Meet & Eat: Scott Conant
"You need to have a very clear vision when you're opening a restaurant."
One of the most celebrated Italian chefs in New York City, Scott Conant is at the top of his game. Chef-owner of the very successful Scarpetta restaurants in NYC and Miami Beach, he opened his newest restaurant, Faustina, in early 2010. And next week, he'll be opening a brand new Scarpetta branch in Toronto—his first international project. Additionally, Scott is the host of new Food Network show 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, where teams of two compete every week for to open a restaurant in a mere 24 hours. I chatted with Scott about all of these projects and more.
What were your biggest hurdles when you made the switch from chef to chef-owner and began opening restaurants? The biggest thing is really coming up with your own philosophy from beginning to end—from the way people should be treated in the front, to the way they're spoken to on the phone, to the energy amongst staff members. A food philosophy is something you create as a young cook and develop into your own style of food, but when it came to starting a restaurant on my own terms, really trying to create this dynamic of something that could expand and grow—I don't think there was ever a point when I knew I was ready.
Are there differences in how a chef might approach the restaurant building process, versus a restaurateur? I'm not sure if it's that different. I think that the only difference is that chefs hold their food very close—like it's a complete extension of themselves. Whereas business owners sometimes could care less; you open a restaurant to make people happy and in turn to make money. But it's an age-old struggle—every artist, every cook has the constant struggle of trying to find the balance between business and your love of the art.
How can you compare opening a restaurant in NYC versus in Miami Beach? Or in your newest location, Toronto? It's never the same because the personalities change. You have to be nimble; there's a different palate in each city but there is a lot of cross-over clientele. We'll do whatever the customer wants within the confines of what we are—but once we go outside those confines then we shouldn't have the same name on the door.
Talk about your new Toronto location. Is Toronto a good food city? Well, we open next week and we're going through friends and family this week; it's amazing. I'm so excited about this restaurant. It's such a great town; this is probably the most beautiful Scarpetta so far. Toronto is a great food city. There's a lot of restaurants here, great product. Really great product. Lots of farms, lots of places that do their own charcuterie. I tasted a pancetta from a guy who makes it outside Toronto and it was just fantastic. I literally tasted it and gave the guy a hug. It's that passion, he was so passionate and proud. I'm so excited to serve that to people.
Now, tell me about 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. What were the most persistent problems that the teams faced on the show? A lack of communication, and not executing their idea clearly. All too often people tried to do everything instead of a couple things very well. I was constantly reminded that you need to have a very clear vision when you're opening a restaurant. Honing of simplicity—that's what I've always found to be successful in restaurants that resonate with me.
How does the restaurant opening process on the show parallel (or not) this process in the real world? There were a lot of similarities, because it's not easy to open up a restaurant! And very few people are in a situation where they can have an opening process be drawn out and take a week to train your staff and a month to develop your menu. It's indicative of the truth, this show, because this is what it's like. When I opened my first restaurant it was frantic, it was very similar. When we opened Scarpetta I remember breaking down in tears like a child because it's so difficult!
You opened your newest restaurant, Faustina, in less than a month. Did that help you relate to the contestants a bit more? I will never put myself in that situation again. Any restaurant deal that we do at this point is a longer process. We were really pressed for time at Faustina and the customers are very happy but I'll never open up a restaurant like that again. It absolutely helped me relate. Having done this since I was a kid, cooking and being in restaurants, that really helped me see some of the mistakes and positives that people were pursing in their concepts. It was really important to me. I made some of those same mistakes opening restaurants. To constantly remind yourself about those mistakes is important to growing in the future.
24 Hour Restaurant Battle premiered last night, on July 21st at 10 p.m. Find out more information at the show's website. If you watched the show, what did you think?