Chef Scott Conant is always recognized as that guy from Chopped who hates raw onions. “Iʼm much nicer than they make me look on that show!” he says. When not judging basket creations on the Food Network, Conant operates the Italian restaurant Scarpetta in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, plus Corsair in Miami and D.O.C.G. Enoteca in Las Vegas. His newest restaurant, Conant, will open in New York in the fall.
We caught up with Conant in New York to discuss the ways established chefs can stay relevant in the industry, his love of rap music, and the pressure he feels to be a good mentor to young chefs on Chopped.
What’s your favorite restaurant in New York?
If I’m just having breakfast or a breakfast meeting, Iʼll go to the St. Regis Hotel on the corner of 55th and Fifth. Iʼm not a big breakfast person, but I just enjoy the opulence of that space. If I’m having a lunch meeting, Iʼm a big believer that there’s no better lunch in New York than Jean-Georges. I just love his culinary vocabulary. I really have a ton of respect for him.
How do chefs who have been in the industry for decades, such as yourself, stay relevant? How does Jean-Georges keep people wanting to eat as his restaurant?
To a certain extent, it’s something we all struggle with in different periods of our lives. Creativity and inspiration come and go. Iʼm a big Bob Dylan fan, and there’s a quote from him that always resonated with me: “An artist must be careful to never think he has arrived somewhere; he must always be in a constant state of becoming.” This idea of constantly staying on this path, on the edge of renewal, and of becoming is what really sticks with me.
How do you stay relevant after all that time? How do you stay interested and more importantly, how do other people stay interested? If you can figure those things out, then youʼve got it made. David Rockwell, the designer, has been relevant for almost 30 years. I had a conversation with him about it once and he said it’s really simple. You just have to keep hiring new people and picking their brains and allowing them to do the job that they were hired to do.
Does that mean giving up creative control?
It depends on your ego. You can hone someone else’s creativity through your own brand, so to speak. You can’t give people an experience that’s just simply creative. That’s not the expectation that the customer has of who you are and it doesn’t make economic sense.
You hate creativity for creativity’s sake, don’t you?
Yes! I have a lot of young cooks who do tastings for me, and one guy gave me three different courses of these little molecular balls on top of stuff. And it’s like, what are you doing, bro? I mean, is this you? Are you cooking from your heart? Just because it’s cool doesn’t mean that it’s right. At the risk of sounding like Oprah, I want these guys to be the best them. Don’t give me your version of somebody else.
Well for all you know he grew up eating little molecular balls of food. Maybe that’s what his mom cooked him for dinner every night.
Thank you for qualifying that.
What New York chef is not getting the attention he or she deserves?
That’s hard. There are a lot of chefs getting attention right now. There is Seamus Mullen, who has Tertulia. Heʼs always part of the conversation, but they never lead the conversation with him. He’s so damn talented. And I feel like he just gets it.
You have two resturants in Miami. It seems like a bunch of New York chefs are opening places in Miami right now. What is going on down there that’s drawing in all of these big chefs?
It’s a great city and it’s getting more and more sophisticated on a daily basis. From a cultural perspective, Miami is different than New York. In a lot of ways it’s an international stage the same way Vegas is.
What kind of music do you listen to when youʼre cooking?
I used to listen to a lot of Bill Withers in the restaurants. When Iʼm at home Iʼll listen to Dylan or Willie Nelson. I like that old outlaw country. I grew up listening to it from my father. And depending on my mood, hip hop. I’m a big fan of J. Cole’s new album. Kendrick Lamar, great, great stuff. But mostly Dylan and Willie Nelson. It’s really kind of pathetic. My wife hates it.
If your kitchen was burning down what would you save?
As many cookbooks as I could.
The Silver Spoon, Il Cucchiaio d'Argento in Italian. There’s another book in Italian, an old recipe book from the different regions of Italy…Let me find it on my bookcase…It’d be a hell of a thing if there was a fire in here and I couldn’t find the dang book. I’m going to take a photo of the cover and text it to you (right).
Do you watch any cooking shows that you actually learn from?
Well I do a show called Chopped. It’s funny, because you never know what the take away is from people watching your stuff. But people actually learn things from Chopped and they listen to what we say. We had an 11-year-old on one time and she did this dessert that really blew my mind. She combined processed foods that were in the basket with a lot of fresh ingredients from the pantry, and we were shocked that an 11-year-old had the wherewithal to be able do that. We asked her, “where did you learn to do that?” And she said she learned it listening to us. And it was one of these moments where I thought, holy shit, people actually listen to what we say. We really better be careful. It was really touching.
Do you actually make connections with the young cooks on the show?
I try to. You never know where theyʼre going to go or what they’re going to do. And I may be completely kidding myself, but I really see myself as one of those people who just wants people to eat good food. That’s all I want. My agenda is just to eat well. That’s it. So the better food they cook, the better off I think we all are. I never had a mentor in the traditional sense, so if I can impart a little bit of help, or maybe a touch of wisdom—if I have some—or teach them a little something about coaxing flavor out of food or just how to treat things with a little bit of reverence or integrity, that’s what I’ll do.
Are there any chefs who you really admire right now?
I look at so many chefs and think, damn, I wish I could do that. Iʼm a little bit A.D.D. though. I need to have a lot of different jobs, so to speak, so it’s hard for me to have that focus. I look at a chef like Daniel Boulud or Éric Lapierre or Thomas Keller or Wylie Dufresne, and you see the singular focus that they have to have to execute things at the level that they do it. For me that’s mind-blowing. Because I realize how much effort goes into that. You need to have blinders on all the time.
Iʼm one of those guys who likes to go home at night and play with my daughters. That appreciation of my family sometimes takes away from the focus that I have with food or in a kitchen or in business. At this point in my life, in my career—Iʼve been doing this for almost 30 years now—I think more from an entrepreneurial perspective than simply a food perspective. I sometimes wish that I was just happy standing in a kitchen 12 hours every single day. It would make a lot of other decisions easy.
That’s the struggle for everyone in every industry, right? Work-life balance.
Yeah, but not just spending time with my family. I also enjoy being in TV shows. I enjoy writing cookbooks. I enjoy sitting with my staff and drinking a coffee sometimes or walking around New York making phone calls instead of just being cooped up in one place for hours on end. Fortunately Iʼve created a business that allows me to be who I am.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep