When Scott Conant left Alto and LíImpero last year, he had become recognized as one of the best Italian chefs in a city that already boasted people like Batali, Valenti, Colicchio, and so many others. But now weíve discovered that he left town for good reason: for us. He left his previous partners for many reasons, but mainly so he could being planning Scarpetta, his new meatpacking district restaurant that, by the time you have read this, most people will already have heard about, but not many will have eaten at because itís so difficult to get a table there. But do keep trying, and after youíve seen the photos youíll be sure to start dialing.
NYRI: So, were you trying to work something out with the owners at Alto and it just didnít work out?
Scott: Itís an interesting story, and I am going to keep most of it to myself for obvious reasons. However, a lot of opportunities were coming my way; some that I was creating, others that I was kind of surprised that people would come to me about. It just became clear to me at a certain point that whether it was going to be with my former partners or not, there was real growth potential. But I think it has all worked out for the best, because it became clear to me that I couldnít work with that group anymore. There is such a thing called the Peter Principle, where people rise to their level of incompetence. And it just became clear to me that maybe I was associated with a group that was in that category. So this project was about surrounding myself with people who really see the big picture of what was right and wrong and pursuing something from a very grounded place, as opposed to something that was highly frenetic and almost spastic. I donít think that anybody can live in an environment like that for an extended period of time.
NYRI: There are many restaurateurs, like Jean-Georgesí partner for instance, who do not mind building a brand around their chefís name. So this was not one of these partnerships where they were willing to grow with you and have you become the companyís ďbrandĒ?
Scott: I am not sure if that was the case or not. It was never my intention to build my name, for me, itís about the product, itís about customer service, itís about hospitality. Itís not about ego, itís a business, and the business that we are in is the hospitality business. So, the most important thing for a hospitality company is to create a happy experience for the customer, so they can walk out with a smile on their face. And sometimes, some people arenít ego driven and sometimes people are. It is not a judgment in any way, itís just a matter of discernment. So again, my intention to build a new company was not about, ďI want Scott Conant be the next Wolfgang Puck.Ē That was not my intention. My intention was to build a company that has happy customers, happy staff, happy management, and happy me.
NYRI: In order to do that, you need a certain amount of control.
Scott: You need a certain amount of control and you need to have a singular vision. Antonello the Director of Operations would be the first to tell you that I ask a lot of questions. I ask him advice all the time. Ultimately, the final decision is mine and I take full responsibility. But if people are making decisions based on things that have nothing to do with the business that youíre in, it makes it difficult to have that purity. It makes it difficult to pursue something thatís well-rounded and it is impossible to execute it 100%, because all the wires get crossed.
NYRI: I will say that your old partners were smart to hire you, and they were smart to hire a very good chef after you left.
Scott: And you know Michael, God bless him, he has carried the torch. I mean, it is really spectacular. But that is the issue. I was a partner. I was not a hired chef and if I was an employee that would be a very different situation and I would understand my place inside of it. However, when you are a business partner, your voice should be heard. And if it cannot be heard, then at a certain point, you have to throw up your hands and say, there are certain environments that you can live in and others that you cannot. My management style is to provide my team and my staff with the tools to succeed. If I tie one hand behind their back, how can I expect them to achieve their own potential?
NYRI: So, what do you think that you are doing better here at Scarpetta than you were able to do at Alto?
Scott: I think sometimes a new environment with different people allows you to spread your wings a little bit more and be who you are. I remember a postcard years ago that someone bought me, I was living overseas and it was a photo of a man dressed as a woman at a Gay parade, and he had a sign that said, ďIn a world full of caterpillars it takes balls to be a butterfly.Ē I always loved that, so I always keep that in the back my head. Itís okay to be who you are, itís okay to be yourself. None of this is personal, these are business decisions. I know the effect that it has had on the clientele. I know whether my old clients or my old customers are coming in. Thankfully in a very short amount of time, we have become booked, knock on wood. The goal is just to nurture those relationships. I donít build the business in order to make fast money. I build this business because I am building relationships with clientele, hopefully over the next 15 years that we have left on this lease.
NYRI: Have you seen a lot of people coming in that you used to see at Alto? And LíImpero?
Scott: Yes. Itís an unbelievable response that I have had. It has been a little emotional at times because it has been a kind of a tough road traveled. And on other occasions, it has just been like Ė I feel like Sally Field - ďthey like me!Ē Giovanni was the Service Director of LíImpero for 2 Ĺ years. He came with my entire staff at LíImpero. My entire staff in the kitchen has been with me for years. And a lot of front of house staff have all made the leap, so to speak. For me, it goes back to the whole philosophy of just creating these relationships, nurturing these relationships, whether they would be with staff, whether they would be managers, whether they would be with customers. I always say on a daily basis when people ask me, what do I do? I am a cook. But inside of that, what do I do with these products? I just try to extract the inner goodness. Itís an inherent quality product. Itís the same thing with staff, and itís the same thing with the restaurant. I just want to extract its inner goodness and let it be exactly what it is. So, create the energy and the environment so people can live in a happy place.
NYRI: Speaking of service, who do you have training your service staff?
Scott: I have Giovanni Jimbroni who is the Service Director. I have Antonello Paganuzzi. Those are a lot of vowels!
NYRI: So youíve hired a nice group of Irish guys?
Scott: Yes, a couple Irish guys, lots of Guiness and potatoes! Antonello has a wonderful background. He was a teenager when he started working at Le Cirque and came up through the ranks. He ran Le Cirque and Le Cirque Vegas for a long time. So as I build this company, as my Director of Operations his role was obviously that he is my number one guy.
NYRI: Will you be offering partial partnerships to some of your key staff?
Scott: As we move forward, that is the intention. It is hard to do with one store. Right now, we have one store. But as we move forward, and we start to do other projects. The intention is to always share some goodness, hopefully.
NYRI: So, itís been over a year since you left New York, everyone probably wants to know what Scott had been doing.
Scott: I have been working on a lot of staff. I have new partners and new investors. And fortunately, they are good like-minded business people. This is the other thing. I am a chef and I admittedly get kind of wrapped-up in the details of things inside the confines of the restaurant. But my partners are the numbers guys, the infrastructure people and they have wonderful backgrounds and they are always looking for what is best for the company and that is refreshing. I have been working on some other things, I signed a deal to do a restaurant at the Fontainebleau in Miami which I am very excited about. We are close to working out some other aspects about a property in Vegas as well.
NYRI: You used to have a place in Miami, do you still have that or did you sell it?
Scott: I have a condo. I got married in Turkey, and I went on my honeymoon in Tahiti, which was spectacular. I did a lot of stuff, it has been a hectic year working on this, doing a lot of business plans and writing a lot of Excel spreadsheets for all the different things that weíre working on. Some things panned out, others things havenít, but itís all good.
NYRI: You also worked briefly for a restaurant on Long Island?
Scott: I was consulting on a space in Sag Harbor, Tutto Il Giorno. It was a fun summer, I got to spend the summer in the Hamptons. I was not there all the time, I was there maybe 12 or 14 days a month, maybe at the most 15 days. Steve Florio was a friend of mine, heís the former CEO at Condť Nast and unfortunately he passed away in December. So we kind of passed the torch and his shares became available and I think that Donna Karanís daughter bought the shares of the company and theyíre doing a whole new space out there at this point.
NYRI: On your menu here there are going to be inevitable comparisons to what you cooked at Alto and LíImpero. How do you combat that, because Iím sure there are some things that you have cooked in the past, as well as some new stuff.
Scott: I knew that some things were great hits with customers. And also, a lot of people would email me and call me and say, ďWe missed your food. We missed that spaghetti. We missed the polenta. Oh my God, when are you going to open up?Ē Because of the contracts that I signed with my old business partners, I had to keep a very tight lid on things so I could uphold my end of the bargain.
NYRI: In other words, did you promise not to open something in New York for a specific amount of time?
Scott: Well, yes, it is a normal clause in a contract when you are exiting a partnership. I tried to limit as much as I could, but I needed to be fair to them, because I understand both sides of the issues.
NYRI: You needed time anyway. You couldnít have done Scarpetta overnight.
Scott: Yes, that is right. God knows. Listen, I will tell you, toward the end of the construction on this, I was really starting to chomp at the bit. One thing I missed about a restaurant is obviously cooking and being in a restaurant. But the other thing that I really kind of came to realize is the camaraderie that you have with your staff, just the fun and laughing and having a good time in creating these things and always being on that forward motion to try to get better and push it. I missed the reaction of the customers and shaking peopleís hands at night. I happen to love talking to people, so I wanted to create that atmosphere, as if someone were going to come into my home.
NYRI: Thereís a lot of room here for you to walk around Ė itís a big home!
Scott: Yes, and itís a different space as well because itís broken up into these three little places. There is the outdoor area, there is the cafť and then there is that beautiful big bar. And of course the dining room with about 80 seats. Altogether, we have 130 seats inside. This space in general, itís like urban Milan meets rustic Tuscany but in New York City. So, everything that I do here is meant to be kind of a nod toward those three traditions.
NYRI: Did you sign a long lease?
Scott: I took over the existing lease so we still have quite a few years left. And itís the Gansevoort Market historic district, which I think is significant. The faÁade is a landmark so we could not do anything. It is a very modest faÁade, so it looks like this little cottage and then you walk in say, ďYou know, it is a pretty good sized space.Ē
NYRI: Yes, it does not look like that from the outside. What atmosphere were you going for in the design?
Scott: I want people grabbing a glass and drinking and clinking glasses and that sense of conviviality at the same time, having fun. And even have serious real food, but still have fun inside the space. Why not? It is not about fine dining and all this kind of stuff, it is meant to be approachable for people. In New York City, there should be restaurants where you can have a good time and have great food at the same time. But every night there has been a great buzz in the room. Every night, people are making reservations on their way out the door which for me is a telltale sign, that means that we are doing something right. Somebody was here last night that canceled their reservation in a different restaurant in order to come in again, second night in a row. So those are the things that show that we were firing on all cylinders.
NYRI: Do you want to talk about some key purveyors that you think have been very important to you this time around?
Scott: Iím fortunate to have great relationships with purveyors where I could pick up the phone, and they say, ďScott, I am so happy that youíre opening again, weíll give you whatever credit you want. Send us your credit history if you get the chance.Ē It is flattering, and there have been a lot of friends who have helped me out with certain things as far as getting these purveyors. Lucky from Luckyís tomatoes would call to check on me periodically throughout the past year and a half just to say, ďListen Scott, I hope you are okay. I miss your tomato sauce.Ē Richard from Wild Edibles, an old friend, or Mark from LaFrieda meats coming by and just saying, ďWhatever samples you need, let me know.Ē Itís a nice feeling. Thatís what itís all is about.
NYRI: Any new stuff you are using on your dishes that you have not used before?
Scott: I am doing this kind of fun veal shank that is Ė I do not want to say osso buco; I get myself into trouble when people have this image of an osso buco. What I do is I take the bone out of the veal and I take all the marrow out of the bones and I make this little kind of gremolata marrow mixture, just heated up gently so the marrow has that great soft texture. Iím using that marrow and then kind of butterflying out the shanks, filling it with this beautiful gremolata, rolling it up, braising it for four or five hours nice and slow with this great braising liquid and then serve it with a little saffron-parmigiano orzo. It is a little take on traditional osso buco, and then we tableside it with a spoon full of marrow and gramalata over the top which just adds that beautiful rich herbal earthiness.
NYRI: Itís nice to have a couple of dishes that get press, which of your dishes would you say are in that category?
Scott: Fortunately, I have a few of them, the Polenta with fricassee of truffled mushrooms is one of them, the spaghetti with tomato basil - which it sounds as mundane as any spaghetti tomato basil in the world - but it really is quite special. People might say that it is nothing creative, you have done all this food before. But this food is tried and true, there is nothing wrong with this food. Itís not that itís not ambitious; itís ambitious in a different form. Iím not trying to re-create the wheel, Iím trying to make customers happy and if Iíve found something that makes them happy, why wouldnít I give it to them?
NYRI: Especially if youíve found five or six things that make them happy.
Scott: And when it is a full menu of 25 items, then you know what? Iím the luckiest guy on earth. Because the one thing we donít get are food complaints. We will get other complaints, people hate the belts, or the lighting, people say the music is too loud. Those are easily fixed, I could cut the belts off, I can change the iPods, no big deal. But at the end of the day, when your basic philosophy is on-point and pure and not flawed, what else is there? This is all coming from the heart, this is not a bunch of cerebral nonsense. This is all from the heart.