely different world outside. And there's a different kind of person who works back of house or front of house. It's like people who play forward or defense on hockey or football teams.
PW: Do you think Balthazar's cuisine is approachable for home chefs?
KM: Definitely. I can cook a lot of it, so I think if I can—and I'm not a very good cook—then most people can. There are a couple of things that take quite a while. The bouillabaisse is quite complicated, and the shellfish platter is difficult in another way.
PW: Do you think home chefs are really going to make french fries?
KM: I think our fries are particularly good, so people might want to reproduce them. They have to be better than the french fries that my mother made, because they were the worst in Europe, I think. I don't know if people will be able to make them, or whether they will. It's something I wouldn't attempt, to be honest. But it's there if they want it. We had to include the recipe because we sell so many—it's almost 750 pounds of fries a day.
PW: You grew up in England, in "a post-war working-class environment where stomachs, not palettes, mattered," and you didn't eat at a restaurant until you were 17 years old. If you had visited a restaurant like Balthazar at that time, what would you have thought of the place?
KM: I would have been intimidated, for sure. It would have been overwhelming. I would've been terrified of knowing what to order, how to handle the difference between the appetizer knife and forks and the main course knife and forks—I wouldn't have known how to use a knife and fork. But I probably would've liked the animated aspect of it, the movement and the choreography of the waiters, busboys, captains and bartenders.
PW: Can you imagine an English restaurant becoming as popular in New York as Balthazar is?
KM: No, although I like English food a lot more now than I used to. But probably not on this scale, no. I think that would be a bit of a joke.
PW: Balthazar is unquestionably a fashionable restaurant, but, says Hughes, "it doesn't behave like one." Do you find you have to fight certain trends in order to keep the restaurant from becoming fashionable?
KM: Absolutely. It's like walking through the old Times Square without having a destination and having to avoid all the temptations en route. You have to stick to what your original idea was. And it never works if you change and follow trends. Incremental changes occur, but for the most part, I'm not interested in fads.
PW: It looks like it's working out.
KM: It doesn't matter if it works out or not. To me, it has to be something that I feel very comfortable with. I hope that the book, in a sense, is a reflection of the restaurant, in both the food and the look of it. Whether it works or not—it's like building a restaurant. You put it out there, and you hope people come, but there's no guarantee.