Q & A with Scott Conant, Part 2: Silverton, Celebrity, and Defending the Spaghetti Price Structure
In part 1 of our interview with Scarpetta chef Scott Conant, we discussed his youth; how rejection from a plumbing program lead him to the life of a chef; what it felt like to get that first three-star review in The New York Times; and why Scarpetta was raided by the vice squad.
In part 2, the conversation continues as we delve into the precarious line between TV food experts (like him), and TV food personalities (like some other people); the greatness of Nancy Silverton; and a whole lot about that damn-popular spaghetti. Oh, and if you're craving said spaghetti more frequently than you can afford it, check back later for Conant's own recipe. Just make sure to brush up on your fresh pasta making skills -- he only tells you how to make the sauce.
SI: So, in a way, you followed the ideal blueprint for becoming a successful chef. You went to culinary school, you interned, you went to Europe, you worked your way through New York kitchens, got your own restaurant, got the New York Times review, and eventually did a lot of TV stuff and the celebrity chef things. How much of that was coincidental, or incidental, and how much was planned? Obviously, the TV thing, nobody plans for that -- at least back then.
SC: No, not back then. Those are recent developments. I did a little bit of TV, and I did some things, but nothing that was my own, and nothing that I could really hang my hat on, in terms of personality. But it was something that I found I was very comfortable with. And it was something that I identified with. Me being a cook since I was a kid, and then finding this new job, for me it was two things.
Number one, it was great to be able to produce something that was completely different from what I'd ever done before, but still have it be the same foundation. The second thing, and the most important thing was that I had a company at that point, and a family. And the way I look at it is it's an advertising platform for everything else that I'm doing in my career. You know it's that little thing that's the intangible. What I found is, walking through an airport, and somebody recognized me from being on the Food Network, is kind of crazy. And I don't see myself as that guy, obviously. But people do. People come into the restaurant because of it. And they want to eat spaghetti because they've seen it on television -- they've seen it on Tony Bourdain's show. They've seen it on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, with Ted Allen on the Food Network. You're right, you could never write that into a business plan. But I thought that television would have an element in my life. Fortunately, it's at a bigger capacity than what I'd ever intended.
SI: How early on did you think it would be relevant to you?
SC: It was only about three years ago. Three or four years ago.
SI: In terms of just the chef side, was there a conscious effort from you at the very beginning to say you wanted a three-star restaurant in New York City, and to expand across the country? What were your goals early on?
SC: You know, I've never been that guy who said, "here's my five-year plan." I feel like you don't know what's going to happen. Second of all, I don't want to limit myself either. I mean, I never thought that in a three-year time frame...I started Scarpetta two and a half years ago, I never, ever thought that I would have seven restaurants in two-and-a-half years. I didn't think that. So, the good thing is that it happened. The better thing is that I didn't plan it. Let's say, once we started to do, say fifteen-thousand dollars a year in sales in my company, we were ready to do twenty-five. So infrastructure-wise, we were ready to grow. Once we started to do twenty-five, we were ready to do seventy-five. We were prepared for the growth. That's the thing that's most important to me as I move forward down the road. I don't know what I'm gonna do next. I have ideas, I'm talking to people, I'm doing things -- I'm making moves, if you will. But I don't know what's coming next right now. But I'm prepared for it, whatever it is, because I'm building infrastructure and I'm creating. That's the most important thing.
SI: So back to the celebrity chef thing for a minute, and the modern, food TV movement. On one side you've got guys like you, Tom Colicchio, and Mario Batali, who obviously know what you're talking about when you talk about food. On the other side, without naming names, you've got the people who are, basically, home cooks with good TV personalities.
SI: Now obviously, there are viewers who know the difference, and know to listen to what you say about cooking pasta, and not necessarily somebody else. But if the goal overall, for the sake of the world, is to have people cooking better and eating better, isn't it sort of a dangerous line, in terms of the difference between those two sides?
SC: Um...You're gonna ask me the tough questions now. I appreciate this, because everybody asks me the same shit all the time. So this...this is a real conversation. I just have to be careful. You know, like all younger chefs, I think you have the youthful ideas. You wear them on your sleeve and everybody has an opinion about people who have the success that you have. I think, as you get older and you start to see, "I can still be this if I do that. I'm never gonna sacrifice my own integrity, by doing something like this." And it's funny because...
[Conant then turns toward the kitchen, and shouts: "Can I have that spaghetti please, guys?"]
SC: What I've learned, is that I don't judge. I'm not the judging kind. You could tell me whatever you want to tell me about yourself, or your career, but I never judge anybody. It's not my place. There's a certain level of discernment that I think is important. Things that I'll do or that I won't. But I'm not gonna judge the person who chooses the other side of that. I think that we can all learn from one another. I'm that guy who believes that if I hire a line cook, I'm gonna learn from this person. So when I hire people, or when we have staff meetings, or what it is -- there's things that I want to see pursued. And on the other side of it, what can we learn from this conversation? What can I learn by this conversation as well? And I'm open to it. I'm open to both sides of it. So I think that's important. I think that's important if there's certain people who may not necessarily take the path that I have taken. It doesn't mean that they're wrong, and it certainly doesn't mean that I'm right.
SI: But on the other hand, you're not gonna learn how to make spaghetti pomodoro from Sandra Lee either.
SC: No, but whoever that person is, at the end of the day, the rising tide raises all ships, right? And however we get there, whatever path we're taking, even if they're smaller steps instead of large strides. And it sounds like a very diplomatic answer, but I really believe this bullshit. [Laughs] I really do. As long as we're working in the right direction. I mean, I saw an interesting article, a few years ago, with Alice Waters. People were talking about her dedication to what she's done, for years now, and how people are starting to find a way. There's other people who are kind of manipulating some of that as well. But still with a little of pursuing goodness. You know what I mean? And her answer was that, whatever gets people, no matter how big or small, whatever gets people moving in that direction, is very important. And I stand behind that, one hundred percent. [He pauses.] That was a pretty good answer.
SI: Yeah. The fear, I guess, is that on one side there are people excited to see all the great stuff. And maybe they're watching Bourdain and seeing the food they're never going to be able to afford to go eat, and things like that. On the other side there are people who are watching certain other shows because it makes them feel comfortable, and it validates their lifestyle in a way.
SC: Yeah, but I don't think any of us need to stand on principles. It definitely doesn't have to be one of those situations where there's an open strategy toward things either. Because I think that's very dangerous territory. You know, the Food Network has done an amazing job, and I'm not just saying this because I'm a Food Network personality. They've done an amazing job since the early, mid-90s, of putting food on the forefront of people's minds. Think about it. When I was a young cook, none of these things were issues. These weren't options. The Next Food Network Star is such an amazing show, because it takes these people who are dedicated to food, but they have other careers and other lives, but they still have this love and passion for food. And they can pursue it. It's an outlet for them.
You know, I honestly believe that it's a huge benefit. I think you have to pick and choose, and discern between who you want to learn from. And maybe I know something better than somebody else. And certainly there's a lot of people who know a lot better than me. But that's not up to me. That's up to the viewer, obviously. You know what I mean?
SI: Yeah, yeah.
SC: I got myself out of a lot of trouble.
Stromboli from the Scarpetta bread basket
Flickr user Muy Yum
SI: Let's talk a little about the Bourdain episode you did. When you were making this [tomato basil spaghetti] pasta. How was it doing that, and how did that come about?
SC: I got a phone call from Tony's people one day, and they just asked me if I would do the show. And you know, the thing is, I have this pasta at every Scarpetta, and it sells like crazy. Lets put it this way. At Scarpetta New York, we have seventy-five seats. And with those seventy-five seats, we sold almost two-thousand spaghetti last month. And it's because of shows like Tony's show, and it's because Alton Brown said it's one of the top ten comfort foods in the country, on the Food Network. And Ted Allen said it was one of the best things he'd ever eaten on Best Things I Ever Ate, on Food Network. So listen, it's a spaghetti with tomato and basil. I don't put anything on the menu to get accolades. But hopefully it resonates with people. That's the idea. The real goal is, with the name of this restaurant, Scarpetta, is hopefully it's so good you want to grab a piece of bread and sop up what's on the plate. That's the whole point.
SI: Obviously some people are going to complain about how much it costs for spaghetti with tomato and basil. That it's twenty-four dollars, or...
SC: Like you don't know... [laughs]
SI: It could have been twenty-two, I don't know. But what drives me crazy is the people who come in and say, "I ordered the twenty-four dollar spaghetti, and it's the best I ever had, but it's not worth twenty-four dollars." So then why did you order it? What else could you have expected to happen?
SC: Well, inevitably, some people don't like it at all. You know, people have opinions on that stuff, and it's...it's life. It's what it is. But what people don't look at -- I always feel like have to defend that price structure. I know that it's gonna sell, but nobody ever looks at the strombolli that they get, and the focaccia that they get, the filone that they get inside this bread basket. There's a lot of these things. It's not the highest-priced item on the menu, but it's not the biggest money-maker I have on the menu either. You know what I mean?
SI: What is?
SC: It depends on...because if I billed that cost of bread, and all that stuff back into the spaghetti, I'm not making that much money back on that spaghetti, believe it or not. I still have to pay rent, and I still have to pay labor, and I still have to pay the food costs, and there are a million things that go into operating and owning a restaurant. And believe it or not, if you look at the financials, and the P&Ls [profit and loss] of the restaurant, it's amazing how many costs there are. I don't expect people to look at my restaurant and say, "oh, well, he's gotta make a living." Hopefully, my daughter goes to college, and I can pay for it because of the spaghetti.
SI: People have gone to college for far less delicious reasons.
SC: Exactly. So the long and the short of it is, my goal is to make people happy. I always say, I'm after the long dollar, not the short dollar. I want people to feel comfortable coming to the restaurant all the time. Once a week, twice a week. Fortunately, we're building that in a lot of different markets at this point.
SI: Had you spent much time here in L.A. before opening up Scarpetta?
SC: Not really. I had been here a few times beforehand. I have some friends here and things like that. The real goal was to spend some time really concentrating on this opening. So I haven't spent as much time as I would have liked. But I am looking forward to spending more time.
SI: Where have you eaten so far?
SC: I ate at Animal. I've been to Cut. I've been to Spago. I've been to Bouchon, obviously [located just across the courtyard]. I've been to everything in this neighborhood. I had an awesome meal at Bazaar. I'm still trying to get down to Abbot Kinney, and walk the street, and eat at all those food trucks. It's so awesome. So I'll get to that one of these days, on the other side of this opening.
SI: Is there a certain consensus amongst New York chefs about what L.A. is as a restaurant city? And is it different from that?
SC: I was really nervous, like I said, when I first opened, because there was all the fear of the health conscious individual, and too much salt, and people demanding the world, and "don't you know who I am?" and all that kind of stuff. And to be honest with you, I haven't experienced those things yet. So knock on wood, I consider myself very fortunate that I haven't had some of the nightmares. Not just that New York chefs have brought up -- but even local chefs, and local restaurateurs. People telling me "be careful of this guy, or be careful of that guy." Not individuals, but kind of a broad sense of the guy who calls and says, "don't you know who I am?" Like I said, fortunately we haven't encountered any negative experiences at this point. We open up a restaurant to make people happy, and that's the goal.
SI: Yeah. And supposedly Batali said awhile back that he'd never open a restaurant in Los Angeles, because people go to sleep too early, but he eventually collaborated on Mozza because of Nancy Silverton.
SC: She's a pretty good partner to have.
SI: Yeah, she does okay for herself.
SC: She's awesome.
SI: Have you been to Mozza yet?
SC: Yes. Osteria I think, is spectacular. Pizzeria I love. I think Nancy is a genius. I love her touch, I love the way she approaches things. I think the restaurants are awesome. And I love her dedication. She's there every single day. It's amazing. It's amazing.
SI: What were your thoughts on Animal?
SC: I loved it. We had so much food. It was a while back.
SI: I guess when you go to Animal, if they know it's you, they're probably going to send out everything.
SC: We got a lot of food. It was all spectacular, also. And we drank a lot.
SI: And you did not leave hungry, I assume.
SC: We didn't leave hungry.
SI: For the chefs out there like you who are constantly expanding their brand, what is the final goal? What are you, ultimately, trying to achieve?
SC: When I first started this company, it was really to have an independent mindset. To really, like I said, start a restaurant where the goal was to make food so good people sopped it up with a piece of bread. That's the name, Scarpetta. And you know what? I don't know the answer to that. I don't have one. I mean, I would love to do a catering company. I would love to open in Asia. I would love to do restaurants in Europe. I would love to do a high-end restaurant one of these days again. There's a million things I want to do. I want to create a bunch of cafés and wine bars, espresso bars. I would love to do all of it.
And I realize that it's not about me, at all. It's about the people I surround myself with. It's about the people we put in place, and trust. It's about making everybody's lives better. It's one thing that, I'm not that guy who's gonna pursue all this stuff and then put it in my pocket and be like, "fuck you." Because that's the way I was treated when I was a young cook. I don't want to treat people that way. I mean, I sit down with different members of my team all the time. We talk about, "what interests you and moves us forward? And what of that resonates with me?" And what kind of incentive programs can we create for, you know, our top-tier guys? So then we can roll things out in a better platform. How do we get better all the time? What is better? What's better to you and what's better to me may not be the same thing. But I think ultimately that this company isn't about growth. It's about restraint, and it's about doing things the right way all the time. It's not about sacrificing or pasteurizing our brand moving forward. It's about adhering to the principles that we set for ourselves at the very beginning.
So I don't know where I'm going, you know? I know, just, that there's a lot of things that I want to do. But I say no to a lot more things than I say yes to. [Laughs] That's for sure. That's for sure.
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