Scott Conant has a lot of celebrating to do.
The celebrity chef has just released The Scarpetta Cookbook ($22.71 on Amazon.com), which features 125 recipes from his award-winning Italian restaurant. Scarpetta's Miami outpost is also celebrating its fifth anniversary with a series of special dinners prepared by chef de cuisine Nina Compton -- who happens to be killing it on the current season of Top Chef.
We spoke to the dapper chef over a few glasses of Casa Dragones tequila about his accomplishments, the cookbook, and what's planned for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
New Times: Scarpetta Miami Beach is celebrating its fifth anniversary. How do you feel about that?
Scott Conant: It actually feels more like about 20. Seriously, though. Look at this setting. Isn't this awesome? And we're drinking tequila. Nothing better.
How is Scarpetta doing after all this time?
There are always ebbs and flows in a restaurant's life cycle. That's a given. But one of the benefits of being at this resort is that this place is always busy. It's a world-class destination, and there are nothing but positives having Scarpetta located here. But that doesn't mean you can stay status quo. We constantly ask ourselves: "How can we stay involved, how can we remain relevant, how do we move the needle, how do we get better?" all the time. And then we work on being better.
How do you think the Miami food scene in general has changed since Scarpetta opened five years ago?
We were just talking this morning about how much the local food scene has evolved over the past five years. I've had an apartment in Miami since about 2004, and I've been coming here for a while before that. The food scene has changed so much. It's almost like every New York chef has an outpost here now, and I think the Fontainebleau has been instrumental in creating a lot of the focus. So many local chefs, like Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein, and Michael Jacobs, are still doing very well. It's a very big pie and everyone is getting a piece of it, and I like to see that.
Tell us about The Scarpetta Cookbook.
I have all these standard operating procedures at the restaurant regarding our dishes. We had a lot of recipes and prep instructions already done, so it made sense to turn that into a cookbook. The challenge was to streamline the recipes so they're less "cheffy" and more accessible to a home cook, as well as for professionals. I didn't want a book that's too easy and has 15 chicken recipes, because that doesn't necessarily represent who I am now. This book is more in line with where we are right now than anything I've done before.
So if we follow the recipes in the book, can we turn out the same food as at your restaurant?
Yes, 100 percent. There may be things that you have to work on. You may need to add more water or an extra egg, but those are small nuances. But everything in the book is the way the food looks and tastes in my restaurants. I'm not trying to hide anything. The good news is that anyone can make the recipes. The recipe testers that I had were professional chefs, but we made all the dishes on home equipment. It's been a great process.
Nina Compton, your chef de cuisine, is really kicking ass on Top Chef. How do you feel about that?
Nothing about the success she's having on Top Chef surprises me. Nina is extremely talented. She does her research and she develops flavors really well. She also has a great personality. She can roll with it, she can take the lead, and she can stand back when she has to. I'm happy for her and I'm proud of her. It's awesome to see.
You're a Food Network celebrity. Did you give Nina any advice before the camera started rolling?
We had a conversation before she started filming. I told her: "You don't have kids yet, but your mother is watching. Just don't embarrass us. Us! Meaning your mother and Scarpetta." Listen, I'm not worried about her. She's always articulate, although she does have a dirty mouth on the show.
Speaking of television, how did you get your break?
I got a random phone call one day from producers saying they were doing this show, Chopped. I decided if I'm going to do this, it has to have integrity and it has to be about the food and the flavors.
What are your plans for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival?
Could you believe it's like two months away? We're doing Best of the Best, which we do every year, and we're doing a dinner with Amanda Freitag, Debi Mazar, and Gabriele Corcos at Scarpetta.
You want to hear an embarrassing moment? I was with Alex Guarnaschelli when we run into Debi Mazar. So I tell Debi, "We've met before," and she says, "No, we've never met." And I realized, holy shit, this is the girl from Goodfellas! Alex looked at me and said, "Stop making an ass of yourself." I was so embarrassed. Now I get to host a dinner with her.
With everything going on, what achievement makes you happiest?
I am the most ambitious person you'll ever meet to a fault. I'm focused on the goal. I have two little girls, and I try to work hard so I can spend time with them. They teach me how to stay present and how to stay in the moment. Then reality calls and I still have to call in the fish order and make sure everyone is at work. You ask me where I'm happiest? I'm happiest holding my daughters. I have two little girls. Me! That's called karma!
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Scarpetta is celebrating its fifth anniversary with an exclusive four-course prix-fixe dinner, prepared by chef de cuisine and Top Chef contestant Nina Compton. The dinner is being offered tonight, December 12, and again from Sunday, December 15, through Thursday, December 19. Priced at $65 per person, offerings include marscapone ravioli, slow-roasted pork shank, 21-day aged sirloin, steak tartare, and diver scallop crudo.