Chef Scott Conant has been cooking since he was fifteen, but he's a newcomer to L.A. With only three hours to go before debuting the fourth branch of his Scarpetta, we sat down with the chef in his surprisingly calm kitchen to see what he thought of our city's food and the recent diss it took by Michelin's Jean Luc Naret, plus his feelings on Scarpetta's expansion in the wake of Tom Colicchio's Craft announcement, and why we've been denied his roast baby goat dish. Enjoy our interview with chef Scott Conant, below.
Right off the bat, Conant admits, "I don't know L.A. very well. I've been here a couple of months and I'm just asking a lot of questions." These included taking counsel with his super-famous neighbors at Spago and Bouchon. He explains, "I talked with Wolfgang and Thomas. You can't come to L.A. without talking with Wolfgang, he's like "The Godfather," and he was great and very welcoming, as was Thomas, who was very excited to have us here...The Drago brothers too. Everyone was welcoming and willing to give me advice on what to do and what not to do."
Although Conant first expanded Scarpetta from New York to Miami and Toronto, he says he couldn't resist L.A. because, "Outside of New York, it has to be the most important market in the country, given the concentration of eyes on it." His take-over at The Montage was the result of a fortuitous night back in New York when, "I was looking for spaces and the CEO of the Montage came in to Scarpetta for dinner and we struck up a friendship. He really liked the vibe and we started talking about making this happen...This street has a lot of energy and I'm just hoping I can add to it."
As for L.A.'s food, he already understands that the strength of our restaurants doesn't necessarily lie in hot tables and celebrity dining rooms. He points out, "You always hear about the strip-mall spots and the under-the-radar sushi restaurants and I'm finding that's true. The ethnic food here is really world-class...To be sitting in some part of the city eating Korean food, that's been awesome."
When it comes to the disparaging comments recently cast towards L.A.'s eating habits from Michelin's guides director, Jean Luc Naret, Conant has seen them and sympathizes. The toque says about his own history with the ratings system, "We don't have a Michelin star. I always say I'd rather have a happy customer than a happy critic. Sometimes something resonates with a critic that doesn't resonate with a customer and vice versa. I have no axe to grind with Michelin. Just because they didn't give Scarpetta a star doesn't mean they're not happy with their experience. If we get a star or don't get a star, at the end of the day, my goal is make sure the customer is happy."
With Scarpetta next headed to Las Vegas' Cosmopolitan before the end of the year, we naturally want to know about the restaurant's continuing expansion, no less on a day when Tom Colicchio announced an end to Craft's proliferation. Conant admits he worries about the perception that his restaurant could be a chain, saying, "I do, in a big way. After Miami, New York, Toronto, L.A., and Vegas, with the possible exception of D.C., I don't think Scarpetta will expand anymore in the States. I am interested in overseas, but I agree with Tom. There will be no, you know, Scarpetta Steak."
So how does he plan to make each restaurant still feel personal? "I think about 50% or 60% of the dishes here work so well, I'd be crazy to change what works. I'd be out of my mind to take certain dishes off the menu." Conant says he starts with the land when trying to connect each Scarpetta with the city it resides in. "It happens first through establishing relationships with farmers. I take what they raise and give it an Italian spin, trying to preserve and respect its goodness and extract a certain soul. We try to ensure that every flavor is harmonious and yet every ingredient is singular."
Speaking of ingredients, we're curious why the baby goat dish we've heard so much about isn't on L.A.'s menu. The chef helps explain why we see plenty of goat in our casual restaurants, but why it hasn't leapt into our fine-dining restaurants quite yet. "I really haven't found a quality [goat] that I like," Conant says, "and I haven't seen everything that's out there, but I'm not that type of chef who says something has to be on the menu. The capretto is a fickle dish and if it's not right, then I just don't want to serve it. I've been serving that goat for years and it's one of those things that if it's not going to be 100% great, we just don't do it. Just like, if I couldn't get great tomatoes, I wouldn't serve spaghetti with tomatoes and basil. I'm certainly willing to consider having it here, but it has to be great."
On that note, we let Conant get back to his work, retooling a menu on the laptop that sits at the chef's table overlooking an open kitchen, the feature he tells us he's most excited about. "These five seats at the kitchen. I'm excited to be able to sit here with guests, speaking with them here, and cooking for them... For a
short time, I had a restaurant with just 24 seats at the bar, serving crudo.It was like a kaiseki experience. It closed after two months, but something about it really worked."
He ends by saying, "I really love and enjoy what I do. It sounds like trite bullshit, but it's true. I get to travel. I spend time with people, meet people, talk about food with people, and sit and design sixteen courses for people who love to eat. What's not to enjoy?"