PhoenixBites Interview with Chef Scott Conant
I had a chance to sit down with Scott Conant this week, one of our newest residents and partner in the highly anticipated Mora Italian. You’ve been hearing about it for months and the opening is just around the corner. February 3rd, the doors will open to the public, and I can attest after an intensive media preview that the menu, space and overall vibe will not disappoint.
Chef Conant and I spoke on a number of topics, from his favorite spots, so far, in the Valley, to spending time with his family, his disdain for ketchup and how he sees his role here in the Phoenix food culture.
PhoenixBites Exclusive Interview with Chef Scott Conant
PhoenixBites | Since moving here in July, you’ve likely been out to eat a time or two. Of the places that you have been so far, are there any spots that have really stood out to you? Something that might be seen as indicative, to you, as where we are a food culture?
Scott Conant | I can’t remember all the names of these restaurants, so I apologize in advance. The partners and I had a really nice meal at Virtu one night. I’ll stop at Chris Bianco’s sandwich spot, Pane Bianco, quite a bit. That spot is awesome. Andreoli I think is, it just blows me away how good that restaurant is. What a great cook Giovanni is, I mean it’s just really spectacular. And those are all, obviously, in the Italian vernacular, for the most part. We had a really nice lunch one day at Ocotillo, a really, really nice lunch there. There is a sushi spot we went to one night with friends, Roka Akor. Really good sushi, I was really pleased with that. You know, I’m one of those guys that once I find something that I really like, I’ll keep hitting it. I live in North Scottsdale and I’ll hit up Flower Child, literally once or twice a week. It’s healthy and I can count on it. It’s reliable, it is consistent and it’s at a really nice price point. I think from a business perspective, Flower Child is really smart. My daughter loves The Henry, my six-year-old. If we have a Daddy-Daughter date, she always wants to go to The Henry, and it’s a lot of fun.
PB | So. I had read that you began taking cooking classes when you were 11 years old. Are you incorporating that at home with your daughters? Encouraging a love of cooking and sharing that with them, or are they not quite there yet?
SC | I feel like, well yes, they are and they aren’t there yet. It’s one of those things were at six years old they have other things that they are into. My wife is Turkish and obviously, I’m Italian, so there is that idea that the kitchen is literally the center of the house. And that’s what it’s like for us, we spend all of our time in the kitchen. If I have a day off, I wake up and I start cooking. I’m like an old Italian woman that way. My wife makes fun of me that I’m going to start wearing a babushka at home and just be cooking all the time.
PB | Your restaurants have a pattern of garnering some serious accolades and awards. We’re not really in the same place, as far as with local food critics, as say The New York Times and the like. With that in mind, do you anticipate that your presence in the Valley might garner some additional attention to Arizona?
SC | I think that I take certain responsibility, being a partner in a business, being inherently entrepreneurial, and there are other things that I really don’t want. My simple goal here is to build a successful business by making people happy. Whatever comes of that, comes of that. I really want people to be happy. I walk into here with a lot of humility every day. I deal with the team; I’m firm but fair. I have what I think are really high standards for executing delicious food and working in a professional environment. Other than that, I’m not doing this for personal recognition, I’m doing this to build a good business. I want people to be happy, that is my 100% goal, and should be the goal of every person that walks in here. I’m not looking for Beard awards, I’m not looking for NY Times reviews. There’s a time and a place for those things. This is, look at this place, this is a place that’s going to make people happy. The ambiance, the mood, the room, the service, the enthusiasm; there’s an ambitious aspect to this food but only because it balances out the soulful, heartfelt feeling behind the food. Look at the octopus, an octopus is a really simple dish but there are little touches that really give it a little bit of a tweak. I don’t do it for recognition. That’s not there for personal accolades, that’s there to make people happy.
PB | I know that you are very anti-ketchup, so I wanted to check in and see if there was anything else that you despise quite as much as the red stuff.
SC | I’ve come off my ketchup thing over the years, mostly since I’ve had kids. My older daughter likes ketchup with fries and I’m okay with that. I won’t let the girls have it with eggs, though. I mean, appreciate the egg for what the egg is. I will tell you, I have certain pet peeves; you know we all have pet peeves and I think that it’s one of those things. You know, Chefs and condiments don’t always get along but having kids I’ve lost a little bit of that edge. I choose my battles a little bit differently now.
PB | I grew up in the Midwest and I look at ranch in that way. It’s like gravy there and I’m not a fan. It’s just one of those things, like you said, that we all have.
SC | You know, like I said my wife is Turkish and neither of us had all those things growing up. I mean, we had ketchup in my house but none of this other stuff. I don’t have it in the restaurant, there’s no ketchup in this restaurant. We may have to have it when we do brunch and lunch, you know if we do a burger; I get it. Then we’ll do it, I mean, I’m not going to be a dick.
PB | I get it, I mean why not make your own?
SC | For all those things, I feel like seven or eight years ago it was a big thing. I feel like everyone was trying to make their own version of ketchup, but you can’t. No one can make anything that is as consistent as Heinz makes a ketchup. They just can’t. I mean, I don’t know how they do it! That’s a fresh product, but they do it. The color is always the same; the flavor is always the same. I mean, tomatoes vary in quality from season to season; the fact that they can identify that same product every single time, I think is really impressive.
PB | Some sort of tomato witchcraft.
SC | Yes, witchcraft, a lot of voodoo.
PB | With all of your restaurant successes as well as all the filming that you do in partnership with the Food Network, it has to be really hard to balance your professional and personal life. Do you think that being in Arizona now, which has a decidedly slower pace than New York, once things settle down after the opening, that settling down and having a bit more time with your family is a possibility?
SC | Well, I certainly hope so, that’s the intention to be able to. You know, I don’t do everything. I create a vision, in this case, for the culinary side and we carry it forward. The only way that we are going to be successful in this place is if the team can execute. So it’s not about me! I know that if I were in the kitchen working a station; I mean I’m a little older than I used to be the last time I did that, but I know that food would be good. If I were the chef in this kitchen every day, I would be making sure that the food was of a certain quality, but ultimately its about the team. Its about the team that can carry it forward. My intention here and the big thing for me at this point in my career is really empowering these chefs so that they can teach, they can learn, they can mentor and that’s the way I see myself now. A coach, a mentor, lifting everybody up and feel good about themselves, maybe extracting a certain quality that they didn’t even know they had. That’s really the biggest thing for me is putting themselves in a position where I am empowering them to make the best decisions so that we can make this a great restaurant.
PB | And then you can make it dance recitals…
SC | Yes, I can make it to dance recitals and I can go swimming with my girls. I mean, I think it would do this restaurant a disservice if I were in here 14 hours a day. You know what I mean? Then, when I’m not here and I’m traveling, I’m opening another restaurant or I’m shooting something–I’m wherever doing an event some place then this restaurant becomes inconsistent. For me, the sign of a true chef, not a cook, a true chef, is what the team does when you’re not around. If they’re still pursuing that same sense of goodness and trying to identify greatness in the food and still being motivating to the team and pushing forward, that’s the sign of a good leader.
PB | And you feel good about these guys and gals?
SC | Amazing. I mean, I didn’t cook any of this food tonight. I did that on purpose because I want them to understand the gravity of what they’re doing. You guys have opinions and we want to make you happy, but I need them to understand that their actions are going to be judged. Granted, I’ll be judged by it but they don’t want to disappoint me and I don’t want them to disappoint themselves. One of the things I’ll say to them if they do something that’s not right, I’ll say, “you’re better than that.” You know, I say this because you’re better than that, not that I don’t think you can do it. If I don’t think you can do it then you won’t be here, but you’re better than that. I know that you can do it. Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t do something halfway and expect 100% results. Right? You do something halfway and you expect a full result it doesn’t equate, it doesn’t make sense. That’s the thought, that’s the thought process.
Be sure to check out my recap of the media tasting and get yourself to Mora Italian when the open on February third. You never know when you might catch your chance to chat with Scott Conant yourself.
Mora Italian | 5651 N. 7th St. | Phoenix | 85014 | 602.795.9943