I’m surprised when chef Scott Conant addresses me by name at our first meeting. For a moment, I’m a little stunned, standing at the base of the event stage with my hand extended, elevator pitch at the ready. Until he notes my rapid fire tweets from the weekend’s events.
Ah, yes. The power of Twitter.
After a formal shaking of hands and an exchange of business cards, along with an appeal for an interview, the surprisingly approachable chef, fresh off his culinary demonstration on this last day of the posh Taste of Beverly Hills, insists he has time for a quick chat once he’s done meeting the handful of fans still lingering around the LG stage. As we sit down post-demo, I mention that his Twitter feed, where he’s often retweeting messages of both love and hate from fans of his shows and restaurants, is incidentally one of my favorites.
“I’m amused by [the mean comments],” he remarks with a laugh. “If it’s about the restaurant, I won’t usually retweet. But if it’s about me, I just find it funny.”
Like many of his equally ambitious peers, Scott Conant has been a busy man over the last few years, working hard to communicate with his fan base and expand his award-winning restaurant kingdom. Judging by the recent opening of his signature Scarpetta in Toronto, Ontario, the economy doesn’t seem to have slowed business down either. “We opened Scarpetta New York about six months after the recession hit,” the chef explains. “Before the effects were felt. And Miami about a month after the effects of the recession were felt. You know, knock on wood, business is great.”
“I’m very fortunate, because the style of restaurant I have – it’s not precious, it’s not pretentious. I always say it’s more inclusive than exclusive, which is an important thing for me. I think it’s important for customers right now – where the world is, where the country is. It seems like you want something that’s going to be good, and you want all the components of fine dining, but you want the comforts of something casual. And that’s what Scarpetta is.”
From New York to Los Angeles
With locations in New York, Miami, Toronto, and soon, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, he’s juggling a number of kitchens scattered across the U.S and Canada. While others, like chefs David Chang and Tom Douglas have kept their growth to smaller pockets of the country, Scott Conant explains that the placement of his locations is only in the natural order of things.
“When I looked at the cities I wanted to be in – first of all, you get a lot of cross over with New York, Miami, Toronto. And the next expansion is certainly to the West Coast. The second biggest market is L.A.,” he says. “And then Las Vegas…you have to look at the people who spend time in Toronto, New York, L.A., they spend time in Las Vegas. I don’t want to do too much, but it’d be crazy to do too little.”
Intrigued by chef Thomas Keller’s tales of video cameras in the kitchen, allowing the renowned chef to keep an eye on all of his locations at once, I inquire as to how Conant stays on top of the day-to-day activities within his eateries. “It’s all up to the team. The people we have in every restaurant,” he says. “I give them free reign to be who they are, within the confines of what Scarpetta means. You’re an adult – you can manage yourself. If you can’t, it will become obvious in a short time.”
“The challenges are about finding the right people. You can’t fit a circle into a square. It’s a puzzle. Once we have the right people on the bus, then we can move forward.”
With the upcoming launch of Scarpetta at the Montage Beverly Hills, the December opening of yet another Scarpetta location along with wine bar D.O.C.G. Inoteca at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and the regular filming schedule for his Food Network show, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, I’m curious as well as to how often he actually has a chance to cook, a once-comfortable activity that many chefs along his same path find less and less time for.
“I spend every day of my life in a kitchen. I work seven days a week, ask my wife,” he laughs, alluding to the difficulties of balancing a public and private life. “And we have a six month old, and it’s tough sometimes. It’s not easy, but I didn’t do this because it was easy. I’m doing it because it’s genuinely what I love. It’s worked itself into a lifestyle that suits me. I love it.”
*Photo credit: Scott Conant Management