Scott Conant is a permanent resident of many households thanks to his stern-but-fair presence on such shows as Top Chef and Chopped. But when we caught up with him recently, Conant was casual — even warm. He recently added lunch service at his Italian restaurant DOCG (named after a category of wine called Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, as well as grab-and-go options — something of a departure for the fine-dining chef behind neighboring Scarpetta. While he understandably held back on certain aspects of his upcoming projects, he generously shared with us his passion for food, travel and family.
With so many concepts going the direction of “fast casual” right now, what was the greatest challenge in adding a grab-and-go component to your existing DOCG concept at the Cosmo?
There weren’t a lot of challenges. From Day One, upon conception of DOCG, it was kind of intended to be what it’s becoming now. With the [management] changes that have been made in the Cosmopolitan, there has been just a little bit more interest in the casual lunch component, so I thought it was the perfect time to push that forward.
Thus far, you’ve installed Scarpetta in three locations: Miami, Las Vegas and L.A. Meanwhile, DOCG in The Cosmopolitan and your Corsair at Turnberry Isle Miami are standalones. How do you decide which concepts should multiply?
In in a perfect world, DOCG is something that can be multiplied. Corsair is kind of specific — a reference to the privateers in South Florida — so that makes a lot more sense for what that location is. But DOCG is something I can do more of. I’m working on other things as well, of which we can do multiples. That’s the goal: to identify what can work and what can’t. It depends on customers more than anything else. When I did Scarpetta, initially the intention was to put it in multiple markets and, fortunately, that worked. And now it’s “on to the next one,” so to speak. Jay-Z said that.
So you see DOCG proliferating?
Yeah, I think so — even if it’s by another name. DOCG is a tough name, because people who aren’t in the wine world have a hard time with it. I always tell people, “Call it whatever you want, as long as you are calling to make reservations and come back.” That’s the most important thing. But DOCG, I never realized that the name could be difficult for people.
How are those people pronouncing it?
“Dock-Gee,” that’s what we get sometimes. I was in Toronto talking to someone about DOCG. Guy was like, “Wow! I’ve never heard of that! I’m in Vegas like every two months and I’ve never heard of it. And I’ve been to The Cosmopolitan.” And I said, “It’s right next to Scarpetta.” And he goes, “Oh, Dock-Gee!” I thought it was hysterical. Call it whatever you want.
How do you decide which cities in which you work?
Basically, I like to put restaurants where I like to spend time. That’s the narcissistic answer.
How do you split your time between New York, L.A., Miami and Las Vegas?
I go where I’m needed. New York is home, so I try to spend as much time home with my family when I can. And then [I have] two restaurants in Vegas and Miami, so I spend quite a bit of time in those places. I’m there every six weeks or so. I’m not cooking everything that comes out of those kitchens, clearly. The key is to rely on the team that I have in place and, fortunately, they’re real great people. It’s really not about me; it’s really about the people who are executing day to day.
Where do you dine in your four cardinal cities when you are not doing the cooking?
Those are the four, four of the best cities in the country to dine. Miami is getting better and better every week. Another great chef is opening up a restaurant in Miami right now. Mike Pirolo used to be my chef de cuisine in both New York and Miami. He opened up Macchialina there. [And] he is opening up a new place [BaZi in the Marlin Hotel] right now. He is a spectacular cook, and I love his food. And as good as he is that way, he is an even better person. So, I am always rooting for him.
[And] New York. I mean, there are so many places to go in New York. It’s where I came up, so I have so many friends here. I just took my daughters to [the gospel] brunch at [Marcus Samuelsson’s] Red Rooster the other day in Harlem, and we had such a blast. They do love gospel and, I mean, my five-year-old was, like, out of her seat, staring and watching. At one point she said, “Dad, can we come here every Sunday?” So sweet.
And in L.A., my restaurant is in Beverly Hills, so I find myself going to a lot of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants. Cut is my favorite steakhouse in the country, and Spago also. I feel like they’re as good, if not better than they’ve ever been.
What is the single travel item without which you would be sunk?
I travel often so, for me, it’s really about simplicity. Recently, I started downloading all my books on either my Kindle, iPhone or iBooks. Normally, I read three or four books at a time. To be stealth, travel quick and be nimble, having all my books downloaded like that has saved me a lot of space.
What are you reading right now?
I just started reading The Beatles: The Biography the other day, which I love.
If you could add another city to your list of “homes,” what would that be?
I was literally in Hong Kong yesterday. I love that city. London is a dream. I would love to do more in L.A. I’m actually excited about a concept that I have that I think would work really well in L.A. I’m bullish on international markets, as well. I think Dubai is a home run. I think the coming of Abu Dhabi is spectacular. I love Singapore. I can go on and on.
I was just in Asia for two weeks, and was just shocked how crowd-driven everything is, even the small independent restaurant. If I can really get my act together and diversify the brands a little bit better — the way we have with DOCG, making things a little bit more casual — there are multiple markets that we can walk into with great food and great branding.
What goes on in New York’s Scott Conant Culinary Suite?
I’m here right now! We’re talking about potential new ventures, which I can’t speak about more than that. So, we are trying to line up all the collateral that goes with opening up new restaurants, and also how to keep what we got. As [Bob] Dylan says, “a state of constant becoming.” Just trying to stay better and stay in line with betterment.
So, the Suite is your brand headquarters?
Yeah, we do research and development here, food photography, photo shoots and video shoots. My team works out of this place; we all work together. It’s a loft in Soho, and it has a design, aesthetic and style that is really mine. It’s a place I like to call home. And we do private events here — that’s the best part. People come in, watch us cook, we hang out and at the end of the night, if it all goes well, we’ll do shots of tequila together and it’s all good.
Is there any particular tequila of which you are a devotee?
Casa Dragones. That’s my joint. I love that stuff.
What do you think of its new blanco?
For mixing cocktails, it’s great. But I’m more of a straight tequila guy. Even thought they tell me not to do it, I’ll put an ice cube in there.
Do you ever consult on any project where we might not see your name on it?
I have and I may, yes. I’ve done it in the past, and I speak to people about that stuff all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For the most part, I’m just super busy with what I have.
What is true of cooking on TV that is not necessarily true of cooking in the kitchen without a camera on?
What happens on television and what happens in restaurants has nothing to do with each other. Other than food, it really has nothing to do with anything. I came up in restaurants. I’m a restaurant guy; I was 11 when I took my first [cooking] class. I was 15 when I started working full time in restaurants. Television is a wonderful advertising platform. People come to the restaurants because they’ve watched Chopped and they’ve watched other shows that I’m on. I enjoy it, believe me. I have a great time doing it, but I don’t want anybody to mistake — what happens on television is television. This isn’t cooking for real inside a restaurant. But anybody can tell you that.
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
The DOCG [lunch] launch is the most exciting thing right now. But after that, I am really looking forward to doing something in New York City. I unfortunately can’t speak about yet, but I’m working on it. Nothing is 100 percent until it’s 100 percent.