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by bill kearney | January 31, 2014 | Food & Drink
Scott Conant puts the finishing touches on his famous spaghetti.
Scott Conant, the culinary mind and TV star chef behind a six-restaurant empire, including five Scarpettas, and author of the recent The Scarpetta Cookbook, dodges the Alton Road construction and saunters into the calm of Macchialina. He’s decked out in a tailored Zegna sport coat, a dress shirt whose rather large collar stays magically upright, and a smile. Though the restaurant’s closed, he’s here for lunch with the owners, chef Mike Pirolo and his wife, Jen Chaefsky, along with Top Chef contestant and chef de cuisine at Scarpetta Nina Compton, and Director of Operations Chris Cuomo. Last night this crew reveled late at The Bazaar by José Andrés, and while none are quite bushy-tailed yet, the razzing begins, just like old times; Pirolo was Conant’s chef de cuisine at Scarpetta New York and here in Miami for four years before he stepped out on his own to launch Macchialina.
“When you work in a kitchen, you need to have a thick skin,” says Conant. “Someone is always the butt of someone’s jokes, so normally it’s Mike.” The crew laughs.
“There’s no crying in cooking,” says Pirolo.
Drizzling chili oil on his snapper crudo dish as the kitchen staff study his presentation.
We sit down at a long, rustic table, and Macchialina’s sous chef delivers two massive bowls of cacciucco, a resplendent Italian seafood stew with bay scallops, baby calamari, seared hog snapper, grouper, mussels, clams, big prawns, and a crusty bread for dipping. It’s utterly delicious. “This is beautiful, brother,” yells Conant to the sous chef. Pirolo smiles with pride. What’s it like for Conant when someone leaves his kitchen, as Pirolo did, to create his own restaurant? “What I say to everybody is, ‘There comes a time,’” says Conant. “You can be miserable that this person is leaving you, or you can embrace it, support them, and hope that you can fit someone into this role that’s even better.” He nods to Compton for effect, and the table busts out laughing again.
This kitchen fraternity, earned through the frenetic maelstrom of restaurant rushes, long hours, and a beer at the end of a shift, is enviable in a world where lots of professions involve mostly gazing at a computer monitor. Conant fell for the food game at age 15. “I walked into a kitchen for the first time—I was a dishwasher—and I absolutely loved what I found. I played a lot of baseball as a kid, and that camaraderie, that sense of team, really excited me.” And what about the love of actually cooking? “When I realized I liked making people happy with this stuff, it was after years of therapy. It was such a deep insecurity trying to please people all the time—you want them to like you. I started to embrace that and direct it into a hospitality company in general. You’ve got to let go. I want to be enjoyable to be around.”
“He’s still working on that one,” adds Pirolo.
Conant listens to feedback on Scarpetta’s cuisine from appreciative customers at the book signing.
In honor of the release of The Scarpetta Cookbook, the restaurant is holding a book signing and private dinner for 200, consisting of recipes from the book. Most of the dishes are from other Scarpetta restaurants and not normally served in Miami, so Conant has some coaching to do in the kitchen. He peruses the line in cowboy boots, jeans, and chef whites. Young line cooks gather around as he delicately drizzles chili oil and shaves almonds on top of the snapper crudo dish. He tastes the citrus dressing, has chef Compton taste it; it needs more lemon. As he tours the kitchen, he speaks softly to each station cook: The pumpkin pot de crème has a smidge too much sweetness via the amount of cinnamon froth; the water for boiling pasta is too salty and might alter the flavor of the mushroom sauce. He moves with a careful, quiet grace when crafting food—a contrast to his big, jovial front-of-the-house self. The staff hover around again as a sous chef preps the scallop dish. Conant watches initially, then jumps in, gently pinching the scallops first so they stand up straight and sear on a flat surface. After searing, a crucial detail: Always work the scallop juice from the pan back into the sunchoke sauce. Don’t let it get too thick, and pour it between the cheeks of the two scallops. The staff chuckles at what might or might not be innuendo. He chides them for having dirty minds. They indeed like this guy. Therapy’s working.
Conant (RIGHT) shares a toast with Chris Cuomo, Jen Chaefsky, Mike Pirolo, and Nina Compton before digging into bowls of cacciucco at Macchialina Taverna Rustica.
He’s signed 50 or so books, then works the room, shaking hands, nodding thanks to patrons as they swoon over his food. Then there’s the meet-and-greet with a table of Fontainebleau execs, photos with patrons. He’s gesticulating to a two-top, he’s dragged away by a server for a birthday photo with another table, there’s a giddy fan at the bar. Conant is, after all, a brand. “I realized a long time ago that the marketing aspect of all this stuff is really important, and I also learned that you may never trust anyone to tell your story. This is an extension of myself. No one is going to be able to nurture this story or talk about this as passionately as I can.” There’s a pause in hellos and smiles. Food runners hustle through the kitchen doors, carrying his dishes. “You know the kitchen is like a sanctuary when the floor gets to be too much,” he says, and with that, walks through the double doors, shares a smile with Compton, and adds garnishes to a crudo plate that had a little too much negative space.
Scott Conant is participating in several events at this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Go to sobewff.com for more information.
photography by Karyn R. Millet; bill kearney