Scott Conant is one of the best-known chefs in America, and not just because he’s a frequent judge on Food Network’s Chopped. He got his start as sous chef at New York’s San Domenico, then went on to open L’Impero, which garnered a three-star review from The New York Times, and in 2004 Food & Wine named him one of America’s best new chefs. He then opened Alto, one of the few Northern Italian restaurants in New York at that time, and in 2008 he went on to open Scarpetta, which won him another three-star Times review, the flagship of an empire that now includes restaurants of the same name in Los Angeles, Miami, Las Vegas, and Toronto.
Conant took some time to chat with us about the signs of a good restaurant, the best meal he’s ever eaten, and living off a $100 handshake.
The Daily Meal: What was your first restaurant industry job?
Scott Conant: My first job was as a dishwasher in my hometown of Waterbury, Conn., in a restaurant that’s not around anymore. I did that for three or four months, and then I started prepping. I worked there for 60 hours a week in high school. I remember coming home, and I would smell so much that my mother would make me take my clothes off outside and would immediately throw them in the washing machine.
When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it’s well-run, will be a good experience, etc.?
People who work in the industry always look at restaurants a little differently. It starts with the process of making the reservation and getting in. If I have an unusual request, great restaurants will never say no. Then there’s the sense of arrival, and if it’s clean. The greeting is essential: if there’s no sense of warmth, or a smile, then they’re already starting from behind. People are sensitive to these things, almost subconsciously. Then there’s the service. I rarely bring up problems, and when I do I do so hesitantly. But if they don’t take responsibility for a shortcoming, it’s incredibly annoying.
Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking?
You know, there really isn’t.
If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be?
I came up at San Domenico, and the chef there was Nino Bergese. He’s credited with inventing the uovo in raviolo, which is their signature dish there and downtown at SD26. I would have that dish, prepared by him.
What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?
In my profession there’s no challenge as big as adapting to the culinary world, and knowing that there are going to be inherent struggles. Not only the struggle of hard work, but the struggle between being an artist and a businessman. Knowing it existed, knowing I had to go through it, and being able to adapt to, and work through, all the negativity out there, I consider that to be my biggest success.
What do you consider to be your biggest disappointment as a chef?
I had a restaurant years ago called Alto. It got a bad New York Times review, and I was really hurt, and disappointed that we weren’t really able to capture that moment. Our dishes were from the north of Italy, and not many other restaurants were serving that cuisine at the time. I really wanted to capture that.
What is the most transcendental dining experience you’ve ever had?
There have been so many fantastic experiences for different reasons. The service at Per Se and restaurants in Europe were flawless. But the food at Meadowood was just— there are no words for it. I found myself just sitting there and contemplating the food, and the flow to the courses. It was a really emotional experience! I don’t know how he does it. I got up from the table and went into the kitchen and gave Chris Kostow, the chef, and everyone else in the kitchen a hug.
Are there any foods that you will never eat?
I never understood the appeal of durian.
Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how crazy and interesting the restaurant industry can be?
This industry is so unlike everything else. Years ago I was a chef downtown. It was starting to get decent reviews, and the food was admittedly good, but the service and ambiance needed work. The ownership was really underfunded, though, and I would go months without getting paid. I didn’t want to talk about it with my roommate at the time, so he’d give me the rent money but instead of paying the landlord I’d pay my staff. Every Thursday a couple would come in, doctors, and he’d give me a $100 handshake. And that’s what I’d live off, week to week. Twice a year they’d go to Italy and I’d be broke! That’s just one of the crazy things about this industry. People do this in the restaurant business all the time, living off tips.