“I’m a product of the city. I learned this business and hopefully I’m going to stay here until I retire,” says Murat Akninci, manager and maître d’ of Keith McNally’s Pastis and Morandi restaurants. The hospitality pro has worked in venues all around New York, starting when he arrived from Istanbul in his college years. With this experience under his belt, he has high expectations for the forecast of the business. “There was an inflation of restaurants that just opened up without smart planning. We’re seeing them actually disappear from the scene, opening up space and opportunities. In the next year and a half to two years, there’s going to be a new generation of restaurateurs in New York City.”
What’s your position with Morandi? I do managing of the dining room and also maître d’. These are two different positions. One of them is accommodating guests upon their arrival and finding them the best fit in the restaurants with tables and service, and the other is managing the whole dining room.
What about at Pastis? There, I’m mostly managing the dining room and making sure that service runs well. Making sure that the connection between the kitchen and the dining room is ever-flowing. It’s a very busy place, and that’s what makes everything go round. Once the guest sits down, we have to make sure that they’re taken care of.
What do you enjoy more, being at Morandi or Pastis? Since I’m in the restaurant business, I like all aspects of it. I’m just lucky enough to be on different ends of the management. One of them, being at the door, is more hospitality-oriented; the other one is more operations management, seeing the overall service. So it allows me to be versatile.
How’d you get started? I started working with Keith about a year and a half ago but I’d known him for a while. I came to the U.S. for college from Istanbul, and I started working in restaurants to support myself. College expenses are … well, you know. I studied economics, and instead of doing that, I stuck with the restaurant business.
What was the first restaurant you ever worked? The first restaurant I worked at in the city was the Garage on 7th Avenue South. My most important job was on the corner of Bleecker St. and LaGuardia, a little place called the Village Grill. That’s where I met Richard Emolo, who is the general manager of Barolo and all Paolo Secondo restaurants. He mentored me on what to do, and I took him as an example because he’s an old-school New York City restaurant buff and still going hard. I changed jobs, and I ran some of Keith McNally’s restaurants for a while. I bartended and managed back and forth. I worked at Sushi Samba. I managed the Park Avenue South and 7th Avenue locations, and after that I worked with Simon Oren at L’Express, and I ran French Roast as general manager for about four years. I worked with him in managerial capacity, in and out, for about seven years.
When Morandi first opened, there was a lot of criticism on the location. How do you feel about that? When Keith was working on this project, he brought me in and showed me around. He was very excited, telling me how different things were going to be from some of the other places that he had. When he asked me what I thought about the location, I said, “Keith, you make the locations. Locations don’t make your restaurants.” What it turned out to be is a low-key restaurant, not in a high-turnover neighborhood, with an excellent quality of food and service. I think that Keith is diversifying his clientele. If we’re here, we get a lot of neighborhood people, a lot of returning guests, in a very nice setting that is not actually very busy like the SoHo location or the Meatpacking District location. I think it’s wonderful culinary-wise as well.
Where else do you go out in New York? I work all the time, but I really like Korean food. And of course I like Turkish food. Some of my friends own Turkish restaurants. I go to Zeytin’s Restaurant on Christopher and Columbus, owned by a really good friend of mine. Sometimes a culinary experience for me is going to a taco truck in the city. I specifically go to them before or after work, just to be able to get some flavor that’s off the grid. I like Super Tacos on 96th and Broadway. I go to Pera, which is a Turkish restaurant on Madison Avenue. It’s a new take on Turkish cuisine. From time to time, I do like to go to Sushi of Gari. I like classical types of sushi. And with my wife, I go to Casa Adela on Avenue C. It’s a Puerto Rican restaurant; some good home cooking there.
What about bars? I go to Brass Monkey in the Meatpacking District, which is right around the corner from Pastis. It’s where some of the staff hangs out. In Brooklyn, I go to Union Hall in my neighborhood in Park Slope. It’s an old-style pub, but it’s very well done, and has some good beers on tap. I like one place in the East Village called Decibel with a sake bar.
Any trends you’ve noticed in hospitality? I’m just blessed with working in Keith McNally’s restaurants, because we went on really strong for the last year and a half since I’ve started with this company. Not every place was so fortunate. On a positive note, it was good to see the reaction of established and successful restaurants to hard times. How they’ll change and transform themselves to their desirable destinations and show great examples of accommodation to guests in need. The guest has become the paramount of the restaurant business, and the demands of the guest. This has always been the case with his restaurants. Consumers and guests recognize that, and that’s why they’re flooding into his locations more than ever at this time.
What’s your dream spot for a venue? If I were to open a place, I’d probably open a little restaurant at the beach in the Caribbean somewhere, on the sand, with plastic forks and knives. I’d just sit back and enjoy the view. If any customers come over, I’ll sit down and have a drink or food with them. That’s what I’d like to do.
I hear Morandi does a great breakfast. Better than Balthazar? We don’t get many tourists or people who are transiting. We do get people here because we are a destination for them to come and have breakfast. So, a lot of neighborhood people come in, some business people from the hospital, a lot of people from the institutions in this neighborhood. From the breads, to the hospitality when they come in and see the same people providing them service in an upbeat and positive manner, it attracts the guests here and at other Keith McNally restaurants.
The bread comes from Balthazar Bakery? Yes, all of our bread comes form Balthazar Bakery daily. That’s what I think about when I think of breakfast — bread, coffee, eggs, jam.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?