Bill Kearney

20th August 2015

Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin Vargas

20th August 2015

Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin Vargas

In our first New Orleans interview, with chef Melissa Martin, we visited the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods which is still finding its feet 10 years on from Hurricane Katrina. This interview takes us uptown to an altogether more prosperous neighbourhood, behind the grand mansions on St Charles Avenue and a stroll from leafy Audubon Park. We’re going for breakfast with Bill Kearney – wine expert, co-owner of the legendary Galatoire’s restaurant in the French Quarter, and a New Orleans gentleman to the seams of his linen suit.

Before we arrive, Bill’s wife Karyn emails promising us her mother’s “World Famous Pancake Buffet prepared by my son Pierce and me… I hope you like whipped cream, Louisiana strawberries and sprinkles.” (We do.) It’s Karyn who welcomes us in and shows us around the house, which is at once grand and homely. Neighbouring kids and their parents drift in and out, some of them lingering for breakfast – it’s that kind of household. Bill, who is out buying groceries when we arrive, appears 20 minutes later and engages us in a political discussion (he’s eager to talk about the recent Scottish referendum) before the conversation turns to food and wine.

The pancakes with bacon, berries and various sugary delights, which we eat standing up in the kitchen, are merely an appetiser. Afterwards Bill sets the table and Karyn serves up a basket of pain perdu (fried egg-soaked bread) alongside shrimp and grits – a more perfect New Orleans breakfast we struggle to imagine.

Then we head off to for a tour of Bill’s restaurant (it’s pronounced “Galat-wahs”), which he bought with a small group of investors six years ago. This wonderful old-school institution, established in 1896, has always been his favourite haunt – he proposed to Karyn here when they were still just customers. Now he’s CEO and often works the floor as well as developing the extensive wine list. He orders us Bloody Marys and we soak up the atmosphere a little longer before saying goodbye. Ceiling fans whir overhead, immaculately turned-out waiters glide across the floor. Compared to the heaving, bustling city that awaits us when we step outside, it feels like a different world.

Continued below...

Tell us a bit about your upbringing.

I was born and raised in New Orleans. I’m fifth generation here – my forebears were Irish immigrants who worked on the canals and railroads. I’ve been in New Orleans my whole life and I am not going anywhere else. In many respects I’ve never left my own zip code, which is somewhat pitiful, but as I tell people who come here: “Be careful, there’s something in the water, it’ll get in your blood and you’ll never leave”.

What was the food like at home?

In many ways it was traditional New Orleans cuisine: red beans and rice on Mondays, fried chicken on Thursdays. It’s funny how certain dishes were associated with particular days. We ate out a lot too.

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

What was the restaurant scene in New Orleans like back then?

There have always been the classic traditional restaurants like Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s that have been here for generations. Antoine’s in the French Quarter is celebrating 175 years of continuous operation, which is pretty amazing. Galatoire’s is 110. You know, I first started going to Galatoire’s with my grandparents.

Eating out is not just a celebration, it’s part of our culture. New Orleans is one of the top restaurant cities in America

On special occasions?

They went almost every Sunday. Eating out is not just a celebration in New Orleans, it is really part of our culture. If you look at other similar southern cities, they have nowhere near the same restaurant count. New Orleans is always one of the top three or four restaurant cities in America. To be up there with New York, San Francisco and Chicago and others, given our size, is pretty amazing.

Tell us about Galatoire’s history.

It was started it in 1905 by a General John Galatoire. His first stop was in Birmingham, Alabama – he opened a restaurant there but it didn’t work so well so he moved on to New Orleans and opened Galatoire’s in this very location. Many things haven’t changed since then: the no-reservation policy on the first floor; the dress code (gentlemen are required to wear jackets). It’s not for everybody but it’s a remarkably unique restaurant, not just in its cuisine but also its culture. We have families of waiters that are now in their third generation. We’ve got three father and son teams working here and they can’t imagine working anywhere else.

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

There must be a few good stories floating around.

More than a few. A while back a group of women were having lunch and one of their bags was moving so the manager called me out. I said, “Ma’am is there anything in your bag?” She says, “No no, you must be mistaken.” Next thing I know a baby kangaroo ducked its head out.

I did not expect you to say that.

No you wouldn’t. So we go over and say, “Ma’am, I’m sorry but you can’t have kangaroos in Galatoire’s. If other people want to allow kangaroos in their restaurants it’s up to them, but this is something we feel particularly strongly about.”

“Leidenheimer’s is the most famous bakery in the city. It’s the one that all the old-time restaurants have been using for decades.”
Bill on his favourite New Orleans food places – see Address Book

That’s amazing. Are you in the restaurant every day?

I probably go in two or three days a week. I oversee our wine programme. I’ve been collecting wine for the better part of 20 years – it started as a hobby but it’s helped me build up the wine list at the restaurant. Originally we had two pages; now we have 26 – a lot of good Bordeaux, a good Burgundy selection, a lot of Californian cabernets…

It can’t be cheap, building up a list like that.

I think if you if you want to be really successful you’re looking at spending $750,000 at least. So it’s not for the faint of heart, because if you don’t understand the grape you just have a lot of bottles of wine. You have to have a balance; you can’t just focus on French or Californian or Spanish. And you have to keep working on it. We probably sample 40 to 50 wines a week from different providers.

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

Can anyone become a wine expert? I’m pretty certain my palate isn’t sensitive enough.

It very quickly goes beyond the intellectual – you have to have some God-given abilities on your palate to understand what you’re tasting and match it up with your brain and be able to verbalise it. There are three levels of certification for sommeliers and getting to master sommelier is very, very difficult. It takes years.

What are your favourite wine regions?

I’m very much a lover of French wines: Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone valley. Now at Galatoire’s we have one of the largest collections of DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) there is.

Do you go to a lot of auctions?

I do online auctions. You got to be careful, because who knows what you’re getting? There have been so many tremendous losses in the last few years due to fraud and counterfeit wines.

How does one counterfeit wine?

It’s relatively easy with advanced printing techniques. It takes a couple of hours to do up a 1934 label and slap it on. There was a massive case in New York recently. A guy was convicted of fraud – he was travelling the world as a wine expert and showing up with all these magnums and three-litre bottles of wines that no one even knew about – for good reason, it turns out!

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

How many bottles do you have in your personal collection?

About 2000. I keep most of it in a storage facility in New Orleans.

Do you have a favourite bottle in your collection?

A Vosne-Romanée from Liger-Belair in Burgundy.

Do you buy to drink or as an investment?

Definitely to drink. I never buy to resell. My wife likes to say she’s been spoiled in wine. I don’t golf, I don’t hunt, so she gets to share in my obsessions.

Is there a big wine community in New Orleans?

Yeah I think every community has a certain niche following. Ours is fairly avid, but our whole food and restaurant scene has just exploded post-Katrina. Before Katrina we had 800 restaurants and now we have over 1200, with 140,000 fewer people in the city1. It doesn’t seem logical, but it’s been pretty phenomenal. Tourism has helped, although Galatoire’s is a little bit different – we have a strong local following.

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

Was the restaurant damaged during Katrina?

The French Quarter is elevated so the flooding was minimal, but we had to rip out all of our freezers and things of that nature because the food spoils without power. It was devastating for the city, but we have rebounded in many ways.

At home, how do you divide up kitchen duties?

Karyn: As long as he is pouring the wine, I’m happy to cook.
Bill: My wife is far more talented in the kitchen that I am, but put me on the grill or in barbecue pit and I can do some fun things.
Karyn: We enjoy entertaining here. In fact, we are having some friends over tonight.

I said, “Ma’am is there anything in your bag?” She says, “No no, you must be mistaken.” Next thing I know a baby kangaroo ducked its head out

What are you cooking?

Karyn: Tonight we’re having Mexican – chicken enchiladas.

What else do you like to cook?

Karyn: Traditional dishes like red beans and rice – I’ll let them cook all day. The trick is put a few of them in the blender and then put them back in the pan. I like to grill as well. It’s a fun way to cook with the children. Pierce enjoys cooking with me; we’ll get on the internet and find a recipe. This week we did PF Chang’s lettuce wraps2.

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

How often do go out for dinner?

Bill: I’d say at least two or three nights a week. This week we ate out four times: Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
Karyn: Which is too much for me. I am more of a homebody than he is. I like to be at home during the week with the boys. We sit around and turn the TV off.

Is there a no-TV rule at the dinner table?

Karyn: No TV, no cell phone. Our boys always ask us: “What did you do today, how was your day?”. That’s just a way to stay in touch. As boys get older they aren’t always as talkative but thank goodness ours still are. I want to keep them engaged and talking to us and the dinner table is really important for that. When I was a young girl we sat at the table together, there was no TV, just conversation, we talked about what’s happening in the world, the crisis in the Middle East… it was fun. So I want to hear their perspective on things.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Karyn and Bill Kearney
New Orleans, May 2015

To eat:

Anita’s world famous pancake buffet (pancakes, crispy bacon, strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream, syrup, sugar & chocolate sprinkles)
Pain perdu »
Shrimps and grits casserole »

To drink:

Filter coffee
Tropicana orange juice

Was communal eating important in your family too?

Bill: Absolutely. In the Deep South we hold true to those traditions. The family should be together at the dinner. We all lead such busy lives going in many different directions and we need to take time to break bread and thank god for all our blessings and have these conversations.
Karyn: We schedule it, we sync our calendars on Sundays: okay, Thursday night everybody needs to be at home.

Are your kids adventurous eaters?

Karyn: Yes, and that’s the neat thing about raising children in New Orleans. They love things like escargots and lobster Thermidor. It’s nice to see them be adventurous with food because so many children just don’t have that opportunity. They like smoked salmon, they like a good rib-eye. I do remind them on a regular basis that I was not fortunate enough to have lobster Thermidor until I was about 45.

For more about Galatoire’s, visit their website or follow them on Twitter

New Orleans, May 2015; BILL KEARNEY of Galatoire's

  1. According to a 2010 census, the population of New Orleans dropped by 30% since 2000, a decrease of 140,845 people, partly due to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005
  2. PF Chang’s is an Asian-themed restaurant chain with more than 200 restaurants around the US and more than 50 around the world

Posted 20th August 2015

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Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin Vargas

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