Scott Conant and Geoffrey Zakarian: New York-Miami Connection at SoBeWFF

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The South Beach Wine & Food Festival arrives February 19 through 22 with more than 75 events, tastings, parties, seminars, and dinners. The bash, which benefits Florida International University's dining and tourism programs, brings thousands of fans and celebrity chefs to Miami.

Food Network celebrities Geoffrey Zakarian and Scott Conant share much in common. Both are longtime judges on the network's Chopped, best-selling authors, and successful restaurateurs.

See also: Guy Fieri: Miami Is One of the Great Food Cities

Zakarian owns several restaurants in Midtown Manhattan, including the Lambs Club and the National. He also oversees the food and beverage program at the Water Club at Borgata in Atlantic City and is the culinary director for the iconic Plaza Hotel in New York City. He is the author of Town/Country, and his second book, My Perfect Pantry, was released this past fall. Zakarian is also cohost on Food Network's The Kitchen and serves as chairman of the City Harvest Food Council, an organization that helps combat hunger in NYC.

Conant's Scarpetta was named one of the best new restaurants by Esquire and received a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in 2009. The chef was named one of America's best new chefs in 2004 by Food & Wine, and his other projects include D.O.C.G. Enoteca at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and the SCM Culinary Suite in SoHo. Conant has published three books: New Italian Cooking, Bold Italian, and The Scarpetta Cookbook.

The chefs each have strong ties to the Miami culinary scene and have mentored the next generation of great South Florida culinary experts.

Zakarian's much-loved Tudor House introduced Miami to Jamie DeRosa, who opened his own restaurant, Tongue & Cheek, and the kitchen at Conant's Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach helped launch the careers of Michael Pirolo (Macchialina) and Nina Compton, who was named fan favorite last season on Bravo's Top Chef.

Conant and Zakarian will both conduct cooking demonstrations and sign books at the festival's Grand Tasting Village and can be seen at other events throughout the weekend. New Times caught up with both.

Geoffrey Zakarian

New Times: You're hosting the Farm to Table Brunch at the festival. How important is a chef's relationship with purveyors?

Geoffrey Zakarian: I don't have as much of a preference for locality. I'm more product-driven, which means that if my restaurant is in Florida and the best produce is coming from Arkansas, I want to get it from there. Don't get me wrong -- farm-to-table is terrific, but when you understand that you need a lot of product, you can't always rely on one guy. What if his truck breaks down? With that in mind, I spread the risk over a number of markets and purveyors. But a good relationship is important. They know what I'm talking about, and I know what they're doing. It's not only about getting the best; it's also about finding balance.

In your latest book, My Perfect Pantry, you say every home kitchen should have 50 key items. How did you get to that number, and what do most home cooks do wrong?

For many people, the pantry is where old things accumulate and go to die. There's so much stuff that's not used. Most people don't even know what they have lurking in the back, so if a recipe calls for, say, coriander, you'll probably go out and buy some. Now you have four. That's what happens. People buy defensively because they don't know what they already have. It's an expensive mistake. So what I wanted to do is simplify the pantry. The 50 items I chose are the ones that help you do exactly what you need to do.

Can you share a few essentials that no home cook can live without?

You need to have cracked pepper, a few different olive oils, both kosher salt and sea salt, and a few vinegars -- white wine, sherry, and apple cider. Those are the top five or six things you'll use all the time.

What's one more tip?

Your pantry is the engine to your kitchen. When you have your basic items on hand, it opens up your creativity to try new recipes and experiment.

Many people in Miami still lament the closing of your restaurant Tudor House. Do you think you'll open another Miami restaurant?

I am still committed to finding a space in Miami. There's so much happening in Miami, and the whole Design District is on fire. But I want to find the perfect space. I want to come down here and open a restaurant that can be here forever.

Do you think, with all the momentum that's going on now, that sooner is better than later?

You don't want to sort of miss out on an opportunity, but what I worry more about is not getting the right partnership. There's always going to be a twinge, but in the end you have to be relevant and bring what you like to the table.

Envision your perfect Miami restaurant. Where would it be located, and what is the concept?

I would do it downtown, and I would probably do a concept like the National [in New York City]. I would want it to be a place that doesn't have strict hours. We're looking to open a number of Nationals. It's a brand I love.

Geoffrey Zakarian will appear at the following SoBeWFF events:

Farm to Table Brunch, presented by Whole Foods Market, hosted by Geoffrey Zakarian, Julie Frans, and friends: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, February 22, at the Palms Hotel & Spa, 3025 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are sold out.

Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village, featuring MasterCard Grand Tasting Tents and KitchenAid Culinary Demonstrations: Sunday, February 22, from noon to 5 p.m. at 13th Street and Ocean Drive, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $225.

Scott Conant

New Times: With your two restaurants -- Scarpetta and the new Corsair -- you spend more time in Miami than many of the chefs who come for SoBeWFF. Does this change the experience for you?

Scott Conant: When I come here, I have work to do. Then I also have a wife in New York who thinks I'm partying and gallivanting around. It's work, but we always have fun. It's one of those rare times of the year when restaurant people get to enjoy each other's company. I get to see friends I normally don't see. Walking around, going to the tents and the Best of the Best -- that's the whole point of the festival.

You're doing a lot at the festival, including the Star Power dinner with Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) and Jamie Bissonnette (Coppa and Toro). What do you think about collaborative dinners?

I think the two are supertalented and they represent the newer generation of chefs. I mean, I have about a decade on those guys. I'm old. If I were a baseball player, I'd be retired already. Seriously, though, not only do I look forward to working with them, but I look forward to learning from them.

You're also doing the Best of the Best, which has been known to have chefs attempt to, well, best one another with everything from shaved truffles to gold leaf. What do you have planned?

If I was going to have gold, I would do a throwback and serve shots of Goldschläger. I don't do gold leaf. It's all about full-flavored food. I think that's what separates us from other restaurants. My chefs and I are going through some dishes, and I'm trying to incorporate a little bit of Corsair as well.

Corsair is your new restaurant at Turnberry Isle. Many people in Miami are familiar with Scarpetta, but can you tell us a little about Corsair?

The underlying approach to Corsair is Mediterranean farmhouse cuisine inspired by Italy, Spain, and France. It's also on the golf course, so there's a lot of action. The dinner menu, in particular, is fun and different and flavorful. I feel like we're cooking good, honest food. As a chef, what else is there but to serve what I would want to eat?

What are your Miami go-to places?

Michael Pirolo at Macchialina is a good friend of mine. I actually go to his restaurant more than he goes to mine. I also happen to love Stripsteak at the Fontainebleau. You're not going to find a bigger Michael Mina fan than me.

You're a veteran of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. If you could create an event to host, what would it be?

I remember the second or third year of the festival, Willie Nelson was playing on the beach, and it was awesome. I mean, I'm a huge Willie Nelson fan, and there were only like a few hundred people there. So I think we would have Willie playing again, and I'd ask a bunch of the best chefs to do barbecue, and we'd drink Casa Dragones tequila and have an awesome hoedown. What could possibly be better than that?

Scott Conant will appear at the following SoBeWFF events:

Star Power Dinner, hosted by Scott Conant, Stephanie Izard, and Jamie Bissonnette: Thursday, February 19, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Scarpetta at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are sold out.

Fontainebleau Miami Beach presents Wine Spectator's Best of the Best, sponsored by Bank of America and Merrill Lynch: Friday, February 20, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are sold out.

Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village, featuring MasterCard Grand Tasting Tents and KitchenAid Culinary Demonstrations: Sunday, February 22, from noon to 5 p.m. at 13th Street and Ocean Drive, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $225.

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