At age eleven, when most of us were still mastering the art of the Easy Bake Oven, Scott Conant was enrolled in cooking classes and well on his way to becoming a chef. Conant wasted no time. While attending the CIA, he did his externship at San Domenico, then took a brief hiatus to open a restaurant in New Orleans. He returned to New York to graduate and went onto work at both Chianti and City Eatery, where he receiving glowing reviews and critical praise.
In 2002, L’Impero opened and Conant officially arrived on the New York dining scene and changed the way we looked at Italian cooking. He elevated a simple bowl of spaghetti and tomato sauce to an opulent plane, and in doing so, garnered a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. He followed L’Impero up with Alto, before setting off on his own with Scarpetta.
In less than one year, Conant opened not one, but two successful Scarpetta restaurants, the first in New York followed by Miami. On the menu, is scallops tartare, cavatelli with braised rabbit, parsnips and mint, and Sicilian spiced duck breast with preserved orange and root vegetables.
|What did you want to be when you grew up?
That’s a tough question! I took my first cooking class when I was eleven, and I went to a vocational school in Connecticut where I majored in culinary arts, so I really always wanted to be a chef. There was a short time in high school when I wanted to be a plumber, but there weren’t any classes available at the school. I’m glad that didn’t work out.
What was your first job in food? What did you learn?
I was a dishwasher at a restaurant in Connecticut. And I learned a lot about teamwork. I played sports as a kid, and the sense of comraderie was the same as it was in the kitchen. Everyone was out for the same goal. Granted it was a crap restaurant. But everyone was out for each other, just like a team.
You began taking cooking classes at age 11. What is it a hobby or were you already set on a life spent in the kitchen?
Well I was a fat kid. My father grew up on a farm in Maine, and my mother was Italian, so food was important in my family. From my classes I would learn to make things like apple pie which I would present to my grandmother. No huge feats.
Interestingly, you trained at the Hotel Bayerisher Hof in Germany. Tell us a little about that and how does it find its way into your very savory menus at Scarpetta these days?
It wasn’t the first time I was working with pastry, but it did give me a different perspective on cooking. And such depth of flavor. For instance, in Munich and Bavaria, the quality of the breads is wonderful. Also, I figured that if I could get a job in Germany, in Europe, I’d be closer to Italy.
San Domenico, City Eatery, and Alto are just a few restaurants on your resume. How do you think you’ve matured as a chef since then?
Well, I always thought food was important. But now I also consider service and atmosphere and environment – I focus on those more. I’ve learned to provide the full experience for the customer.
Any regrets when you look back at your time at L’Impero and Alto? Anything you wouldn’t do again?
No, not at all. I had a great time, and great experiences.
You reconnected with your mother’s relatives in Beneveto, Italy. What were the cooking techniques that inspired your work most?
They had the kind of farm that was sort of like a huge yard – they grew their own tobacco, their own grapes, chickens were running around the yard. It was great. I’d see them plucking the feathers right off them.
How did your perception of Italian cuisine change when you went to Italy? How did your training directly impact your work at L’impero?
I had been to Italy many times before so I don’t think so. But there was that quality of eating directly off the land, focusing on the product. The quality of a chicken, for instance, and knowing that the one you saw walking around is going to be dinner that same day. As far as impacting my work, that was seven years ago. It made me realize there’s a constant evolution. It’s one of the most important things.
Not so long ago, you opened Bar Tonno in Soho, which dealt solely in raw fish prepared in an Italian style. There were some wonderful dishes served there. Do you feel like it closed prematurely. Do you ever contemplate bringing Bar Tonno back? (Please.)
I thought that was the best food I had done. I was very proud of that food. I do think it closed prematurely. I would love pull it into the elements into project in the future.
You just opened a Scarpetta in Miami. How’s it going and what are the differences between Scarpetta NYC and Scarpetta Miami? Menu, space, experience…
Miami is spectacular. I couldn’t ask for a better opening. We still have a big learning curve to go through, manage our money a little better. New York’s Scarpetta, I’d like to think, is like the quintessential downtown restaurant. Sophisticated but approachable. In Miami, it’s a fun and hip space. But the food, service and atmosphere all share a common thread.
You’re known for your way with a noodle, specifically spaghetti. What’s your most sacred rule when it comes to pasta making?
I say the more simple, the better. Let the ingredients speak for themselves, while at the same time being harmonious.
While at L’impero you received considerable acclaim , including the James Beard award for “Best New Restaurant” and Food and Wine’s vote for “Best New Chefs of 2004.” How did all of this praise affect you?
I remember that it was nice to think that I wasn’t crazy! That people actually appreciated what I did. It was a great feeling.
How’s Scarpetta holding up in this economy? Have you made any concessions in the kitchen? How do you manage to keep the reservation books so full? What’s the secret?
Fortunately people are still coming. And the intention has always been to focus on the customers’ positive interaction with the servers and the atmosphere. I’d like to think that’s what brings people back. And that’s what I think the be all, end all of any restaurant is. Of course, people are buying a little less – maybe four appetizers instead of six – so the restaurant has been affected in that way. But I think it’s an opportunity to hone in on the customer, and make them feel they’ve gotten value for the money. We do everything we can to make it better every day. Also, I always say the most important thing is, do people make a reservation on the way out? Do they want to come back? We get a lot of people who make reservations on their way out the door, and I think that’s a good gauge of how well a restaurant is doing.
We’ve heard that you may be taking over the former Wakiya space in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Any updates?
Unfortunately, it’s just a rumor.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Scarpetta, and why?
Well there’s no single favorite dish. I mean, the spaghetti is great – I love what it’s become, and we’ve sold so much. I also love our duck main course, but naturally I’m a bit biased. There are going to be some new items for the spring menu, so there will be some new favorites.
What is your least favorite (and yes you must pick one)?
Ah, I don’t. There’s always going to be a weakest dish. But the benefit is that, fortunately, things have been selling well – it’s funny how it works. The baby goat sells as well as the steak, which sells as well as the pork. But of course, if the customer doesn’t like it, it’s not going to be on the menu. The customer makes the final decision.
What culinary trends do you embrace?
The only intention I want to embrace the inherent goodness I get out of the product. Extracting as much flavor as I can.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
I don’t think there are any. People have to do what they do to survive. And it makes us all better.
Where do you go to get the perfect plate of spaghetti (other than your own restaurant, of course)?
I don’t go out for pasta so often because I eat my own so often. But there are plenty of Italian places I like to go to. In Carroll Gardens there’s Ferdinando’s Focacceria, it’s only open for lunch and it’s just fantastic. I also like Del Posto, dell’anima, and the wine lists are awesome. Come to think of it, when it comes to pasta I love Shorty’s. I remember the chef sent out cavatelli – it was great, and I was really happy for him.
Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
We’ll be opening in Las Vegas in either the 4th quarter of this year or early next year.