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When Keith Met Nora: Food For Thought

In January 2004, as part of a series of conversations between notable New Yorkers for Bergdorf Goodman magazine, which I edited during that decade, I asked the late essayist, author and film director Nora Ephron, who would die in 2012, who she’d most like to have lunch with, and she named restaurateur Keith McNally. Which reminded me that Ephron’s only novel was the comic triumph, Heartburn, about the breakup of a cookbook author’s power-couple marriage. Ephron, who also wrote Crazy Salad, Scribble Scribble and Wallflower at the Orgy, was then best-known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood, and Sleepless in Seattle, and the director of the last, as well as of Michael and You’ve Got Mail. She took time out from pre-production of her next picture, Bewitched, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, to meet McNally at his Schiller’s Liquor Bar, then the latest (and, he swore, last) in his stellar string of restaurant classics: Odeon, Café Luxembourg, Lucky Strike, Pravda, Nell’s, Balthazar and Pastis (and more recently, Morandi). But neither of them ate much. They were too busy chewing over each other’s careers.

NORA EPHRON: I was reading an interview where you said that you get fixated on one thing and it inspires the whole restaurant. What was it here?

KEITH McNALLY: The old pebbled wire glass. You can’t buy it any more, so I went to factories to persuade the guys who own the factories to sell it to me. First, I got the current kind of glass that you can get from hardware stores, and I wasn’t happy with it. Well, it sounds ridiculous. But I don’t want the places to be over art directed. The films I like have very minimal art direction. I’m always afraid of making my places theatrical. It’s a fine line between what’s artificial and designed, and what seems indigenous. Obviously, they’re not indigenous, they weren’t forged here. But I try to make it feel as if the place is lived in.

BG: What was this place before?

KM: An old pharmacy that had been derelict for ten years.

BG: So, have you two ever met?

KM: Oh, many times.

NE: We’ve never had a conversation.

KM: But I’ve shaken her hand…

NE: We’ve been in the same room.

KM: We’ve eaten in the same room together–

NE: –on many occasions. I actually am a friend of his ex-wife.

KM: And a friend of an old friend of mine, George Fenton. I was in a play with George when I was 17.

NE: I was reading about your theatrical career–

KM: Well, I wouldn’t call it a career. When I about 17, I was in a couple of plays. I was in a play by Alan Bennett, and another person who was in it was George Fenton.

NE: George is a composer who does movie scores. He did the music of the last two movies that I did. And I love him.

KM: I actually made a couple of movies. He was going to make the music for one of my films, and he didn’t in the end because he was busy, as he often is — on bigger and better films, probably.

BG: You went from acting to making films?

KM: Well, it was barely acting. And then I made some short films.

NE: Then you came to America and worked at Maxwell’s Plum. Do you think Warner [LeRoy, who owned Maxwell’s Plum] laid a glove on you in some way?

KM: You make it sound like a pickup.

NE: No-no, no-no. I mean–

KM: Actually, no, I don’t think so. I was certainly influenced by the place I worked after that, One Fifth. I found Maxwell’s Plum over the top and I wasn’t very good at the job, but maybe there was something theatrical that I took to.

NE: Well, it was theatrical. Maxwell’s Plum was insane.

BG: Have you always gone to Keith’s restaurants, Nora?

NE: I live on Upper West Side, where until recently, you couldn’t go to any restaurant except Cafe Luxembourg. “When Harry Met Sally” was shot in Cafe Luxembourg right after it opened, and I was really excited, because I thought, “Now I can get a table there.” And I could. It helped.

KM: My favorite scene in the film is actually when they come out, or when they supposedly come out, of Cafe Luxembourg.

NE: And they’re on West Broadway, miles away.

KM: And she rushes off into a cab with the guy she’s just met. It’s wonderful. After all this maneuvering to get that couple to meet. It’s wonderfully awkward and embarrassing. It’s lovely. I like that scene.

NE: The day we shot that scene was a classic day in one’s life as a screenwriter, because there was a huge amount of play and improvising in the course of shooting this scene, and it just got better and better as the day went on. And I walked out of the restaurant not just thrilled that now I could get a table at Café Lux, but that the movie was going to be so wonderful. But that night I went to dailies and saw rushes of the scene we’d shot the day before and I went home and said to my husband, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever been involved with.”

KM: Can you see the movies now? Are you able to watch them?

NE: No. But you have to watch your old restaurants all the time — like a hawk.

KM: Well, restaurants are different from films. The advantage of a film is that when it’s done, it’s frozen, it’s finished. If you go to see a film on Monday and I go on Wednesday, we see the same film. Your experience in a restaurant may be vastly different from my experience.

NE: So that, I suppose, is what they meant when they said restaurants are the new theater.

KM: I don’t agree with that. But I do tend to think that there’s an advantage and disadvantage to having something frozen and locked up. The disadvantage being that you can’t change anything.

NE: I can always watch my movies until the moment I can’t change them, and then I am bored to death by them, because…It’s done. But when they started saying things like “restaurants are the new theater,” I remember thinking, theater is theater and restaurants are restaurants. But I have to say, without going too far, that when I go to a place like Balthazar, I actually feel that there is some justification for that sentence. It almost has a narrative, it almost has a plot, that restaurant. And it’s one of the reasons why, every time I go to Paris, I’m always looking for it in vain.

KM: Yes, but if it does have a plot, I think I have probably lost it. But in the end, I probably like a restaurant for what it provokes in terms of conversation. And I think that for me, when I go to France, I don’t look to reproduce what I have here. I like the fact that I can go into a cafe and linger over an espresso for hours, and read, or talk to somebody. It’s that experience that prompted me to build restaurants, not wanting to provide someone with a wonderful steak frites or bouillabaisse.

NE: How many restaurants are there now?

KM: Well, a lot of them I don’t own, because I sold them back to your friend, my ex-wife, who I’m on very good terms with. So I don’t own the Odeon or Cafe Luxembourg or Nell’s, but I own Lucky Strike and Pravda and this place and Balthazar and Pastis — and the bakery, the bakeries — we have a kind of plant in New Jersey. The oven started out being in the basement at Balthazar, but we started to do wholesale, and we started to sell a little bit more bread than we could make, so we had to have a second oven.

BG: Was the bakery business an accident?

KM: No, it wasn’t an accident. [It came about] partly through knowing Eli [Zabar] and going to Paris a lot and going to bakeries and watching. Eli and I used to be very good friends. In fact, we spent the night in a bakery in Paris once, in Pigalle, all night long, watching this great baker work. He was in his shorts, the baker. And I took a course at the New School in baking. I realized I like bread.

NE: You took a course at the New School?

KM: About 12 or 15 years ago. And then we started making bread at Lucky Strike. Everything is hand-kneaded. It’s not mechanized in any way.

NE: It’s “artisanal,” this new word that came creeping into the language.

KM: No, we’ve already dropped that word.

NE: Oh, I’m glad. Thank you for telling me. I’m ashamed I said it.

KM: So the last two nights I spent watching a couple of your films. I hadn’t seen “Sleepless In Seattle” and what’s the other one?

NE: “You’ve Got Mail”? Really? Back to back?

KM: Back to back. And I saw “Harry Met Sally” the night before that. So I saw those three in a row.

NE: So are you in the mood for love?

KM: I’m never in the mood for love actually, and that’s one of my problems. But when you see them so closely together you see the similarities and you see the same themes recurring in a way that you may not when you’re putting them together. Are you conscious of the same things coming up?

NE: Well, I’m conscious that structurally those movies have the misunderstanding followed by the rapprochement, followed by the even bigger misunderstanding, followed by the final rapprochement. There’s a kind of formula to those things that, sure, you’re aware of. And if you weren’t aware of them, then you’re on a million panels which cause you to be aware of them.

KM: A Christmas tree showed up in each of those films.

NE: Well, I have a disease about twinkle lights. I’m a sucker for twinkle lights, and they’re all over my apartment. I love restaurants with twinkle lights, and I salute you for not having any in any of your restaurants.

KM: But we do.

NE: You do? Where?

KM: We do at Christmas.

NE: Oh, at Christmas. But I have them all the time. Why should there be twinkle lights only on Christmas? Where is it written?

[The waiter came and everyone ordered, except Ephron, who’d already had lunch at Balthazar before coming to Schiller’s. Then the meeting of the mutual admiration society began again.]

NE: As I was thinking about talking today, I remembered a book I read when we were doing “You’ve Got Mail”—“The Great Good Place” by a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg. He writes about the concept of a third place; that in Europe it’s always been understood that there were three places — the place you worked, the place you lived, and the place you went to when you weren’t in those places.

KM: The cafe, yes.

NE: And one of the things that “You’ve Got Mail” is about is the power of the third place, the power of the Barnes & Noble and the gym where you can do your laundry.

KM: Yeah, I love that.

NE: It’s that idea that I think is so powerful, and is actually one of the reasons why New York and a lot of cities have become safer. That there are people watching the street. People sit in Starbucks and look out the window.

KM: Why do the women always end up with the men in your films? Why is there a happy ending?

NE: Why is there a happy ending of a romantic comedy?

KM: I think there are great films without happy endings, absolutely.

NE: Oh, I think so, too. I really want to make one some day. I actually wrote a couple. And you know something? They haven’t been made. So I feel sad that you even raised this. It’s mean of you.

KM: It’s just that I’m attracted to films with endings that are not reassuring.

NE: Yeah, I am, too. But one of the things “Sleepless” is about is the power of a certain kind of movie. And it’s fun to make those movies. It’s fun to make a movie that does that thing it’s supposed to do

KM: I think if the film works, that convention in the end doesn’t matter. I think American films of the ’70s were great. I was listing films that I really like the other day, and I realized that so many of them were American films made in the ’70s. It was a fertile period. And I think something happened that changed that in America.

NE: There’s no question of that, yes.

KM: I think it was Steven Spielberg . Spielberg introduced the blockbuster and the huge, successful film. I think he’s a fantastic guy and technically really gifted, but for me he’s like a really gifted sculptor who makes sculptures for 9-year-olds.

NE: I think it’s almost adorable that you think one person could cause this. Videogame culture, to me, is a much bigger influence on what movies are. Do you remember that early videogame called Pong? You take a culture that is bred on television and videogames and an economy that is driven by what teenage boys want–

KM: I totally agree. I don’t think it’s one person. But I think there’s no coincidence that the interest of every filmmaker and the general public in the film’s grosses over the first weekend was stimulated by the rise of the big George Lucas and Steven Spielberg films. I mean, my kids talk about first weekends!

NE: But you know, no one ever used to talk about who the head of CBS was, either. Nobody knew who the head of CBS was.

KM: I still don’t.

NE: And Nielsen ratings, and all these things that are now in the paper, covered not just in “Variety,” where I read them as a child growing up in a show business family, but everywhere now. I think it’s ludicrous. And the pressure to open! “Did it open?” That horrible expression. On the other hand, there are tiny points of light. This year, the documentaries have been so unbelievable!

KM: Oh, I saw the one on Louis Kahn.

NE: Didn’t you love that?

KM: Absolutely. “My Architect.” I was thinking that one other thing that happened was the introduction of those big cinemas, where you take escalators to see a film. The first time I ever got onto an escalator, going to see a film, I thought, “There’s something wrong about this.” It’s terrible the way one accepts it after a while. But there were so many wonderful independent cinemas. The Thalia and the New Yorker and the Bleecker and the Carnegie. I hate being nostalgic, but that was one great thing about the fact that there were no videos. It meant that when you looked in the “Village Voice” and a certain film — “The Third Man” — was on, you had to go that day, because if you missed it, it might be another six months before you could possibly see it again. It’s like having that replay system and you don’t look at anything thoroughly, because you can replay it. I think you shouldn’t have the capability to replay or see anything twice. You should only be able to see it once, and then really get something out of it.

NE: Don’t be too nostalgic about this stuff.

KM: But don’t you miss those cinemas?

NE: I really miss them. To see how those multiplexes have hurt not just the movie business, but themselves. .. I mean, West 42nd Street where there are two giant multiplexes across the street from one another. There’s not enough business for them! That huge one on West 34th Street, there’s no one there. And stadium seating, which everyone thinks is so great, is death for comedies, because you don’t have the sense of the audience laughing around you.

KM: I remember when I read “Heartburn,” there were recipes between chapters, weren’t there?

NE: I was reading your cookbook and thinking about cookbooks and what a great thing it is when you write something down that people then can take home and use. I love that people tell me that they still use my vinaigrette. I feel I’m there. I did something. I made a dressing for their salad.

KM: Did you read Bob Hughes’ introduction to the cookook?

NE: I loved that piece. It’s just a wonderful piece

KM: You know, he’d had this terrible car accident a couple of years ago in Australia, and I’d known him, but not that well. And I knew that he liked cooking and I knew that he liked food. And I didn’t want someone who was a food writer; I wanted a writer who liked food. I should have asked you. But anyway, I called him up and said, “Mr. Hughes”–I didn’t know him that well—“would you be interested in writing a cookbook?” He said, “I’m writing a book about Goya. I absolutely don’t want to write a cookbook.” I said, “But if you do, I’ll give you food for life.” Bob said, “I’ve always wanted to write a cookbook.” So he gets food for life at Balthazar.

NE: You should have asked me. I would have said yes.

KM: I didn’t know you. So you’ll see every other night in Soho, a waiter walking to West Broadway to deliver to Bob Hughes’ loft on the corner. The waiter is dressed up, like a French waiter. It looks so surreal. It looks like it’s a movie.

NE: I’m getting clothes for life from Bergdorf Goodman for doing this interview.

KM: I’m getting a lot more than that. You should renegotiate your contract.