Chef Scott Conant brings a deft touch and unwavering passion to creating soulful food in a convivial atmosphere. With a career spanning more than 30 years, including multiple restaurants, an enthusiastic following of fans and an ever-expanding brand, he has established himself as one of the country’s top chefs and restaurateurs. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Conant broke out onto the restaurant scene in his 20s, running the kitchens at Il Toscanaccio, Chianti and City Eatery, which had earned glowing reviews under his leadership. Conant officially put his name on the map when he opened L’Impero in 2002, which garnered a three-star review from The New York Times, the title of “Best New Restaurant” from the James Beard Foundation and praise from top publications such as Gourmet and Food & Wine, the latter naming Conant one of America’s Best New Chefs in 2004. Today, Conant owns four restaurants, including one at Resorts World Catskills casino in Monticello.
If you’ve ever watched the hit Food Network show “Chopped,” you’ve undoubtedly seen him. Conant is the dapper chef, who typically wears a gorgeous Ermenegildo Zegna suit and flashes a Cheshire-cat smile. I interviewed Conant as he sat on the beach at a top resort in Mexico, where he was cooking for a private party of 25 people. He was a delight to speak with, sharing his thoughts on all things culinary, his favorite snacks and what he thinks about JetBlue.
You grew up in Waterbury. Did you ever have any idea you would become so successful?
“I knew at age 15 that I wanted to be a chef. When I started cooking, I had no idea what was in store. I attended Kaynor Technical (High) School in Waterbury and tried to get into the plumbing program. It didn’t work out and I then entered the culinary arts program. I love baseball and also wanted to be a baseball player, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. I didn’t dream big enough.”
So you’re saying that you became a chef because you couldn’t be a plumber?
“Yes. And I sometimes still wear my pants like that.” (Laughs.)
You’re the best-dressed chef on “Chopped.” Where do you get your suits and shoes?
“Ermenegildo Zegna. I’ve been wearing Zegna for 14 years. When I dress casual, I wear John Varvatos.”
Why is it that Italians have such a great sense of style?
“They’re proud and they want to look good. It’s the country of Zegna, Brioni and Maserati.”
Why do you hate onions?
“I get a lot of grief for saying that. But the one thing we ask on ‘Chopped’ is for the chefs to excel and I’m not convinced that a chopped onion is haute cuisine.”
Have you ever cooked with a jar of store-bought tomato sauce?
“No. Except for my own brand. I just started jarring my own. It’s called Sprezza. You can buy it on scottconant.com. That’s my shameless plug.” (Smiles.)
What do you want to eat for your last meal?
“A big, giant bucket of good fried chicken.” (Smiles again.)
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
“It’s impossible to say. Mom’s chicken cutlets. And I just ate a dish of tapioca and caviar at Jean-Georges in New York. It was tremendously sexy and unctuous. When I go to lunch in New York, I always go to Jean-Georges for lunch, hands-down.”
What’s your favorite snack?
“I’m a popcorn guy. Sometimes I will skip meals to have popcorn with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt. It’s very simple.”
What food can’t you live without?
“Extra-chunk Skippy peanut butter is one of my favorite things in life.”
“I would fly JetBlue Mint any day of the week. It’s spectacular. The service is unbelievable, and first class has lie-down seats. They’ve mastered the art of hospitality. …I travel nine months of the year and they’re pretty hectic.”
To what one thing do you attribute your success?
“I don’t consider myself successful. I’ve had a lot of downs. Google me. You’ll find all the struggles there. (Laughs). I’m here sitting next to a pool, but I’m writing recipes. And those 4 a.m. wake-up calls … are hard. My weight fluctuates all the time. I won’t be in a bodybuilding contest anytime soon.”
To book a party with Scott Conant as chef, email firstname.lastname@example.org.