My house in the Cotswolds is the first house I’ve owned but never had sex in.
In 2011 my wife, Alina, and I decided to leave New York City, where I owned and operated several well-known restaurants, and move to London. Like many affluent families living in a city, the moment we settled into our new house we began rapaciously searching for another one. This time for the weekends.
After two years of looking we bought Great Brockhampton Farm. There was nothing Great about Brockhampton Farm. It wasn’t even a farm. Just an ungainly 1919 stone house that had been “modernized” in the 1950s into something genteel and suburban. The formality of its dining room expressed a sad, aspirational quality that made me wonder which of the changes I was about to make would have me looking equally sad to the next owner. But one terrific feature redeemed the dreariness of this middle-class house: It sat amid 15 acres of dreamy, undulating farmland.
The remarkable project manager we hired, Rachel Sadler, came with a crew of four jacks-of-all-trades who each had the charming surname of Little. Of course, the Littles were related to one another, and as with many people whose last name is an adjective, the word reflected their character. They worked as discreetly as dormice, and even their hammering appeared subdued. Luckily, they quickly accepted my idiosyncratic way of working. Over the previous 30-odd years, I had renovated four houses in New York, Martha’s Vineyard, and London, plus a dozen Manhattan restaurants, including Balthazar and Pastis.
Due to a couple of restaurant failures, my finances had recently become wobbly, but I was hoping to rectify this in my next one, Augustine, the success of which I was counting on to pay for the renovation of Great Brockhampton Farm (G.B.F.). To romanticize going colossally over budget, some people have the gall to call themselves perfectionists. I’m one of those people. Regrettably, there’s no limit to the money I won’t spend—even money I don’t have—to make something perfect. And by perfect I mean imperfect and undesigned-looking.
The person I collaborate with on all my projects is Ian McPheely. Over the course of a project Ian and I work so intensely together that at one point on every job we have an almighty argument, and I vow never to work with him again. However, the next day I realize how desperately I rely on him and slavishly beg forgiveness. Ian and I labored side by side on the renovation of the Cotswolds house, and for the first time in 30 years, we didn’t have one argument.
A priority at G.B.F. was to throw out every one of the 40 windows with fake leaded panes and replace them with windows with real individual lead panes. This was expensive but crucial, as there are few things that repulse me more than windows with artificial lead dividers.
I find the color and texture of old American pine to be far richer than European pine, and for this reason I spent three weeks combing eastern Pennsylvania and Connecticut for 500 wide-plank 19th-century floorboards. I also bought some early–19th century batten doors. Half of these were coated with decades of oil paint. In stripping them, I discovered that oil paint, over time, oxidizes pine and turns it a sensational honey color while drawing out its luscious texture.
Late in the day I’ve come to realize that texture is essential to every space I create. The gradual, almost imperceptible buildup of layers is typified in the way I construct interior walls. Although it’s tempting to use the much cheaper Sheetrock, I prefer traditional plaster. I first apply three separate coats and then rub chalk paint and various waxes into the final surface. I’m not sure friends can see the difference, but I like to think they can feel it.
The reason why guests at a party always gravitate to the kitchen is because that’s the room where everybody feels comfortable. Since G.B.F. is not landmarked, I was able to knock down the wall between the small kitchen and the dining room to create one large, deeply unfussy kitchen. I don’t believe the working area should face a window, but rather face outwards to help promote engagement with people.
Being no fan of symmetry, I like to break kitchen-counter space into sections using a different material on each surface. At G.B.F. we made one counter out of hammered copper, another out of marble, and the third out of black granite, which was a mistake and I loathed it on sight. On every renovation there are always things I regret doing. (As in life, I wish that each renovation was a rehearsal for the real one.) The granite counter was the one thing I regretted most at G.B.F. It reminds me of the type of counter one sees in a catalog of contemporary kitchens. Unfortunately, it was chosen by my wife, and not wishing to end up divorced I kept it.
The most important element in all my renovations is lighting. Disliking overhead lighting, I use lots of wall sconces and table lamps. Because I’ve got a lorry-load of paintings, competition for wall space between the paintings and the sconces can be fierce. The only certainty is I’m going to regret which of the two I cave in to.
Although it broke me financially (and in other ways too), the house came out really well, and for once I wasn’t frustrated by the end result. There’s an old Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs.” I think He must have gotten wind of my plans because on the homestretch things started to go wrong.
About three quarters in, Augustine—the restaurant that, if well reviewed, was going to pay for the renovations—opened to lousy reviews. Two weeks later I had a severe stroke that left my right side half paralyzed and my speech so badly affected that whenever I spoke it sounded as though I were speaking underwater. But God wasn’t finished yet, because four months after we moved in, He delivered His punch line: My wife filed for divorce.
On the plus side, at least I could now change the black granite counter. Except that since the divorce and the stroke cost me an arm and a leg, I could no longer afford it.
Get the Look of Keith McNally’s English Countryside Home
A month after my divorce I opened yet another restaurant in New York: a new Pastis. Fortunately, it’s been a success, and my wobbly finances are finally stabilizing. But Pastis did more than benefit me commercially. The rigors of building this 200-seat restaurant helped me to rediscover my self-esteem, which I’d been robbed of by both the stroke and the divorce.
Nowadays I spend a fair bit of time in New York overseeing Pastis and my other restaurants. But I also spend a lot of time in the Cotswolds house, mainly because it’s still not finished: I still have to change the black granite counter.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest