Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Chef Scott Conant Talks Making The Perfect Pasta, Cooking With Willie Nelson And More

Scott Conant is an American chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author raised in Connecticut but now living in Arizona. Throughout his culinary career of over 35 years, Scott has been a part of many competitive cooking shows, cooked for acclaimed restaurants, and established himself as a leading chef in the world of culinary expertise. 

Conant officially made his mark in the culinary world in 2002 when he opened his first restaurant, L’Impero, in Manhattan. The Italian restaurant received a three-star review from The New York Times, the title of “Best New Restaurant” from the James Beard Foundation and praise from famous publications such as Gourmet and Food & Wine. After leaving L’Impero and his other restaurant, Alto, Scott created a new restaurant, Scarpetta in Chelsea and has expanded the brand around the US.

As a long-time judge on the culinary competition show Chopped, Scott has proved again and again that his cooking abilities are out of this world. He has appeared as a judge on other television shows like Top ChefFood Network Star, Beat Bobby Flay, and Chopped Junior. In 2011, Scott won The Food Network’s Chopped All-Stars Tournament, where he competed against four other amazing chefs. 

Scott was invited onto the first ever Chefs Making Waves Cruise, a four-day adventure at sea celebrating food, wine and spirits where he seemed to be having the best time ever with fans from all over the world. We had the chance to talk to him here about his secret to making the perfect pasta, his dream rock star cooking collaborations, and his friendship with Willie Nelson. 

Scott was just announced as a guest on Chefs Making Waves 2 which will be sailing from Miami to Cozumel May 5-9, 2025.

Chef Scott Conant Talks Cooking With Willie Nelson
Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

What’s the secret to making the perfect pasta?

I think it’s all about the dough, the flour that you use. I think that a perfectly cooked pasta with the sauce and all that stuff is the sum of its parts. I always use a very particular double zero flour from Italy. I always think that’s the differentiator. Really good farm fresh eggs. What you want is as yellow a yolk as you can get. It’s about simplicity at that point. 

You’ve traveled all over the world as a chef. Have you found any hidden gems you would tell people to visit?

There are. You know, I’ve been blessed with how the restaurant world was when I got into it and what it’s become over the years. It’s been a complete transformation. There’s so many cool places I’ve been able to go to, eat in and see. 

There’s a really small town in the south of Mexico that I go to. I don’t even want to name it, because I don’t want people to go there all the time. It’s a small town called San Agustinillo. I went there years ago and I go back about every other year. I never visit the same place twice. That’s the only place that I’ve visited more than once.

Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

What makes it special?

I think it’s the sense of place. It’s a real hippie town and there’s no pretense. There’s no fancy restaurants, you stop and get pizza or there’s a great chicken place down the street. It’s all local. There’s a lot of people that travel there. That’s a lot of Argentines and a lot of Canadians. I’ve never seen other Americans there. There’s a lot of Mexicans that go there as well. Even if they’re super wealthy, there’s just something about being in a pair of shorts and a linen shirt and your feet in the sand all day long. It’s the best. 

What’s your perfect day in Scottsdale, Arizona?

What I like to do is drop my daughters off at school then stop at a coffee place and work for the rest of the day. It’s my perfect day. I’ll go for a long swim in the afternoon. I’m a swimmer. It’s really awful that I don’t go out. I really don’t. 

I had dinner the other night with my wife at Cafe Monarch, which was wonderful. The food is just really spectacular. It’s become a world class dining destination over the years. So, I was really happy to have spent time there. I would grab a round of golf. There’s a lot of great courses out in Scottsdale. 

Chef Scott Conant Talks Cooking With Willie Nelson
Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

I read somewhere in an interview that you wanted to cook for Rick Rubin. Who would be your dream rock star cooking collaboration?

I’m a big Prince fan. I just think that Prince is Beethoven reincarnated. I really, really believe that. I think he’s amazing.

I was fortunate to photograph him. It was unreal.

That’s incredible. It’s incredible how talented he was just as a musician. Forget about his writing, forget about his voice and all that stuff, but just as a musician. That famous clip always comes up of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” George Harrison’s song with The Beatles. Watching him play that guitar and owning it is incredible. I just think everybody was like, ‘wow.’ 

Would you want to collaborate with any rock stars that are still with us?

I am a huge Willie Nelson fan and a Bob Dylan fan. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to meet Willie a bunch of times. I’ll show you a photo. It’s not only one of my favorites, I actually have it framed on my wall. 

I’ve been really blessed that I’ve been able to cook at his ranch a couple of times for some events. Growing up, my father would listen to Willie Nelson all the time. As I grew older, it really became a source of comfort for me. I love the music, particularly the 1978 album Live Willie Nelson and Family that I still listen to all the time. I had a restaurant in Vegas and he was playing and they invited me to attend. The casino invited me, gave me tickets, and I was like, row one seat one, literally right in the middle in front of the stage. 

Photo Courtesy of Scott Conant

It was like eight months after my father passed so it was a really special moment. One of the guys who curated the whole thing invited me to meet his road manager. So, I sat with John for a little while and after a bottle of tequila I expressed to him the emotion attached to seeing Willie Nelson live. I don’t drink anymore. This was maybe ten years ago. He invited me to see another show with him so I went and saw the show, and then I went to another show in New York, and I bumped into a friend of mine who was doing some dinners.

He was like, ‘I didn’t know you were a Willie Nelson fan.’ I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘I’m doing a dinner at his ranch. You want to come and meet him?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. I just can’t imagine.’ I met him. It was one of those moments where you think about your life, you think about the trajectory of things. When I started as a 14, 15-year old kid cooking, you never think that you’d get to meet your heroes. A guy like Willie, who’s still around and he’s still amazing and he’s still doing shows. 

I took my daughters to see him last summer up at Bethel Woods at Woodstock. Just to see him there with my daughters was a really special moment for me. I mean, it’s emotional stuff, it really is, especially because my father’s not around anymore. Willie’s got a special place in my heart. It’s a big part of my life.

Chef Scott Conant Talks Cooking With Willie Nelson
Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

Your wife is Turkish so you visit Turkey regularly. Are there any must visit places you would recommend for people to go to?

We go to Bodrum. We have a home there so that seems to be a place that we go to every summer. What I love to do, and not just in Turkey but in Italy also, especially when I was younger in Italy, with no responsibilities. I would just rent a car and just drive and go to a place where I know there’s a great restaurant. Maybe if I have a friend that worked there, that’s what I would do in Italy. Turkey, it’s the same type of thing, just going there, driving, having no agenda, except ‘where are you going to tell me to eat after I eat this meal?’

Speaking to the chefs, speaking to a server, speaking to an owner and just talking about my love of food and all the things I do with food. They’ll say, ‘I have a friend who’s in this town, drive there and they have this restaurant.’ This is what you get to experience. I meet the chef or the owner and then do it all over again and have a great dining experience there. Get in the car, maybe stay for a couple of days and see whatever is in that town and then do it again. For me, that’s the way to travel.

Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

Every time I talk to chefs they always know the right places to eat because they always get recommendations everywhere in the world. It’s like it’s a secret.

One time I went to Tokyo and I specifically went to places where there were Italian restaurants that were Michelin starred. What happens, particularly in Italy, there’s a lot of these chefs that will work there for a number of years. They know Italian culture, they know Italian cuisine. Then they go back to Tokyo and you have this Japanese product on another level. The reverence of Japanese food with the soul of Italian cuisine is some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life.

What’s your favorite meal to cook with your family? Do your daughters show interest in cooking?

My kids love to cook. My older one in particular. She’ll see things on TikTok and then come and say, ‘I want to make this,’ and I’ll say, ‘okay, if we’re going to make it, we’re not going to make it the way some kid in a college dorm makes it. We’ll do proper technique and build the flavors.’ That’s what it’s about for me. It’s an opportunity to make it better and make it the right way. 

How old are your daughters?

14 and 11. They’re great. 

You’ve studied Buddhism. Do you have any favorite temples in the world?

Not necessarily favorite temples. I feel like that’s just more of a personal thing for me. It’s an outlook on life more than anything else. It’s kept me present and it’s kept me grounded to a certain extent. But I think most importantly, what it’s provided for me is I don’t get as emotional about the challenges of life. I know that it’s a cycle. I think the best gift that it’s given me, besides Marcus Samuelsson, is really a positive mindset. If you have a negative outlook on whatever you’re going through, then you will have a negative outcome. 

But if you have a positive outlook, then that’s true too. Keeping that positive mental state and understanding that the universe is here to assist me in whatever I pursue, I’m good. It will be a positive outcome because that’s the mindset that I have at whatever challenges are here. It’s a process that we go through in order to get me to a better place. That’s my thought process.

Chef Scott Conant Talks Cooking With Willie Nelson
Photo Credit: Amy Harris/The Travel Addict

You moved to Scottsdale from New York to be able to relax. Has that worked?

Yes, to a certain extent. I think ambition is a curse and a blessing. I’m an ambitious guy. It has its moments where it’s all encompassing and I feel like my daughters have been there more than anything else to allow me to just be present with them. I can’t ask for a better gift.

What are your must pack travel items? 

I’m really easy. My daughters have put me on a whole face cream regime. It is really funny, right? I’m spending a lot of time with my skin care routine in the morning.

What’s your perfect bite?

There’s a couple perfect bites. I think the common perfect bite is the perfect thin smash burger. Double cheeseburger. Just the right amount of bread, sesame seed bun, very little ketchup and mayonnaise. That cheese in between those layers is the key, the fat content, the way it emulsifies it all together.

I did not expect you to say a burger.

I can’t do that often. I look at a burger and put on 5 pounds. Bobby Flay has perfected it. Bobby’s really good at it.

I think the bougie perfect bite is if you get the perfect crunchy potato pancake with plenty of creme fraiche and an enormous, heaping, ridiculous amount of caviar. It’s got to be good, proper caviar.


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Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a writer and photographer who has been traveling for 20 years and flown over 2 million miles to visit over 80 countries on 6 continents. She is a freelance photographer for Invision by Associated Press, AP Images and Rex/Shutterstock. Her work can be seen in various publications and websites including: Rolling Stone, AP Images, National Geographic Books, Fodor’s Travel Guides, Forbes.com, Lonely Planet Travel Guides, JetStar magazine, and Delta Sky Magazine.

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