When he was naming his Manhattan restaurant in 2008, Scott Conant settled on Scarpetta, a play on the Italian phrase “fare la scarpetta.” It refers to the act of dragging a chunk of Italian bead through a plate to sop up leftover sauce.
It’s a simple idea: Cook food that makes the eater want to scrape every last bite off the plate. To do that, you need to create an environment where people feel at ease to do so.
Doing so in the restaurant world sounds like an uncomplicated concept. Those professionals who feed us know otherwise.
Simplicity was the inspiration for the three-course menu Conant showcased recently at a $250-a-person benefit dinner at Council Oak, the steak house inside Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Casino.
With help from casino Executive Chef Bill Gideon and his staff, Conant first served guests a dish of raw tuna with avocado, some lemon zest, extra virgin olive oil and salt. That was followed by a risotto with preserved truffles, egg and Parmesan cheese. The third course featured a roasted sirloin of beef to tie in the steak house’s theme.
Great ingredients. Prepared well. Combined in interesting ways.
Conant’s star has been on the rise since 2009, when Scarpetta was named the best new restaurant in the U.S. by the James Beard Foundation. He now has five restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. Most know him as a celebrity chef judge on Food Network’s “Chopped” and Bravo’s “Top Chef.” His latest book, “The Scarpetta Cookbook,” (Houghton Mifflin, $35) tells the story of the restaurant as well as helps readers recreate his best-loved dishes in their home, including his Scarpetta Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce, a dish that sounds basic until you get to making his trademark homemade spaghetti.
My first taste of his food came in 2012, when he cooked on the field at Marlins Stadium in Miami during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Food icon Martha Stewart had to stop by that night for a nibble of his braised short ribs and farro risotto.
Then last November, I attended Conant’s cooking demonstration at the E.A.T. St. Pete food festival. He was there as one of the stars in the Home Shopping Network’s galaxy. Although his session was early in the morning, he charmed the audience with a mix of casual conversation, a bit of New York attitude and the idea that a glass of wine makes an excellent breakfast beverage.
While he was in Tampa for the Council Oak dinner, we discussed the role simplicity plays in his food.
As chefs progress in their career, he said, they tend to get a little less fussy. Conant says his approach since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America has been to do simple, straightforward food “with a little twist” here and there.
“It does take a long time to get to simple,” he said.
Years of experience making plate after plate teaches cooks how to let ingredients speak for themselves, he said.
“Eventually, you get to where you’re working with putting two or three things together and allowing them to be singular but harmonious at the same time,” Conant said.
When talking to customers, he hears a backlash with modern cooking techniques. He even is tired of the overused phrase “farm to table” to describe the use of locally sourced ingredients.
“My favorite thing is what Jean-Georges Vongerichten said about ABC Kitchen in New York City,” Conant said. “He called it, ‘Hippie Food.’ I think it’s great. I’ve never seen any hippies who eat like that.”
The point isn’t whether someone uses traditional cooking methods or a style of molecular gastronomy that borders on science fiction. It’s that cooks should use the method that makes food tastes best, regardless of what it takes to get there.
“I don’t think it has to be one or the other,” he said. “The key to great cooking is allowing the product to speak for itself, but also having enough maturity to be confident in how you have combined and prepared them.”
Sounds simple enough to me.