Chef Wants Diners to Sop Up Food With Bread

Chef Scott Conant says his New England roots inspire his cooking.

Aug. 29, 2008— -- At the end of a meal, when the food is that good, it's not unusual to see diners scooping up the last delicious mouthfuls of a meal in order not to leave one bit behind.

That's what chef Scott Conant strives for. So much so that he named his new New York City restaurant Scarpetta.

"You know, when the food is really good, especially for some reason Italian food, it kind of inspires you to grab a piece of bread and sop up what is on the plate," he said. "And the Italians, God bless them, have a word for it. Sopping up is called scarpetta."

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"So the idea and the intention for this restaurant is to be able to just have an environment where it kind of invites," he said. The food is so good and you feel comfortable inside of it enough to make a scarpetta."

Scarpetta is the third Manhattan restaurant opened by Conant, a beloved and award-winning chef whose Italian dishes have dazzled many. He was named Best New Chef in 2004 by Food & Wine and has appeared on numerous television shows, including Bravo's "Top Chef."

He's published two cookbooks, 2005's "New Italian Cooking" followed by "Bold Italian," released in April.

And last month, the New York Times reviewer Frank Bruni gave Scarpetta three out of four stars and said no one was better with a tomato than Conant.

It All Started in a Cooking Class

His passion for the kitchen began at 11, when the Waterbury, Conn., native found himself in a community cooking class.

"I didn't think much of it at the time, you know," the 37-year-old said.

"I learned how to make a three-to-one dough," he recalled. "So like pie crust, and I remember making it later, you know, nice and simple. I made a great apple pie. I still make a good apple pie actually."

Conant enrolled in vocational school in hopes of getting into the plumbing business, but when that program was full it was his second choice -- culinary art s -- that stuck.

"I started working in a family friend's restaurant, and I was working like 60 hours a week, plus going to school," he said. "I was really, I was never home. I would leave for school at 7 o'clock in the morning and get home around 1 a.m., and I would be back at school the next morning. I loved it. I really loved it."

It was something different from what he'd ever done, and he enjoyed the camaraderie even though at 15 he was the youngest employee in the restaurant's kitchen.

And, Conant said, it was probably a good thing that he got into his second-choice program at school.

"The third choice was, I probably shouldn't say this, but the third choice was hair dressing," he said. "I think that would have killed my father."

That's Some Good Lasagna

For Conant, cooking came naturally, and culinary arts was the only class in which he got an A, besides gym.

"I remember making lasagna, something like this and the teacher saying to me, in front of the chef instructors, 'you're good at this, you know, you have an eye for this, the hands for this,'" he said. "I said 'yeah, yeah, yeah. You're saying that because you want kids to take your classes.'"

Another motivation for Conant to do well?

The hottest girls in the high school were in that culinary class," he said, laughing.

Conant grew up in a traditional New England family with what he called the "Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving."

"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.

"If this goat, let's say, were to eat rosemary and garlic and eat all these things, there is an inherent infusion of flavor from all these things that it is eating. How would that goat like to be cooked? What is the best way to extract as much flavor from this product as possible?" he said. "That is the approach that I would like to take to every dish on this menu. What is the next step for the flavor profile that is inherent in this dish."

And while food is sustenance and a necessity of life, Conant likes to think it has a greater purpose.

"If we look at what food has become in our society, I think there is an opportunity with food to bring people together, to bring cultures together," he said. "People who may not normally sit at table together can do it over a meal."

So many problems, he said, can be solved over a dinner or a drink. It's a place to start the conversation.

So for this famous chef who makes mouths water routinely, what is his favorite food?

"Skippy, extra chunky reduced-fat peanut butter. I cannot have it in the house," he said, laughing. "My wife thinks I am an animal. I will sit with a butter knife and eat like three quarters of a jar, and I will feel sick. I love it. I love the texture of it and the flavor profile of it. It's unbelievable."

Another favorite? Fritos.

" I don't even eat them at this point, because if I start, it is just crazy," he said.