Interview with Chef Scott Conant
One of New York’s most beloved and respected culinary professionals, Chef Scott Conant brings a deft touch and unwavering passion to creating food that is unexpected and soulful. After 15 years of cooking some of the city’s favorite Italian cuisine, he opened Scarpetta in New York and Miami in 2008. Both received rave critical reviews, an enthusiastic following and established Conant as one of the country’s preeminent Italian chefs. In early 2010, he opened Faustina at The Cooper Square Hotel, where he oversees the hotel’s entire food and beverage program.
Conant’s love of cooking began at an early age. Growing up in an Italian-American household, he began taking cooking classes at age 11 and later attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After graduation, he studied pastry for a year at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany. He returned to New York City to work as a sous chef at The New York Times three-star rated San Domenico, a famed Italian restaurant where Conant externed as a culinary student.
In 1995, Cesare Casella selected him to be chef de cuisine at Il Toscanaccio, an Upper East Side Tuscan restaurant. A year later, Conant went on to revamp two institutions: Barolo in Soho and Chianti on the Upper East Side. When a chance to open a new restaurant presented itself, Conant accepted the position of executive chef at City Eatery. Conant and his modern take on Italian cuisine earned him the attention of New Yorkers and a glowing two-star review from The New York Times in 2000.
In 2001, Conant was approached about opening a restaurant in a quiet, largely undiscovered Manhattan neighborhood called Tudor City. In preparation, he traveled to Italy for an extensive tour where he worked with some of the country’s most celebrated chefs and reconnected with his mother’s relatives in Beneveto. Inspired by his time there, Conant returned to the States with a menu that seamlessly fused the classic dishes of his childhood with his own interpretations of Italian cuisine.
In September 2002, L’Impero opened in Tudor City. Within weeks, the restaurant received a rave three-star review from The New York Times, and Gourmet declared that Conant “raises the roof on the Manhattan school of Italian cooking.” A year later, Conant’s signature pastas appeared on the cover of Food & Wine, and the magazine went on to name Conant one of America’s “Best New Chefs” in 2004. L’Impero received top honors from the James Beard Foundation in 2003, including “Best New Restaurant” in the U.S. and “Outstanding Restaurant Design.” In October 2003, Conant was featured on the cover of Gourmet for its “Chefs Rock” issue, and in March 2004, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl named L’Impero one of her favorite New York restaurants.
Following the success of L’Impero, Conant went on to open Alto, a sophisticated Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan that offered his interpretation of Northern Italian cuisine. Ready for the next chapter in his career, Conant left L’Impero and Alto to bring his years of experience and learning to a restaurant that is 100 percent his own creation. Scarpetta is that restaurant. An Italian expression that means “little shoe” – or the shape bread takes when used to soak up a dish – Scarpetta represents the pure pleasure of savoring a meal down to the very last taste. The restaurant’s design reflects the chef’s earthy yet modern approach to Italian cuisine.
Scarpetta received adoring three-star reviews from The New York Times and New York Magazine in July 2008, and both publications selected Scarpetta as a top 10 new restaurant of the year. In addition, Scarpetta was named one of the “Best New Restaurants in America” by Esquire magazine in November 2008, and received an “Award of Ultimate Distinction” from Wine Enthusiast and a three-star rating from Forbes. The 2009 Zagat Guide included Scarpetta as a “Top Five Newcomer” and a “Top Five Italian Restaurant.” The restaurant received a nomination for Best New Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation in 2009, and was also voted “Best Italian Restaurant” by Time Out New York readers.
In November 2008, Conant opened Scarpetta in Miami Beach at the newly renovated Fontainebleau resort, which went on to receive a four-star review from The Miami Herald, the highest rating possible. Both Scarpetta locations were included in the 2009 “50 Best New U.S. Restaurants” feature in Travel + Leisure magazine.
A natural on television, Conant has appeared on The Today Show, the Food Network, Martha, Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Good Morning America. This summer, he will host “24 Hour Restaurant Battle” on the Food Network. In 2005, he published his first cookbook, New Italian Cooking, followed by April 2008’s Bold Italian, his second cookbook with Random House. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Meltem.
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“This is my forte. Give me an opportunity to talk about me, and normally I take it.” This is how Scott Conant starts our interview. We’re sitting in his office inside the SCM Culinary Suite in Soho, having just finished shooting a slightly wacky interview for The Chefs Connection with Cristina Cote. Our team is all hopped up on espresso, which Conant made for us himself before the camera started rolling.
Scott Conant is a judge on one of my favorite shows (“Chopped”), as well as a renowned chef and entrepreneur. His signature restaurant, Scarpetta, has locations in Miami, Beverly Hills, and Las Vegas, where he also has a wine bar called D.O.C.G. Enoteca. His image as a tough “Chopped” judge doesn’t quite jibe with the funny, espresso-making proud poppa whose office memorabilia includes both a baseball and a Tibetan singing bowl.
The first thing I want to know is what he was like as a kid.
“I was a very shy kid, actually.
“I played a lot of sports. I played baseball, I’m still a huge baseball fan. But I was a shy kid, and I don’t think I came into my own until I was a freshman in high school, when I started working and I found food, I found restaurants, I found kitchens and things like that. And I found something that I was more passionate about than anything really. Clearly more [so] than baseball.
“You know, I look at my daughters, my four-year-old, and my year-and-a-half-old, and I’d never had that personality like they have. My four-year-old has this big personality. She’ll just walk in the room and say, ‘Hi, I’m Ayla.’ And I was never like that as a kid; I’d stay in the background. And clearly I’m not shy, now.”
The Chefs Connection (CC): [Laughs] I see that.
“Clearly! [Laughs] But I was also a middle child. So I think it was very easy to play the background.”
CC: Did you have a lot of friends?
“I didn’t have a lot of friends until I started working … and then what happened was, it was kind of two separate worlds. I had my school friends, and I had my work friends. Two separate groups of people. One, the work guys, much older than the friends that I went to school with.“
CC: So was it hard to be such a driven kid at a young age?
“I think my friends didn’t understand that I would work 60 hours a week, plus go to high school. So, I mean, I don’t know how many hours are in a school day at this point … “
“[Laughs] It [was] a tremendous amount of work! My parents, at least they knew where I was, I wasn’t getting into trouble. I was a good kid. What they didn’t know didn’t hurt them. [Laughs] And then I would just work all the time.
“I was one of those people that once I found Escoffier and once I found Larousse Gastronomique, I would read that stuff all the time. I was just fascinated by it. And I used to have this crazy knowledge of Escoffier. I was nineteen, twenty when I started culinary school at CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and I had this encyclopedic knowledge of Escoffier. People would ask me questions; I’d be like this, this, this, and this. And I’ve since unfortunately forgotten all of it. But I used to really love it.”
CC: What were some of the hardest lessons you had to learn?
“The hardest lessons came much later on. The hardest lessons in life are, I think, despite … [stops to think] .. a couple of things. You realize you’ve got to take care of yourself. No matter how talented you are, no matter who represents you, no matter what the situation is, no matter who your attorney is, all that kind of stuff: you need to take care of yourself. And if you don’t realize that, life is going to kick your ass until you realize. That’s what happened.
“And that’s business, that’s life, and that’s the restaurant world, and that’s any world, and that’s any business. That’s whenever you’re entrepreneurial, whenever you have a talent, people are going to try to get what they can out of that talent. So whether you’re in a restaurant, or you’re on a TV show, or you’re in an interview with a wonderful person like yourself, there’s gonna be things that I don’t want to talk about, there’s gonna be things that you want me to talk about, or there’s going to be money that I’m making that you want, and that I don’t want to give you. And that’s just life.”
CC: Did you ever get either a really great piece of advice, or a piece of advice that was so bad that you learned to do the opposite?
“Well that was most of my career. [Laughs]
“I worked with wonderful people, but I also worked with some really bad people. I remember, there was a time – I could tell you story after story after story – there was a time I worked with some restaurant group. They had a bunch of restaurants here in the city, and in different cities around the U.S., and there were two owners in particular. They decided [that] they needed to send their girlfriends out of town. So they took payroll, which was thirty thousand dollars, they gave it to the two women, they said, ‘Okay, go to Italy!’ Which meant neither me nor my staff could get paid for at least two weeks, because the money’s gone. That was two weeks of payroll.
“There were other moments. I’m not going to go down the list, lists and lists and lists, of things. Listen: everybody brings their own level of ‘stuff’ to the table, right? We’ve all got our baggage. We’ve all got our backgrounds and the things that we’re dealing with and some people deal with the stuff better than others. I think that the learning lesson was, whatever it is that I’m going through, it should never have an effect on my staff. Just like it should never have an effect on my kids. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s MY stuff. It shouldn’t be theirs. If I can’t afford to pay them, then shut the restaurant down, or find the money, or don’t take money.
“But whatever it is, these guys still managed to have their blow, and they still they still managed to have their beautiful apartments, and all the kind of stuff that they had, and we had to suffer. The dishwasher. The pasta cook. Me. The sous chef. Everybody else had to suffer, while they just brushed it off as part of doing business. It IS part of doing business, but it shouldn’t be part of doing business. You know what I mean?”
CC: Absolutely. So how about in a positive way, what great examples did you see?
“You know what? I observe a lot, I really do. I look at other people, and even if I’ve never worked with them, like Jean-Georges, like Danny Meyer, like Daniel Boulud, and like the attitude that Eric Ripert brings to the table. He’s such a positive influence, such a positive individual.”
CC: We just interviewed him, and he was amazing.
“Did you? He’s an amazing, amazing man.”
CC: Buddhist, very centered, very present.
“Exactly. Very present, extremely humble. And also very gracious. Not just gracious with the people that he surrounds himself with, but also gracious with where he is in life. It’s an amazing thing.
“So I always feel like those are the people that I look at. And it’s not just the four star great chefs. There’s also a lot of young guys that I look at all the time. I look at Alex Stupak and what he’s done with Empellón and the intelligence that he brings to his situation. I look at contemporaries like Wylie [Dufresne] at wd~50, and just, again, the intelligence that he brings to the table, the cerebral nature of business that he does. It’s just refreshing sometimes when you speak to and see guys like that, being as successful as they are. And my goal is always to take what’s mine. Take the things that fit and work for me.”
CC: So you’re many things: you’re a chef and a businessman and a TV star. Do you get time in the kitchen?
“I do. I don’t do it as much as I did. Because frankly, let’s think about this: if I were working the pasta station, with all the things that I do … I mean, just look at all the things I have on this board [Indicates the white board on the wall] , and these papers, and this nonsense, all the things that I think about all the time. They’re little one-word things that mean nothing to you, but to me, [there] are huge plans attached to each one of these.
“Teaching someone how to captivate, how to nurture that experience for a guest, is much more important for me, than to be able to cook pasta, or make a piece of fish, right? I’m talking about an overarching goal. And everything is under the umbrella. So I’m clearly not the guy who can spend that time in the kitchen like I did. Even though I love it, it’s just a different … things evolve, passions evolve, things change. I have to use both sides of the brain at this point. And I’m talking about dropping money for the bottom line, and all these things that your normal chef inside of a kitchen doesn’t have to worry about.
“But as a business owner, as an entrepreneur, as someone who is ambitious to a fault, those are the things I have to concern myself with as well. So it’s not just the experience of creating the perfect pasta, but it’s also the economics behind that pasta, and also, the emotions that pass to that customer eating the pasta, and the happiness of the employees eating that pasta and also, how does the design of that space work? And the mood, and the vibe, and the overall ambiance of that room, as well as how it’s being delivered to your table, and what’s the front of house staff wearing, and what’s their training like, and what shoes do they have and what color are their socks, and you know, all those basic things that every restaurant person has to deal with, but I try to deal with it in multiple locations. My goal is, in the next five, ten years, is to have an internationally respected hospitality program.”
CC: Everybody always asks female chefs, ‘How do you balance work and family life?’ No one asks the men how they balance their work, their life, their families. You have two young children, right?
“Two young kids. And by the way, there’s nothing … it’s funny how life works, right? You work your ass off in life, in order to get to a point where you have kids, and then you realize, nothing else matters. You have kids?”
CC: I have two.
“Right, you have kids, and you realize, there’s no place else in the world you’d rather be, at any point in time, than hanging out with those kids. Which is crazy. It’s crazy!”
CC: Especially when you’ve dedicated so much of your life to these other pursuits.
“These other pursuits, and of course, I can’t turn my back on them because I love them, I just don’t love them equally. [Laughs] And that’s the funny thing. Happiness with your kids and your family is suddenly the most important thing in the world to you. “
CC: So how do you juggle the time?
“It’s the toughest thing in the world. If I had answers, and if I had right answers on this, I think I’d probably write a book on it. But the fact of the matter is, there’s going to be disappointments. I’m going to disappoint those girls. I’m going to disappoint my wife. I’m going to disappoint myself. I’m going to disappoint my staff sometimes, because there’s going to be times when I unplug the phone and walk away. They’re going to get pissed off. And there’s going to be times when I travel for two weeks, and I’m FaceTiming with my daughter, and she says, ‘Dada, how come you don’t call us anymore? How come you’re not home?’ That’s heartbreaking sh**. And I apologize for it beforehand, with my wife and my family, and with my kids all the time, which is the hardest thing in the world.”
CC: This has turned into such a sad topic!
“But it’s what it is. And you know what? I’m also good with the fact that I’m trying to create something for them. I’m also providing. This just happens to be my job.
“I sound like I’m a hit man, and I’m killing people. ‘It’s my job!’
“At the end of the day, I also am very passionate and I love what I do. I wouldn’t change my job for anything else in the world. But sometimes there’s gotta be a check-out, you know?
CC: It’s good for the kids anyway to see parents who are loving what they’re doing and involved in it.
“[Not entirely convincingly] Yeah.”
CC: It is!
“Years of therapy.”
CC: It’s better than seeing parents who come home at the end of the day saying, “I hate my job.”
“Absolutely. I grew up with parents that were loving, and caring, but never loved what they did. They did what they did in order to provide. And I want to be able to provide, live a good life, and also be really proud of what I’m doing. Have THEM be proud, you know?
“I went into my four-year-old’s class the other day; she’s in nursery school. I walked into this class, and I did a cooking demo. We made little ricotta dumplings and a stewed baby tomato stew, like a tomato sauce. And my four-year-old was like, ‘That’s my Dada, that’s my Dada.’ And let me tell you something: that was the best thing in the world. You know, that’s awesome! Best reviews I’ve ever gotten in my life, from those little kids.”
CC: And they’ll tell you the truth.
“They will tell you the truth! They don’t like it, they don’t like it. But I literally made two little dumplings for each one of those kids and they housed like five or six dumplings. I couldn’t keep up, making these dumplings for these kids. That was awesome.”
CC: So are your kids good eaters? Are they adventurous?
“They are, uh … no. They’re not. Not at all. [Laughs]”
CC: I was hoping you had a secret for me!
“No. I got nothing.
“You know what? I try to involve them in the process. And I notice that if they’re involved, they’re more willing to taste. That’s all. And I’ll ask questions, like, ‘What do you think about this? And what about this and what about that? Should we add this?’ And she’ll say, ‘No, it’s this.’”
CC: Let’s talk about TV, because I am obsessed with “Chopped.” What was your first experience doing any TV?
“I did the regular “Today Show” stuff, and you know, local stuff cooking with people and all that kind of nonsense. I had a product line on the Home Shopping Network for a while.”
CC: Did you? What was it?
“It was called ‘Scott Conant’s Signature Creations’. Whatever that means. [Editor’s note: it was a line of cookware.] And I got comfortable in front of the camera doing stuff like that. And clearly failed miserably. [Laughs] At the time. And ‘Chopped’ came along, and I did a show for a couple of seasons called ’24 Hour Restaurant Battle,’ which um … which … I like television. I enjoy it, I really do. I like doing it. I don’t watch it. If I watch TV, I watch … I watched the Final Four over the weekend, I watch the Yankee game, I watch ESPN or something like that. I watch ‘Scooby Doo’ now.”
[We chat for a bit about kids shows, declaring our mutual affinity for “Phineas and Ferb,” among others. I confess it’s pretty funny to hear Scott Conant say, with enthusiasm, “I LOVE Curious George!”]
CC: Do the girls watch you on TV?
“No. Not at all.”
CC: How come?
“I don’t know. They’re just not impressed. My daughter’ll look up and go, ‘Yeah. It’s Dada.’ And then, back to her thing.”
CC: Now you brought this up earlier when you talked to [our video host] Cristina, but when you’re interviewed, you’re always asked why you’re so mean on “Chopped.” Why do you think people perceive you that way?
“What’s the opposite of mean? Nice. So if you’re not nice, they think you’re mean. And for me, I don’t want to be nice. I don’t want to be mean, either. I want to be respectful. Right? And I want to get the point across, and I want to be honest. So you’re being honest, you’re being respectful, you’re getting your point across … I don’t sugarcoat things. I want people to understand what they’ve done right or what they’ve done wrong. And if I add niceties to it, that just isn’t realistic.
“People want me to, like … I don’t know what people want, to be honest with you. I don’t spend my time — [laughs] — I don’t waste my time trying to figure out what they want! I want to do what I want to do, and I want to make people happy while I’m doing it.
“I gotta tell you something – other than maybe two people who’ve walked out of that place – they may have not liked my decision, but they respected where it comes from. They can not like the decision, but they’re going to like me, because I’m going to be honest. I’m going to talk to them, and I’m going to speak from the heart.
“Now the edit, that’s a different thing. There’s such a thing as the unkind edit. And the unkind edit, I can’t control that. All I can control is what I can control, and I’m going to let it go from there. You know, it’s the Taoist practice: you do your work, and then, that’s all you can do. The rest is in the universe’s hands. I got nothin’. I’m just doing my work.
“And listen, I have fun. And that’s the most important thing. It’s a marketing and advertising platform for all the restaurants that I have. And I’ll continue to do it, and I’ll continue to grow and evolve.”
CC: Do you like doing the “” show that you guys have on the web? That seems fun, you all look more relaxed.
“That’s fun. You know, I always have a couple of drinks, which makes things go a little bit easier.”
CC: That’s why it looks like more fun!
“That’s why everybody’s like, ‘I never saw Scott have such a good time!’ Well yeah first of all it’s different, number one. Number two, I’m half in the bag. [Laughs]”
CC: That’s your secret!
“It’s the secret to life, I think. [Laughs]”
CC: You don’t shoot those after a full day, do you?
“Oh yeah. It’s a 20-minute thing. It’s no big deal.”
CC: Well the shooting schedule for the show’s pretty intense.
“It’s about ten, twelve hours. We get there at around 6:15, 6:20 in the morning, start shooting. We probably finish at about 6:30, 7:00, depending on the day.”
CC: So what time do you have to eat your first strange item?
“Around eight. There’s literally been … I tell this story all the time. There’s been 8 a.m., I’m still on coffee, or I’ll have a green juice ‘cause I know what’s coming. [Laughs] And I’ll have a plate of, like, duck testicles sitting in front of me.“
CC: [Can’t talk. Laughing too hard.]
“And where do you go with that? You know what I mean? Like, I’m on coffee and duck balls.”
CC: For breakfast!
CC: Do you ever see them open up those baskets, and just go, “Oh, sh**.”
“Yeah! All the time! Because people are like, they’ve gotta cook it, but we’ve gotta EAT it. [Laughs] There’s three people in the world that eat that crap. And they’re sitting at that table, with cameras around, so you see our faces. And we’ve gotta play it straight.”
CC: Do you ever get mad at the people plotting the baskets?
“No. You know, every once in a while. The woman who does it, her name is Sara [Nahas], I love her, she’s wonderful. But I’ll be like, ‘Sara, come on, you know. Come on. Durian and duck balls? Come on, help me out. Come on.’”
CC: Did you ever get sick from anything you ate on the show?
“I never got sick. But there have been things I wouldn’t eat. You know, like cross-contamination, a lot of scary, like, handling practices where I’ve been like, ‘I just can’t, I can’t eat this. And if this is what you do for a living? Maybe you should re-think it.’
“Those are tough things to hear, you know? And I understand, people get upset about it. But that’s theirs, it’s not mine. It comes from the right place.”
CC: So of all the things you do professionally – separate from family – what’s the most joyful thing that you have going on right now?
“Um … you know, dreaming. Just dreaming about the future. Putting myself in a situation to live my dreams. It’s the best thing in the world. Think about it. Draw it. Put it on a piece of paper. What do you want to do?
“Two of the most difficult answers I’ve ever had to give: Who are you, and what do you want? Think about it. Who are you, and what do you want? I spent a long time pondering those questions, writing things down, tweaking it, fixing it, evolving it. Scratching it off, doing it over again. Moving forward, stepping back. I mean, every single process on the way … I’m not there yet. But that’s the point: you’ll never get there. All you got is the dream that you work towards, and evolve, and hone. “
CC: Did someone else ask you those questions, or were those your own?
“I asked myself.”
CC: It sounds very yoga, meditation-like.
“I study a lot of Buddhism., a lot of spirituality and stuff like that. Ultimately it just boils down to some very simple things, like what do you want? You’re here. This is it. This is your life. You’re in it. There’s no more future in this, that, the other thing. You’re here right now, what is it? What do you want? Work towards it.
“And I love that. I love being a coach, and being a motivator. I actually believe this bullsh**. I really do. [Laughs]”
CC: So let’s talk about food. In terms of food trends that are going on right now, are there any that you just find irritating?
“I don’t do trends. I don’t believe in trends, I believe that there’s modern, and there’s things that come and go, but I’m not about any of that stuff. This sounds like complete bullsh**, but really, again I believe this: that for me it’s about long-lasting appreciation. What’s the difference between Lady Gaga and Marlon Brando? Right? What’s the difference between Robin Thicke and Dean Martin? I know which side of the coin I want to be on.”
CC: And as someone whose specialty is pasta, does the whole gluten-free thing drive you a little bit crazy?
“No, I mean…the misunderstanding of gluten is what I think frustrates me more than anything. Because it’s … it’s … [laughs] I don’t need to get into it, obviously … ”
CC: Well I want you to get into it. Someone has to say it.
“[Laughs] Ultimately gluten isn’t necessarily bad for you, unless it is. [Laughs] You know what I mean.”
“I think you would know that, but this idea that it’s a healthier choice … It’s not organic, it’s not diet food, and it’s not all these kinds of things. I mean it’s gluten, [if] it has no gluten, it may ultimately be easier to digest, but I don’t know that to be the case, I mean, I eat pasta all the time. Clearly.
“But gluten-free options are necessary. I completely understand. But I just find it to be a wild cop-out for people to just say suddenly … I mean, it’s a marketing ploy more than anything else, let’s not kid ourselves. And anybody who thinks that it isn’t, you don’t get it. It’s the economics, it’s the world that we live in. Figure it out.
“It’s what it is. It’s incredibly frustrating that everybody thinks that it’s a healthier choice. But it’s not, it’s got nothing to do with that.”
CC: Unless you have celiac disease.
“Exactly. That’s what I’m referring to, exactly. Unless it’s not a healthy choice for you.”
CC: You’re very active on social media. Do you enjoy it?
“I enjoy aspects of it. I mean, it used to be people would talk a lot of smack on Twitter, especially. And I used to re-tweet it and let it sort itself out. And then one day I just decided, you know what? Even if I did re-tweet it, it would affect me. Even if I did read it, and let it go, it would still affect me, it still had a negative consequence. So I just decided to say, you know what? I’m just going to block people. If anybody says anything remotely negative, they’re done.
CC: I think that’s it. We covered a lot of stuff. Thanks so much, I really enjoyed interviewing you.
“You need to get out more often, clearly.”