Scott Conant brings a deft touch and unwavering passion to creating soulful food in a convivial atmosphere. His career spans over 30 years, including multiple restaurants, an enthusiastic following of fans and an ever-expanding brand. He has established himself as one of the country’s top chefs and restaurateurs.
A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Scott Conant broke out onto the restaurant scene in his twenties, running the kitchens of famed Italian spots such as ll Toscanaccio, Chianti and City Eatery, which earned glowing reviews under his leadership. Scott officially put his name on the map when he opened the beloved L’Impero in 2002. It garnered a three-star review from The New York Times, the title of “Best New Restaurant” from the James Beard Foundation, and praise from top publications such as Gourmet and Food & Wine, which named Conant one of America’s Best New Chefs in 2004.
Following the success of L’Impero, Conant opened Alto, an elegant Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Always looking to raise the bar, Conant eventually moved on to bring his own vision of sophisticated, savory Italian cooking to life with Scarpetta. In 2017, Conant opened Fusco, an upscale Italian spot in New York’s Flatiron district; Mora Italian, a modern, convivial osteria in Phoenix, Arizona; and The Ponte, a contemporary Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, California. With a goal of “savoring the pure pleasure of food, down to its last taste,” Conant returns to his roots in the Hudson Valley with the recent opening of an Italian inspired steakhouse, Cellaio at Resorts World Catskills. In 2018, Conant will open Masso Osteria at Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Conant has appeared on the Today Show, The Chew, CBS’ The Talk and Good Morning America, and is a regular judge on Chopped, consistently one of Food Network’s highest rated programs. He has also published three cookbooks: New Italian Cooking, Bold Italian and The Scarpetta Cookbook.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to chat with Scott Conant about his latest venture.
So how did a kid from Waterbury escape Connecticut and become an internationally recognized culinary star?
At 18, I left to attend culinary school at CIA, moved to New Orleans, then I worked in Manhattan and eventually in Europe. I knew the style of cooking I wanted to pursue and what I still needed to learn weren’t available in Waterbury, so I had to leave. I didn’t want my background to define my future.
Can you talk about the impact that your Grandmother and parents had on your passion for cooking?
My maternal grandmother set the tone for the family. She was the matriarch and foundation. I identify my cooking as this balance of rustic and elegant flavors and she has certainly inspired that approach. I am also fortunate that I had parents that supported my decisions and encouraged me to pursue a better life.
As your career flourished who were some of the mentors that had an impact on your growth?
I inherently observe what a lot of people do. Over the years, the most important lessons became what not to do, how not to treat people. I wasn’t directly mentored by any of the great chefs because I didn’t want to be a disciple of someone else’s cooking. I choose to continually self-educate and observe in order to walk my own path.
Has a pastry background helped?
I studied pastry briefly in Germany; so don’t consider it a formal background. It has taught me how to know what’s “good” and speak the same language to our pastry chefs.
Was the CIA experience valuable?
The short answer is yes. I think what you put into it is ultimately what you get out of it. I’ve been cooking now for 33 years and my CIA years is a snapshot of the life I’m living now in the sense that it’s food centric. I’m fortunate enough that I’m in the industry and CIA certainly was the catalyst for all those things.
How did the opportunity in the Catskills come together?
I met the developers at one of my restaurants about five years ago. They initially were looking for two different concepts; an Italian restaurant and a steakhouse. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and create an Italian-inspired steakhouse.
Love the name Cellaio – what does it mean in Italian?
It’s a loose translation for a butcher’s workspace.
How did you land on a steakhouse concept?
It’s been in my back pocket and the timing was just right with Resorts World Catskills.
Scott Conant’s Cellaio offers a palette of delicious choices including:
Are you a Pat LaFrieda guy or are there other purveyors that produce high quality product?
I love LaFrieda and we’ve been using them for years. We also use Allen Brothers.
You have done a Vegas restaurant. What are the dynamics of a successful casino/hotel restaurant? Are there lessons from Vegas you will bring to the Catskills?
You have to appeal to a broad demographic of people. If someone wants a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine at the bar, you have to make that just as appealing as a blowout celebratory dinner with magnums of champagne. It has to be an inclusive dining experience and appeal to both ends of the spectrum.
You are one of the rare chef/restaurateurs that has succeeded in a wide diversity of venues from Manhattan to Phoenix. What are the keys to that success?
Being serious about what you do but not taking it too seriously. Dedicating ourselves to quality from restaurant design, to personable service and culinary programming.
You seem to land on interesting opportunities including LA. Does it drive you to create success where others have struggled?
I don’t know anybody that doesn’t strive to be successful. Many opportunities have come to the table, but I also say no to a lot of things. It’s about the wherewithal, getting things up to quality and maintaining it.
Obviously when you build a company that is far flung you have to have a unique feel for building a management team and creating a culture that enables people to grow. How have you accomplished that?
My management style is pretty simple. You’re an adult and you should be able to manage yourself responsibly. If you’re not self-motivated, you’re probably not going to make it on my team. I demand a lot of internal communications and expect people to be proactive and come to me with solutions instead of just problems. Anyone can point out problems…Most importantly, egos are put aside and we’re empowering the team at all venues. Making guests, staff and business partners happy within the confines of who we are is always the goal.
Curious, how did the first restaurant you owned come to be?
I was cooking in a restaurant in Midtown East, toiling away and got some good reviews. A gentleman who was having dinner one night approached me about opening my own place. That’s every young chef’s dream.
When you began a restaurant in the past would you run a couple of print ads and wait for a newspaper review and then Zagat? How has this new world of social media changed how you promote your restaurants?
You have to tell your story. I think social media is an advertising platform just like being on television is. It’s another outlet for people to get to know your brand.
To learn more about Scott Conant and his restaurants, visit his website.
All Cellaio photos by Ken Goodman