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It’s an approach that’s worked: In an industry where turnover is notoriously quick, several of his cooks have been with him for more than a decade. They’ve followed him from the opening of L’Impero in 2002 and Alto in 2005 to Scarpetta, which launched with a bang last summer in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Now, some of his loyal troops will be heading to Miami for Conant’s first restaurant outside of New York City.
The new eatery, also called Scarpetta, is part of the Fontainebleau resort, a $1 billion renovation and expansion of the historic 1954 Morris Lapidus–designed hotel. But Conant didn’t sign up for the gig just to get his name out there. In fact, the developers approached him. “They had eaten my food,” he explains.
Being an in-demand chef wasn’t something he always dreamed of, growing up in Litchfield, Conn. “I wanted to be a plumber,” admits the 37-year-old. “When I couldn’t get into that course, my second choice was culinary arts.”
After training at The Culinary Institute of the Arts and stints in Italy and Germany, he returned to New York to work at San Domenico. “It opened my eyes to what Italian elegance could be,” says Conant. At Scarpetta, he’s taken that elegance and bent the rules a little: “The ultimate goal is that, after you are finished eating, you want to grab a bit of bread and sop up the sauce.”
He plans to introduce the same approach in Florida, with some tweaking. “This is a quintessential New York restaurant,” he says. “I want to focus on the soul of Miami.” Indeed, his new home offers sweeping ocean views and a David Collins–designed interior of blues with brass details. “It kind of looks like a yacht,” he says. Also a big change will be the capacity: 320 seats to New York’s 75.
Another difference will be the menu. “There are so many Italian restaurants in New York, but I’m not sure it’s happened at the same rate in Miami,” points out Conant. While his now-famous spaghetti with tomato and basil will remain (“I think that dish will put my kids through college,” says the newlywed), entrées such as a whole roasted turbot will appear to satisfy a more Floridian palate.
And he has no worries about the downturn in the economy. “A lot of my core clients have second homes in Miami. I think that’s one of the reasons this feels like a natural expansion,” he says. But, while he’s toying with the idea of opening a third restaurant in Las Vegas, don’t look for Conant-branded eateries in the airport à la Wolfgang Puck. He insists, “I don’t want to be a household name.”
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