Right now, Scott Conant is one of our country's biggest names in Italian cooking. Conant's flagship restaurant, Scarpetta, just opened its fourth location in late October, at the Montage Beverly Hills. The 39-year-old chef is also a popular television personality, working as a judge on Food Network's Chopped, and as the host of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. He has also appeared on everything from Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, to Top Chef (as a judge), to Martha Stewart Living.
Soon after opening Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, Conant took the time to sit down and chat with us by the kitchen. Of course, we also couldn't stop ourselves from ordering a plate of his much-acclaimed spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and basil (recipe coming later this week). Yes, we paid for it, and yes, it's worth it.
Squid Ink: You opened back in October. How's everything going so far?
Scott Conant: Great, you know, all things considered. There's something to be said when customers leave, and they make reservations on the way out the door. For me, that's a tell-tale sign that we're doing something right.
SI: So, this is your fourth Scarpetta. But my question is, how do you go to Miami and Toronto before you come to Los Angeles?
SC: The way growth works, the way I was thinking about it was, by staying on the East Coast, I could really control it a little bit better. Then, coming to Los Angeles literally fell on our plate. It was something we were working on, but we weren't sure we were going to be able to get the deal done. So then we made the leap. And I wanted to do it before we went to Vegas. I thought that was important. But the way I was thinking about that growth strategy, with New York, Miami, and Toronto — if we're in Miami, and there's a problem, it's a three hour flight. We can be there the same evening. If we get a phone call at noon, we can probably be there for dinner. It doesn't necessarily work that way when you have to go across time zones. If we were in L.A. and had to be in New York, it's a little more difficult.
SI: I guess it's easier knowing what obstacles to expect in L.A., having done it a few times already.
SC: Exactly, and well, you know, we've encountered markets where people have high standards and high expectations, so, we needed to get some things under our belt as well, to really create the structure that was necessary for going across the country.
SI: What makes opening in L.A. different from opening everywhere else?
SC: I have never experienced, just…there's so many celebrities, and so many actors, and producers, and people who are coming through the door. Last night, randomly — I'm not gonna name names — but we had a big music artist walk through the door, and a really big actor walk in the door. I mean, it's just kind of random. We had no idea these people were showing up. Normally in New York we get a heads up, we get a phone call from PR people, or handlers, or security, or whatever it is.
But here, people just kind of pop in, and either want to be on the down-low, and they'll sit in the back, in the kitchen at the chef's table, or they'll sit in the dining room and kind of be discreet and under the radar. So it's all good. But otherwise, I think we have to be a little more conscious of what we're putting on the plate. Because, you know, I've only heard rumors about how people send things back. Other chefs have told me, who have restaurants here and restaurants on the East Coast, but I haven't actually found that to be the case yet. Everybody's been pretty warm.
SI: They'll wait until you leave, and then they'll start sending things back.
SC: [Laughs] We hope not, we hope not.
SI: So let's take it back a bit. Where are you from?
SC: Originally I'm from Connecticut. But I've lived in New York for about 21 years. And recently, I moved my wife and nine-month-old daughter out here. We're kind of jumping back and forth, but they're here full-time.
SI: So are you gonna be spending a lot of time here?
SC: It always depends on where the wife is happiest. The old expression is, “happy wife, happy life.” I think we're gonna have her spending time here and New York, kind of jumping back and forth. And I'm gonna go where I'm needed. I need to spend time at each one of my restaurants, but I can see the majority of my time really being spent on both coasts.
SI: And when do you open in Vegas?
SI: From what I've been able to gather, you started cooking, and studying cooking, when you were really young.
SC: I was 15.
SI: How did that come about?
SC: I went to a vocational school, and initially I wanted to get into the plumbing program, but I couldn't get in. Too many people applied, so as a second choice I chose culinary arts. But I tell people I still wear my pants like that every once in a while.
SI: I guess culinary schools are a little more difficult to get into now.
SC: Yeah, it didn't used to be that way. That was the mid-80s.
SI: Were you one of those people who wanted to move to New York City the moment you were old enough?
SC: I moved at 18.
SI: And you went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America], right?
SC: Yes, CIA.
SI: There's some debate now about the merits of culinary school. The debt that comes along with it, how much more popular it is, and how some of the goals of the students now are a little bit skewed. The goal is to become a TV chef.
SI: If there was an 18-year-old kid from Connecticut who moved to New York and wanted to become a chef, what advice would you give him?
SC: I think it depends. What you put into it is what you get out of it. If you don't want to go to culinary school, I think you can work around in a lot of restaurants, but the learning curve is extremely important. You have to dedicate yourself no matter what it is — whether you're in school or you're out of school — it's the dedication that you put forth, and it's that work ethic that you're bringing to the table. You meet a lot of kids…and I'm clearly dating myself at this point. I hate that I sound like that guy. But you meet a lot of kids sometimes, whether they're in school or out of school, or have no desire to go to school, who don't want to work.
I worked for free, you know what I mean? I put my head down, and I did this job because it was something that I would do, when I started getting paid, that I would do for free anyway. But when I did start getting paid, I put myself into debt just to live, to survive. I slept on the floor, I went broke at least three times in my life. I've gone into deep, severe debt, I've gotten eviction notices because I'd worked at restaurants that hadn't paid me. And at the end of the day, the long and short of it is I did it because of what was on the plate. I did it because I was dedicated to the craft, so to speak. I did it because I saw my own personal growth as well as the growth of my career. Just, you know, the way things evolve. That's what it's all about.
I don't think that I'm a hundred percent right, at all. I think there's always something that we can learn from other people. I saw an interview with Mario Batali recently, that said, “work for a year, for free.” And I agree with him. If you want to learn how to make wine, you should go work at a winery for free. Why should you get paid if you're gonna learn, if you're gonna take some of this as a foundation for the rest of your career? That's my belief system. You know, I went to Europe, and I worked around, and I spent a fortune, and I jumped in a car and I drove from place to place, and city to city, and town to town, meeting this person and that person and the other person, and having friends sending me to the next spot where I could work at, or see, or hang out at. But I didn't expect anybody to pay me for that.
It's gotta be about the work. It's gotta be about that dedication that you have for the craft. If you're just pursuing the glory, I think that's a misstep. Through the years, when I first started cooking, until not long ago — not a lot of glory. I still work 14 to 15 hour days. I still sacrifice time with my wife and my daughter, because this is what it's about. It's difficult, you know what I mean? It's difficult, but you're trying to do something for the bigger picture.
SI: And you spent some time in Germany, right?
SC: I did.
SI: Were you learning about pastry?
SC: I was doing some pastry. I worked at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, and an Italian restaurant. And then I decided to really pursue Italian food at that point. I went back to New York and I was working at San Domenico at that point, and I was 20-years-old.
SI: Heritage-wise, is your family Italian?
SC: My mother's family is Italian.
SI: Where in Italy are they from?
SI: What about your dad's side?
SC: My father's side is from a long line of Americans. My great, great whatever grandfather came here in 1622 and founded Salem, Massachusetts. If you look up Roger Conant, that's one of my ancestors.
SI: So you wound up working in kitchens in New York for a long time.
SC: I did, yeah. I got kicked around in New York for a while.
SI: Any particular places that were especially useful to you?
SC: There were a lot of restaurants that I worked at. I spent a long time with Tony May, who was great. A couple of different restaurants that he had. And otherwise, I spent a lot of time working with people and learning what not to do, and how not to run a business, and all that stuff. [Laughs] So that was pretty informative.
SI: The basic New York chef story.
SC: The basic New York chef story. Like I said, going months and months without getting paid, or weeks and weeks without getting paid. It's…it's what it is.
SI: From a cachet standpoint, nothing really beats your first good review from the New York Times. What was that like for you?
SC: Um, you know, it's very funny because I worked my entire life to get that first three-star review. And then it's funny, just, how success changes. For me, I thought, “once I get that, I'm good.” It's not the truth. It's just that you realize, you know, that you still have a fish order to call in. You still have cooks who don't show up. You still have the everyday issues, and maintenance issues, and ovens don't work and all that kind of stuff. Nothing changes. You're busier. The restaurant's busier, but it also means that you're busier. There are good things that come along with that, obviously, clearly. But, you know, the workload doesn't change. Your own ambition evolves, is the way I look at it. Everybody's different. Some people walk away from that and say it's all good. But for me, I started to see the idea where I can grow this company and really pursue goodness. And that's what it's always been about.
SI: There was a story about right after you got your review of Scarpetta, there was a vice squad that came in or something?
SC: Yeah, our space in New York used to be this bar/lounge. And it was, like, club-y. And they never changed…whatever the files were. So anyway, we got raided, and it's this three-star restaurant with all these fancy people, and there's police walking in, and the department of housing, the health department. You name it, they were there. Fire department, police department, it's about 30 people rushing in the door with flashlights in people's faces…[laughing] it was horrible. I'm like, “guys, guys, this is a restaurant. What are you doing?” And of course they don't care. They have their own agenda, clearly. Anyway, it really kind of freaked me out. Started checking the bottles to see what was what.
SI: Chefs running out the back door…
SC: No, there was none of that, fortunately.
SI: It is the restaurant business.
SC: That's the restaurant business, indeed.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview with Scott Conant.