You might know Scott Conant best as the "tough judge" on cooking competition show Chopped, or as the spaghetti savant at Scarpetta — a style-plus-substance Italian restaurant that in 2008 was given three stars in The New York Times by critic Frank Bruni, a former Rome bureau chief and great arbiter of the Boot. Conant has gone on to open a whopping five Scarpettas, in a double whopping five cities, including Miami Beach, Toronto and Las Vegas. He makes appearances and runs an event space in a spacious SoHo loft.
With both critical and commercial appeal, he’s played the game like the best of his Food Network contestants. But in getting to know him, it is clear that there is no harder working chef around. I’ve arrived at the loft to talk to him about the release of his new cookbook (The Scarpetta Cookbook), which reveals 125 of the restaurant’s recipes and dope on cooking Italian beyond the bowl of pasta — though he gives away his famous tomato-basil spaghetti recipe. The book is a testament to a chef who, by admission, doesn’t cook in most of his kitchens — but is relentless in furthering Italian cooking in America. Nothing has come easy for Conant, as I found out in a conversation that touches on the genesis of crudo, on-set food poisoning and the next generation of chefs.
There’s this perception from established chefs like yourself who think that culinary school graduates have their expectations out of whack. Are you seeing students and even younger Chopped contestants with a 10-year plan?
We’ll paint with a broad brush. I think for the most part, it’s “fucking kids these days!” For the most part, they want success quickly, which is completely understandable. Who doesn’t? It’s a human instinct. The challenge with doing television is that there is now a perception that a certain level of success should come to them quicker. Then they’ll spend a large portion of their careers trying to recapture that same level of popularity. Bobby Flay said it best one time when we were together in Vegas. It's popularity for popularity’s sake, as opposed to creating something wonderful and becoming popular for it. Look at David Chang – he created something fantastic and that’s why he became super popular. I don’t know if Jean-Georges has ever done a television show!
Right. Keller hasn’t done a long-running show, either.
Yeah, Thomas has gone on the record at one point or another saying he’s uncomfortable doing TV. You’re not going to find a better chef than Daniel [Boulud] or Jean-Georges or Thomas. Those are first name chefs – you name their first name and everyone knows who they are.
Well, you have people who know who you are by your last name!
Yeah, but those guys are obviously a different level. But to answer your question, of course kids want success quickly, and I did as well. I took my first executive chef job when I was 24. I had no business taking an executive chef job at 24. I didn’t know who I was, let alone my point of view with food.
Where was that?
Oh, Jesus. It was at a restaurant called Barolo on West Broadway. The restaurant just closed recently. That was my first position. The chef got fired and I was sous-chef. They plugged me in and I left after six months because it was ridiculous. They didn’t pay me and…I have a million stories like that. But like I said, I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to be successful, but success for the right reasons is what people need to be mindful of.
So can you be a “celebrity chef” within a few years of starting your career?
I would imagine. I think we’ve seen it a lot, right?
I ask because chefs have gone on the record saying that you need like eight years. Ten years. There’s like this quota or something.
I don’t disagree with that. I feel like you need a long time, but I think it also depends on the individual. We’ve seen people change careers and become successful in the food world because they have some sort of media presence in their past, which helps them along. I feel like the biggest question you have to ask yourself and have to answer is, “Who am I and what do I want?” Those are two things that are incredibly difficult to answer.
I kind of don’t want to think about that right now.
Most people don’t and that’s a challenge. I could go on for hours! That’s why Marc [Maron] and I got along so well [laughs].
Right, onto Marc Maron. Earlier this spring you appeared on his podcast. I know he’s into food a bit, but you were the first chef to get the Maron treatment. What was that like?
I love that guy. He comes into the restaurant in L.A. all the time and apparently is a huge fan of Chopped. I was actually texting him yesterday and told him he should come on the show, but he said his shooting schedule is too busy. I promised I would be easy on him [laughing].
Marc Maron interviews guests in a very different way. He throws curveballs. You’re very media-savvy and do a million interviews. Was this one different? Did it feel like therapy?
What I like about Marc is that he’s very honest about his feelings. I’m exactly the same way and I love to talk about the struggles – I am happy to speak about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in my life and in my career and he’s the same way. We connected on a certain level because I think that chefs and comedians have an inherent misery in us, which is almost like an artistic struggle. That’s always resonated with me in my life and I feel like that’s why I’ve gotten along with so many artists in my life, whatever their art is – actors and singers and musicians and writers.
How do you stay in touch with all of your restaurants — five in five different cities? That is intense.
I have a corporate team. The director of operations is Miami-based and my corporate chef runs around and is in one of the back offices. I also have a chef and a GM in every restaurant, so they all stay in touch.
Are they talking on a weekly basis?
Yeah. And sometimes, more than that. I’m not a big corporate guy and I want it to be laid back. I hire adults and they should be able to manage themselves. We should be able to manage each restaurant as if it’s their restaurant. If they can’t do it, then we have to get involved more and more and that becomes a challenge and stretches out the corporate team.
Are you filming Chopped right now?
We are, in New York City. I was filming yesterday and am filming all next week. That’s about a 12-hour day. It’s long.
What is a filming day like?
One day is one episode — open and close — and it’s a really long day and a tremendous amount of work that goes into it. There are about 12 cameras on set filming an appetizer, main course and dessert. Twelve cameras, with four different people starting [the compettion] and it’s only a 44-minute show ultimately. The edit must be an insane project.
Have you ever gotten food poisoning? Some of those dishes look gnarly.
No, fortunately not. It’s not rotten food because all of the food is fresh, but sometimes there is cross-contamination. There are people with higher skill sets than others. There have been a couple of dishes…
There was a woman once who had a raw chicken, cut it up and put it in a pot of water. She took it out of the pot after around five minutes and put it back on the same cutting board it was on when it was raw — the chicken was completely underdone and raw in the middle. Then, she started roasting it a second time and put the cooked chicken back on the cutting board a second time. It was a mess. Her station was a disaster.
How did you respond?
I’m not eating this. We chopped her and she was very upset with me. At that point, you can’t help but question someone’s professionalism. She actually called her lawyer and started threatening me.
Who is your closest friend in the food world?
Geoffrey Zakarian and I are really good friends and spend a lot of time together. It’s nice to have a punching bag like him around. He’s really easy to make fun of! Marcus [Samuelsson] and I are also very close, and I’m close with Aarón [Sanchez] as well. We’re all very close and we become closer on the show, I would say. Outside of that, I don’t necessarily hang around with people in the industry all the time. One of my best friends is in marketing and my other best friend is a schoolteacher.
What’s the biggest misconception about your food?
I’ll take any compliment I can get – don’t get me wrong – but as much as I love spaghetti, I do more than just make pasta.
OK, give me some examples…
Balsamic glazed ribs with mustard seeds and tomato-apricot compote. We do a lot of crudos and tartares – the yellowtail is a signature dish with pickled red onions, Hawaiian sea salt, ginger oil and a touch of crushed red pepper oil.
Where did you first learn about the concept of crudo?
There is a restaurant that I ate at in Portonovo, Clandestino Sushi, from a chef named Moreno Cedroni. He was basically taking the fish from the Adriatic and doing it with a Japanese style. He loves Japanese food and is a wildly popular chef in Italy. I think that was the first time that I had raw fish done in an Italian style, with Italian ingredients. Then Esca opened [in New York City] and obviously became very popular. Crudo is essentially an invention of David Pasternack and Mario Batali.
People don’t realize that they were so influential in merging Japan and Italy.
I’m not sure that they tried to merge Japan and Italy. They were doing it from an Italian focus. But if you don’t know that Mario and David and Joe [Bastianich] did that, then you need to read up on it [laughs]. I’ve had food writers call me and say that they are looking at Marcella [Hazan’s] book and don’t see anything about crudo in here. And I’ll say that you won’t find anything because traditionally, it’s just not eaten. Until around 10 years ago, the idea of raw fish to most Italians was kind of crazy.
What do you have to say about Marcella’s recent passing? Did you have a personal relationship with her?
I did not have a personal relationship with her, but we Facebook messaged a few times. She is obviously a legend and she shaped a lot of the conceptions about Italian food in this country. If you think back over the past 20 years, where Italian food was and where it’s going, Marcella was at the forefront of that thought process, along with Tony May, Lidia Bastianich and people like that.
How involved were you in the making of your book?
Everything! I am super-busy and [Corporate Chef de Cuisine] Nick Kennedy did most of the recipes. There are a lot of photos of him in the book and he’s been with me for years. We continue to do all of these recipes in the restaurants, so it wasn’t like we came up with a bunch of stuff and said, “Okay, I’ll put my name on this.” It’s from the heart and we serve it in every single restaurant.
So, this book is like the binder in your restaurants, but in a different form?
Right. And obviously in the restaurants, it’s a lot more extensive because we have a lot more recipes than just 125.
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