Scott Conant may have retained his New York Culinary Suite (a private dining room and event space), but after parting ways with Scarpetta, the closest most residents could get to Conant’s cuisine was watching him strut his stuff on Food Network’s “Chopped.” But having recently returned to the scene with Impero Caffè, a rustic Italian bistro beneath Nomad’s INNSIDE hotel, fans can finally reacquaint themselves with Conant classics, like spaghetti pomodoro, as well as newer, alluring creations, such as Cavatelli with Braised Duck.
So on the brink of launching not just an eatery, but an entire empire, we chatted with the certified celebrity about his decision to turn to television, how the dining scene has changed during the time he’s been away, and what current culinary trends he really gets behind (and which — such as dramatic swooshes of sauce on the plate — he’s totally ready to see die already!)
Can you talk a bit about how your career evolved, from being a nose-to-the-grindstone restaurant chef to being a globally recognized personality?
I think that working and spending time in restaurants and doing things the way I’ve always done them, which I hope is with a lot of integrity, has simply paid off. I also think that as far as television is concerned, it’s helped that I’m able to articulate myself clearly, in order to give clear and concise but thoughtful feedback. If there’s anything I try to get my staff to pursue it’s a level of thoughtfulness; towards each other, towards their food, and towards the guests.
Would you actively advise young or under the radar chefs to use reality food TV or cooking competitions as a way of getting their names and faces out there?
Cooking shows definitely help identify talent; they also help older chefs feel like they’ve still got it. Television is an advertising platform, simple as that. That’s what it was originally intended for, as a place to put ads up, and everything between the ads is pretty inconsequential. So yes, that advertising platform is an excellent way to get people into your restaurant.
What made you decide to say yes to television?
I have a good time doing it or else I wouldn’t do it, but when I started cooking in the 80’s as a kid in Connecticut there wasn’t any food television, other than the Galloping Gourmet, Julia Child, Jeff Smith and Jacques Pepin. So that definitely wasn’t the motivation for me. And I turned down a lot of television prior to Chopped. But after years of cooking and hopefully gaining a little wisdom about food and the management of economics and of people, it made a lot of sense for this stage of my career. If I did it too soon or too early though, I feel like the fire that I had — and still have — for cooking could have possibly been diminished.
And what was the incentive, after all these years, to finally open another restaurant in NYC?
Impero Caffè is a brand that I’m going to do more of; there’s going to be an Impero Steak and a bistro and a casino upstate in the Catskills. I’m still extremely ambitious. So all in all, the incentive was ultimately a burning fire of ambition; to continue to create and to make people happy. I’ve never lost that, and I’ve been cooking for 30 years. I can’t believe I can say that. I’m getting old!
How would you say the dining scene has changed, since you last had a restaurant here?
The thing that I get now more than ever is a lot of young kids coming in who’ve watched the show and want to take a picture and ask questions about the food; they want to know all about pasta extruders, or how to replicate a dish at home. It’s pretty unbelievable and interesting how advanced and knowledgeable all these young kids are about cooking now.
How would you say Impero Caffè represents your personal aesthetic and signature brand of Italian cooking?
I certainly like the ambition behind the word impero, which is empire. Part of being entrepreneurial is you try; you throw things up against the wall and see if they stick. But I want to build something that can be appreciated in the long-term. That’s the initial thought process for what Impero can become. As for my brand, a soulful, honest, simplistic style is something I always try to pursue in my cooking. This happens to be a bit more rustic, but there’s an elevated approach, from the flavor profiles to how we treat our guests. It’s a one star restaurant with two star ambitions; that’s what I like to say.
If you were to eat at Impero Caffè as a guest, what would you order and why?
If I could eat there every day and my weight wasn’t an issue, I’d probably just ask the chef to put a menu together for me. I love the carpaccio of beef with smoked mascarpone, which has a really unique flavor profile and pleasant textures. I’d also probably start with the creamy polenta with smoked maitake mushrooms and truffle sugo; it’s one of my classic dishes, so if people are looking for something that really defines my style of cooking, that would be it. My classic spaghetti pomodoro is another good representation. But one of the most popular dishes right now is the cavatelli with braised duck, truffles and peas. You never know what’s going to win with your clients, you can never see it coming… and the response to that one kind of snuck up on me.
Besides your own restaurants, where do you like to eat in the city?
I like Café Boulud, and also Jean Georges for lunch, which is such a special and unique place. JG’s culinary vocabulary is so broad… talk about a guy whose been in the game for a long time; he’s really inspiring. On the other side of the coin, and not to bring up JG again, but I was at ABC Cocina recently with my family and just absolutely loved it.
What are some current culinary trends you can really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I’m ready to see dragon drops on a plate disappear; everyone’s doing it. When it comes to trends, when you start seeing TGI Friday’s doing it, it’s time to give it up. I also saw a McDonald’s commercial a while ago talking about how all the food was locally sourced, which I thought was wildly offensive. Once legitimate movements turn into marketing phrases, into mere words to be tossed around, they lose their value and soul, and people start to ignore the meaning.
I really do love the vegetable movement though; it’s easy to be as passionate about a sunchoke as a steak. I really love a vegetable forward menu with little touches and extractions of flavor from meat. Its not vegetarian food but vegetable cooking with meat as a part of it, and as we move forward, I think we’re going to see more and more of that, because proteins are so wildly expensive. One of the other things I think we’ll see more of is a scalable version of restaurants, and continued migration beyond the big cities. The cost of doing business has become unmanageable, with a lot of restaurants feeling the impact of the decisions politicians are making. But chefs like Jose Andres and Roy Choi, as well as Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, are blazing new paths; utilizing avant garde techniques in order to sidestep huge infrastructures and the costs of having commercial kitchens.
What do you consider to be your single greatest achievement in your career thus far?
The ability to make a living for my family, and live the life that I really want to live is definitely the thing I’m most proud of.
What’s next for you? Another restaurant? A cookbook? Some more food TV, perhaps?
For the moment, its just about getting what I have right; I don’t have anything new to report beyond that!
132 West 27th Street
New York, NY 11214