Chef Wants Diners to Sop Up Food With Bread

"Those holidays, those summers, eating lobster and stuff like that, it was really that New England type of upbringing, from that perspective," he said.

Appreciating Simplicity

His mother was a first-generation Italian-American, and his grandfather had a large garden, bigger than Conant's restaurant. Even today, the smell of basil brings tears to his eyes, thinking of his grandfather's hard work in living off the land.

"The simplicity of that food as well, that approach to food that he and my grandmother had taken, you know the Italian side of my family," he said. "I think, that is ultimately the reason how I fell into Italian food. So it was that simplicity and that goodness, that sense of purity."

Conant moved to New York by 18. He often considered the balance in 1990 between American and Italian cuisine. Working at a now-defunct restaurant, Conant said he tried to find his own balance.

"Obviously, you know there are some ideas that need to be honed, and there is something to work toward and obviously you put yourself on a path to kind of grow, and that was the intention from that point on," he said.

Staying fresh and staying invigorated keeps him going. That and a true love for what he does.

"I am very fortunate. And it is not necessarily just because of the food aspect. Food aspect is a component that I love," he said. "I happen to love talking to customers. I happen to love working in a room, I happen to love shaking hands and kissing babies and that kind of stuff, and I like when people come in and there is that inherent generosity, and I think [that's] necessary in a chef. And I like to treat people as if they were coming into my home."

Conant's other loves? His wife, Meltem, whom he married in Turkey last year. And, he said, the music of Bob Dylan and a glass of good red wine.

Finding a Balance

He's also taken the time to contemplate his life and his choices and found that he's been fortunate. He's worked in restaurants that were great and some that were not so great.

"So really to find a balance of all those experiences, and to try to create an atmosphere that was true self ... a true reflection of the self, which is, you know, the approachability but still hints of sophistication," he said. "Hopefully, that is part of my persona. I like to think that it is."

But not all is roses. Conant's faced some jabs in online blogs, which, coupled with his own perfectionism and self-criticism, can be hard to take.

"The intention for this restaurant was a sense of goodness. It is not the most technically sound food that I am capable ever, or that I've ever cooked," he said. "It is meant to be good. It's meant for people to enjoy it and to make a scarpetta. That is the idea, that is the intention."

But he can't always avoid seeing the criticisms. Sometimes they get forwarded to him. Sometimes he hears about a particular comment from a staff member. And sometimes he reads them to learn.

After getting past the cattiness of some remarks, he said, "maybe there is a hint of truth that we can look at. It's not personal. That is what I try to remind myself, that it is not personal."

Food as a Problem Solver

Conant said his food philosophy comes from taking good products and cooking them in a way that appeals to people's senses. It's about finding the next phase of evolution, he said.

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