"Let me show you something," says Chef Scott Conant, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He presses play and a little girl's voice—his four-year-old daughter's—sings in Mandarin. "Isn't that amazing?" he gushes, before swiping through more photos of his two girls. The proud papa and native New Yorker is in Los Angeles for a few days to check up on Scarpetta, his critically acclaimed restaurant at the Montage Beverly Hills. A self-proclaimed hustler, Conant has won a James Beard award, opened five Scarpetta locations, achieved Food Network superstar status, and, in October 2013, released his third cookbook—but he's just as excited to talk about LA produce. We sat down with him to find out what he loves most about Los Angeles.
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Time Out LA: How was this process—curating recipes for The Scarpetta Cookbook—different from your first two cookbooks?
Scott Conant: The good thing about this process is that people bought the book! They hadn't bought the first two—well, my mom did. Having five Scarpettas now and spending time with each of the chefs in those markets [New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Beverly Hills, and Toronto], it's always been a great experience and I've always had fun doing it. What I've loved specifically about the recipes that have come out of Los Angeles from Freddy [Vargas, executive chef at Scarpetta in Beverly Hills] is that the Santa Monica market is really reflective in a lot of those dishes. The quality of produce in California is the gold standard for the rest of the country.
In terms of your own go-to cookbooks throughout your career, which ones have you gone back to over and over again?
La Ricette Regionali Italiane [by Anna Gosetti della Salda]. That's a book that I've always gone back to because it's so inspiring. My Italian isn't so good that I can understand everything, but that's one of the great cookbooks to come out of Italy, and it includes all different regions. Another one is Larousse Gastronomique. When I was 15 years old and started cooking, a lot of kids were carrying baseball gloves around—I had Larousse Gastronomique in my backpack.
So were you teased at all?
No! Because I was the guy with the wad of cash in my pocket that they didn't have because they were on the swim team, and I was working 60 hours a week in the restaurant, plus going to high school. You can make fun of me all you want but I was also buying the drinks.
What are some of the exciting things you're seeing happen in the LA restaurant scene?
Downtown is awesome. There are so many things happening, between Bestia and all the places that are opening up there, it's all really exciting. What is also cool is that a lot of people are getting back to cooking and developing flavors. That stigma that everyone would talk about 10 years ago in LA—"oh, it's bean sprouts and tofu and no salt"—it's now a complete departure from that. We're talking about full-flavored food that's well developed and thought out. The cocktail programs [in LA] are really great too, and in a lot of ways, far ahead of where New York is. The one thing that hasn't changed about LA is probably the best thing: you can walk into a strip mall and have some of the best sushi you've ever had in your life.
Your choice of music in the kitchen?
I like a lot of different things. I'm a big fan of hip hop. I love outlaw country like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, but I love [Bob] Dylan more than anyone. I find him extremely inspirational. I'll put him in the background and dim out all the lights sometime at home or sit in my office with a bottle of tequila or red wine. It's awesome. I like miserable music, too—I like music that's heart-wrenching.
On that note...For Valentine's Day, do you usually cook for your wife or go out?
This year we've decided to go to Anguilla and stay at the Viceroy there, just the two of us. We're going to get away for a while, because it's been a hectic year. It's just going to be the two of us getting away and completely closing out the world.