How Scott Conant Mines Nostalgia To Create Food Worth Caring About

Scott Conant doesn’t cook as much as he used to. You can’t blame the guy — he’s full-blown famous and well deserving of a few quiet nights at home. Besides, the modern restaurant scene isn’t built to support chefs staying on the line forever. Brand expansion is the only way to make a steady living. The fact is, the night-in-night-out grind is a young person’s game; it’s a pre-kids, pre-mortgage gig.

That’s not to say that Conant has stopped cooking altogether. Chopped, where the chef is a longtime judge, is easy to work around — they shoot in waves and release the episodes out over the course of months. When the cameras stop rolling, the 46-year-old Connecticut native cooks at private events and Hollywood galas. Every time a property opens with his name on the marquee, he’ll do a stint in the kitchen to set the tone.

Point being, the man still cooks… just a little less often. And for richer people.

“Justin Timberlake was in last night,” Conant tells me over the phone, underscoring this point. “He walked in the kitchen like, ‘Hey Scott, make me one of those spaghettis, it’s my favorite thing in the world.’ I’m like, ‘I’ll make it but I’m not gonna teach you because then you’d be a quadruple threat. We don’t need that.'”

Sitting at my desk, a spot which is routinely devoid of Justin Timberlake, it would be easy to see this anecdote as a name drop, but Conant is just a wildly successful dude telling the sort of story that wildly successful dudes have an excess of. A minute later, it trickles out that he’s actually driving to Willie Nelson’s ranch while answering my questions. Not bad work, if you can get it.

“So you’re still finding some time to cook,” I say.

“It’s literally my first passion,” Conant answers, “but I think the benefit for me, over time, has been that my job has evolved. Honestly, I can’t imagine a worse prison sentence than to be in one restaurant for the rest of my life, just shackled to the stove in one place. I would wanna gouge my eyes out.”

The phoner with Conant comes after a meal at his new restaurant, The Ponte, the night before JT dropped by. That night Conant did work the line a little, but he also spent time gliding from table to table making friends and shaking the hands of famous people dressed like hobos. Tom Waits was there, so was a Victoria Secret Angel who my dinner date thought I recognized a bit too quickly. I’ll admit, the glow of beautiful people was a little distracting. Luckily, the food outshone it.

Conant, a James Beard Award winner, hasn’t forgotten how to dream up smart plates. He also knows when to play the hits (perhaps a skill learned from Justin and Willie?): his most famous dish — spaghetti pomodoro — appears on The Ponte’s menu and staffers tell tales of its origins as if it were some pre-Colombian relic discovered in a Mayan temple.

If you haven’t heard, Conant’s spaghetti is a pretty standard-seeming pasta with tomato, basil, and parmesan. It’s just better in a million tiny ways than what you make at home. The spice level, the tang of the tomatoes, the bite of the noodles, the sort of “hovering” presence of the basil (there’s not basil in every bite, but you taste it in every bite) has been making food writers wax philosophic for nearly a decade. It’s a straightforward dish, which Conant freely offers up the recipe for, but it’s also been on the cover of magazines and is never neglected in reviews of the chef’s properties.

This is also the pasta that JT was asking Conant to prepare.

“I think why the pasta pomodoro resonates with people so much,” Conant says, “is because there’s a simplicity to it and when you identify the nuances and the layers of flavors and the textures you say, ‘How could something this simple be this good?’

That, “How could something this simple be this good?” mantra seems to stretch across The Ponte’s menu. That’s not to say that Conant and executive chef Freddie Vargas don’t have refined skills, they do, but the food feels knowable. Anyone who likes Italian flavors could sit down for a meal and identify how it is more nuanced than the local checkered tablecloth spot and more refined than grandma’s cooking, but not at odds with either.

This is exactly how Conant wants things. “I always tell the staff, ‘If you guys don’t know how to make polenta the way someone’s grandmother knows how to make polenta then you don’t know how to make polenta.’ Simple as that.”

There’s polenta on The Ponte’s antipasti menu, but I opted instead for the polenta-ish “semolina pudding” with veal and pork polpette (meatballs). This mostly tasted like something my zia might make back in Italy, but she would never think to cut the richness with broccoli rabe pesto. That balance adds a layer, one which Italian home cooks often miss.

That said, my favorite dish on the menu — a duck agnolotti with a foie gras emulsion (or espuma or foam or whatever the hell you want to call it) — was probably the least balanced dish I tasted all night. It was a whole bunch of rich flavors piled on top of one another, the sort of thing Action Bronson would lose his shit over. It takes a lot for me to not request parmesan on my pasta but this dish didn’t need it.

As Conant waits to be called into the gate at Willie Nelson’s ranch I tell him my reaction to the plate — how it felt deeply comforting above all things.

“I think the best aspects of Italian food aren’t meant to be intellectualized, right?” he replies. “They’re just meant to be appreciated — that’s the thing I love about Italian cooking. Sometimes, you don’t even have to talk about it.”

It’s ironic for Conant to talk about people over-intellectualizing food when it’s shows like Choppedfilled with ranting judges — that have led casual diners to talk in absolutes and write 1,200-word Yelp reviews.

“Everybody wants to speak about food the way chefs speak about food,” he says. “They don’t realize that I’ve been cooking for 31 years now. It takes a long time — eating with other chefs and really trying to see food through that lens. There’s certain rules that we understand, as cooks and as chefs and as food people, because we’ve studied the nuances of flavor for years, but at the same time you can’t argue with what people like. Flavors are subjective.”

For Conant that subjectivity is deeply tied to sense memory, growing up Italian, and familial connections. When he gets going about food in person and on the phone it’s not the semantic/pedantic fussing of a TV judge, it’s the giddiness of a creative person who feels hyped when people like what he makes. Not just the famous ones who seem to be descending on The Ponte en masse, either. Normal folks, like his pop.

“My father was a super simple guy,” he says. “My goal was always to cook a dish that he’d appreciate, because he’s not gonna think about it too much. No matter how sophisticated I want my flavor profiles to be, they also need to be honest and soulful and hit that comforting spot where people are like, ‘I’ve never tasted this before but there’s a familiarity and a comfort to it that I love.'”

The Ponte hints at comfort and shared cultural familiarity in more ways than one. The indoor/outdoor space is a throwback to the days of elegant spring dining on mismatched plates. If it hadn’t been Joel McHale two tables over, sitting under the spreading branches of a Javanese Bishopwood, it could have been my uncle at a fancier rendition of our summer picnics. There are plenty of nostalgic nods on the drink menu too — including a euphoria-inducing negroni flight that Hemingway and Fitzgerald would have gotten drunk on.

For Conant, who’s now insulated with an assistant and a PR team, the menu — featuring many of his greatest hits — and the garden setting of The Ponte might serve as a reminder of those halcyon days when he was in the kitchen non-stop. The days before his career hit the stratosphere; before celebrities wanted to pose for pictures. Back when he only cared about one thing: “How do I make them happier on the way out than when they walked in?”

As Conant steps out of the car to greet Willie’s people he offers me a parting thought. “I mean everybody’s different but, depending on your spiritual mantras, life is really just about love and happiness. I think Al Green said that. If you can’t identify those things or if you’re not pursuing those things then what the fuck are you doing?”

That’s a strong founding principle for a restaurant — perhaps why Conant’s food has never been called “sterile” or “inaccessible” — and it’s pretty solid philosophy for a happy life outside the kitchen too.