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Chef Scott Conant is widely recognized as a renowned restaurateur, cookbook author, and celebrity chef with appearances on Bravo's “Top Chef” and Food Network's “Chopped," and the Valley has been abuzz with the news of his move to Arizona and plans to open a Phoenix restaurant. In addition to a new Scottsdale home, Conant will be debuting Mora Italian with local restaurateur Stefano Fabbri of Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana. Slated for a December launch, this 6000-foot modern osteria promises a convivial, lively atmosphere with a menu featuring Neapolitan-style pizzas, handmade pastas, and craft cocktails. Conant will also maintain his home in New York along with restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and Miami and continue his television commitments. Look for his first major public appearance at the azcentral Food & Wine Experience on Sunday, November 6th, where he will participate in a meet and greet, book signing and cooking demonstration.
I've been a fan for many years, with visits to Scarpetta in Las Vegas on our regular rotation and Conant's Scarpetta Cookbook: 125 Recipes from the Acclaimed Restaurant a well-used favorite. Recently, I had a chance to ask this talented chef some questions about his move to the Valley. Find out why he's looking forward to this new chapter in his life and what he's most excited to bring to Mora Italian.
Welcome to Arizona! We’re thrilled you’ve made the Valley your home and joined our thriving culinary scene. How did you meet Stefano Fabbri? First of all, thank you and I love being here. I couldn’t be happier to be in Phoenix. I am so excited for this next chapter for me and my family. I met Stefano through a mutual friend and then discovered multiple connections.
How did you two decide on the concept of Mora Italian? For me, it was about Stefano seeing what I’ve done and the restaurants I currently have, and I think we identified a lot of mutual motivations for the potential of this restaurant.
When did you make the move to Scottsdale? Initially, I didn’t have any plans to buy a home out here, but I was ready for a change and Phoenix seemed like the perfect place. I moved out here in July.
What helped make your decision that the time was right? There were so many personal and professional factors all aligned that is just felt like the right choice.
What aspect are you most excited about with Mora Italian? The development process and creating dishes that make people happy. I look forward to seeing what the locals like and constantly evolving the menu to continue making people happy.
What, if anything, has surprised you about our local dining scene? The interest in the project which stems from a genuine excitement and enthusiasm from the local community. It’s really amazing how invested everyone I’ve met has seemed in the success of restaurants and local business in this city.
You’ll also be making an appearance at one of our most prestigious culinary events, the azcentral Food & Wine Experience. Were you familiar with it? I had heard of it and have had some friends involved in it. I am really excited to be involved this year.
What are you planning for your Grand Tasting cooking demonstration? We are still tossing around ideas, but I’d love to hear what people would like to see from me!
We’re already anticipating the projected December opening of Mora Italian, are there any other projects on the horizon? Mora is definitely my main focus right now.
For more information on Chef Conant's appearance at the Food & Wine Experience, visit this link: Scott Conant Joins Lineup at azcentral Food & Wine Experience
Now in its second year, the azcentral Food & Wine Experience attracts a roster of renowned and award-winning chefs and industry professionals.. This year's event will be headlined by Mario Batali, and in November Chef Kevin Fink will join this illustrious group. That month will also celebrate a year of accolades and success for his Austin restaurant Emmer & Rye, including gracing the cover of the July issue of Food & Wine Magazine as one of the Best New Chefs 2016 and making Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant list. Having grown up in Tucson, Arizona, Chef Fink previously served as director of operations for Zona 78 Italian Kitchen. He has since honed his industry and culinary skills at lauded restaurants such as the French Laundry, Trattoria 13 Gobbi in Florence, Italy, Copenhagen’s Noma and Noma Test Kitchen, and Olamie in Austin, but its his Arizona roots that have shaped him. Find out why the relationship he has forged with local farmers is an integral part of Emmer & Rye in my interview.
We're looking forward to your return to Arizona. Yes, we're both from Arizona. My wife is from Phoenix and her parents live there so we'll be doing some family dinners. Arizona's been a major part of my life. I have a lot of friends back there.
Do you have many chef friends here? I do, I run into Chris Bianco a lot in different areas, but I have a lot more friends in the industry down in Tucson than I do in Phoenix. The biggest takeaway when I left Arizona - that I struggle to recreate even here - are some of the farmers. They're so experimental and ahead of the game because Arizona really causes you to do that as far as farm practices; farms like Sleeping Frog Farms and Five Sons Farms. I have some amazing farms here, but I haven't found that same relationship that I have with those two. When I get back, I’m definitely going to try to catch up with those guys just to really have a good time.
You're also a big proponent of milling and grain. Yes. Obviously, we still use a tremendous amount of Hayden [Flour Mills] out here.
I visited their mill and saw the time-consuming process of dressing the stones. It gave me a bigger appreciation of what stone-ground really entails. Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I think one thing that most people don’t recognize is the reason why flour has become so distant from where we are, it's because of this process of milling. It has made it almost inaccessible for anybody to go directly from the field to your house; it's separated so much. As people, we really have to have emotional ties to things to truly understand them. To really understand the wheat field to table movement is about understanding how and why it gets there and what is wheat versus heirloom wheat.
What drew you in the beginning? I’ve always been interested in wheat because I cooked Italian food for so long. Really, the staple of the Italian diet, and also the American diet, is wheat. When you have a product that can define up to 50% or more of a dish, as a chef you have an obligation to understand it as much as you can. The more I understood and the more that I watched Hayden grow and work with others, it was really about finding this product, treating it inthe best way possible, and getting it to people. That was always the restaurant we wanted to have. We never wanted to be this big restaurant with huge numbers. I always wanted to be a restaurant where it really is sharing this intimate experience with people.
So your philosophy is an emotional connection to these origins. Absolutely. What we do as a restaurant was forged very much from my relationship with farmers in Arizona. In any successful relationship, you have to learn how to care for the other person. I think chefs can be so selfish, saying 'I only want the best,' or 'I want this and you grow this for me.' In reality , that would be a terrible relationship, whether it would be a romantic one, a work one, or any other. When you say 'you have to do this at this price point' or 'you have to give it to me then,' I think that is setting them up to fail, setting them up to constantly say no to you, setting them up to be adverse to you. And the opposite of that is what we did. We said, grow what you grow, tell us what’s ripe, tell us what’s good, and when that’s good, we’ll use it, and when it’s not good, we have a menu that is built around adapting to that.
You're known for preserving and fermenting. It makes so much sense. It’s funny to me that all of these things happen to be trendy right now because we didn’t do any of them for that. We did it because we truly want to support good farms and you need to find a way that when they have nothing that you’re okay, and when they have too much that you’re okay. That's what we have with Sleeping Frog. They say, 'well, we have 200 pounds of this that’s ready, I think we’re going to sell 100 pounds,' so we find a way to process the other 100 pounds, whether it be fermenting, pickling, or jamming so we don’t lose this product. In setting up this business it was all about how to be successful partners with farms, so we can constantly say yes to them. And then it was finding the best people around to make that happen.
And all this plays into your dim sum cart service. Yes, that's about 30% of the menu. The carts, again, are all about creating this relationship. When something is in front of you and somebody is describing it, there’s a difference in the amount of questions you can ask, there is a visual you have. Whenever you do new things, you want to take away what might be kind of scary, which is if this item is fermented, or something they've never seen before. Instead of saying this is the only way it can be done, we said why would we want to do this and what is the goal. I think whenever you are doing new things, you have people who get it and don’t get it, and the dim sum carts definitely have been the most widely talked about things for that exact reason.
What are your future plans and goals? We've had a really successful opening, but our impact is the real goal. To show other restauranteurs and farms there are different ways of looking at what we can do. To just continue to be a part of what is so great about the American food system. There are a lot of things that are wrong, but there are a lot of great things too, and we just want to support the new mom and pops that are coming up. Hopefully, we can influence the corporations to make the right decision as opposed to the more profitable decision. There are so many beautiful things in what we do here and it’s just being able to step out of the normal and let people experience things for the first time. I think that’s what we offer to our guests.
For more information on the azcentral Food & Wine Experience, visit this link. Chef Fink will be participating in the All Star Panel with Mario Batali, Alex Stratta, Bruce Kalman, and Gio Osso, conducting a Heritage Grains seminar, and cooking a course in the Grand Finale Dinner.
Lidia Bastianich, the beloved and acclaimed Italian chef, is a woman of many culinary talents. Since 1998, viewers have been warmly welcomed into her kitchen on PBS through a succession of cooking shows, including Lidia’s Italy, for which she won an Emmy in 2013. As a successful restaurateur, she began with Buonavia in 1971 and has garnered accolades in a wide range of culinary avenues, now partnered with son Joe and daughter Tanya. She is the chef-owner of renowned Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto in New York as well as Lidia’s Pittsburgh and Lidia’s Kansas City, and in 2015 released her 11th cookbook, Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook. In addition, she is the founder of Tavola Productions, co-owner of Bastianich Winery, busy with Lidia's Kitchen, a tabletop and cookware line, and Lidia’s sauces and pastas, and expanding the highly-successful Eataly, an artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace, from locations in New York City, Chicago, and Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Next weekend, Chef Lidia visits Arizona for a special dinner at Avanti benefitting Arizona PBS on March 19th and to join host Chef Robert McGrath on the 20th at the Check Please! Festival for “A Masterful Chat with Lidia Bastianich”. I had a chance to talk to this talented culinary star about her upcoming visit.
We’re happy to have you back in Arizona. What will the Check Please! Festival be like? Thank you. I’m going to do a meet and greet and also a panel. We’ll start with an intimate conversation with me and the host asking questions, and then we’ll open it up to the audience, followed by a meet and greet.
Could you tell me more about the dinner on March 19th? The night before, we have a dinner for KAET public television and I will be signing my latest book. It will be dishes from Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine paired with Bastianich wines. I will explain the recipes and the choices, and any questions that the diners have. When I do these kind of trips I like to combine fundraising. I do a lot of fundraising for public television because that’s where I want to be. That’s where I think the platform for intelligent communication is, so I support and I go to different stations. At the dinners usually I talk, I answer questions, I go around the room, and so it is an opportunity to meet my my viewers, my people that are out there sending me those emails, connecting with them. It is important for me.
Eataly is a huge success, and you've also opened internationally in Brazil. What made you choose that location? It's a partners kind of meeting of the minds, if you will. We get approached a lot from entrepreneurs that want to partner. We usually do partner with the local entrepreneur and the businessman because they know the area. They came and made a good offer, and there was the excitement of the culture and going down there. The place is doing fantastic. We're also working on Boston and LA.
At Eataly you are involved in the classes. Yes. We all kind of have our responsibilities. The US partners are Joe [Bastianich], Mario [Batali] and myself as far as the restaurants, and then we have the Italian partners. The restaurants are our theme, whereas the groceries and more of that are our Italian partners because the groceries all come from Italy and we work there with Slow Food. I am the dean of education. Each store has a La Scuola, the school. I have a team and we organize events and I do special classes.
You also own an Italian winery. We do, we have a winery in Friuli, Bastianich wine. We produce it and sell it across the United States and we are very excited about that. My evolution in what I do in my business is really about the opportunities that came about. Which do you take, and which do you not take. I guess if you do well and you get recognized, you get opportunities offered, and so the wine actually came out of wanting to to back to Italy. That’s where our home is, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The place had a little winery and of course we continued to make the wine.
Congratulations on your new book. I believe it's your 11th? Yes, thank you, it's Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine.
With such a wealth of knowledge, is there a dish that you think everyone should know how to do? That’s a big spectrum, but I think a good marinara sauce. It's simple and straightforward; it’s very doable. I think once people get the success and see how simple, easy, and good a marinara sauce is, then with the marinara you can make chicken pizzaiola, you can make shrimp fra diavolo, or anything out of the marinara. It’s based on simple, good ingredients.
What are the plans for the future? We are going to continue to open up more locations. We’re thinking of Philadelphia. Absolutely, we’re thinking, we’re looking, we want to do more in the States.
Check Please! Arizona, part of a James Beard and four-time Emmy award-winning TV program, is also Arizona PBS’ highest-rated series, and on Sunday, March 20th, creator David Manilow will be joining the line-up at the fourth annual Check Please! Arizona Festival. Manilow founded the original Chicago-based Check Please! in 2001 and since then this successful format has expanded to San Francisco, Miami, Kansas City, Phoenix, Seattle, and now abroad to Vienna, Austria. Contributing to the show's success is a formula involving an engaging and knowledgeable host with three guests who visit and discuss their fellow diners' restaurant suggestions.
At the festival, Manilow will participate in a panel entitled “Check, Please! Confidential: Meet the Creators". This week I had a chance to welcome this acclaimed television producer to Arizona and learn more about his popular show.
We're happy to have you headed to Arizona. Have you visited before? Yes, I have. I’m looking forward to it. I’m coming out on Friday. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it.
What was your inspiration for creating Check Please? Chicago is a great restaurant town and there wasn’t really a TV show about restaurants, and my background is television. I kind of understood why there wasn't a show, because the typical on-camera reviewers get recognized and treated differently, so it’s not always a real honest review. I constructed something where it was regular people that would change every week. You would have a very diverse perspective from three different people and a little bit of passion because each restaurant is being recommended. It would also be an anonymous review because the restaurants would not know who the reviewers were.
So a more authentic approach to reviews. That’s what I was efforting and that is what we have been able to accomplish over the years for sure. If you keep the standards high, try to make it interesting and diverse, and you explore, I think that it will work.
How many cities are you in now? Six. I started one in Vienna, Austria but it’s just in its first season so it hasn't gotten on the air yet.
How do you see the Arizona market? Well, I think it is still emerging. For instance, when I started with Miami, it was not really as robust as it is now, and I think the Arizona market has the opportunity to keep on growing and becoming more interesting. I think competition in the world of restaurants and food makes everything better. As you get more and more interested in restaurants, you all start doing more creative and challenging things. I think that just happens over time. When I started in Chicago 15 years ago, it was the same thing. It was an interesting restaurant town, but not nearly as it is now.
I moved to Phoenix in 2008 and have seen so much growth in our culinary scene. Yes, I think that will continue. I think that is just what happens. When a place gets more and more interesting, it is like the rising tide. Everyone starts to do more creative and more diverse stuff. The customer base is looking for more creativity and what’s new, what’s challenging, and they experience more things and everybody wins. The chefs want to challenge themselves too. The future is very bright.
How do you choose people who host the show? Typically we have a process and people audition, and then we narrow it down. We think about somebody who can make the conversation interesting and can be relatable and have some expertise. You really have to offer the expertise to allow the conversation to elevate.
The engagement factor is important. And hopefully our viewers learn something as it goes along too, so it’s not just the basic - what’s the food like, what’s the service like, what’s the atmosphere like. Hopefully you’ll learn something from the host. In the different cities we’ve had sommeliers, chefs, food writers and things like that. They’ve always had some kind of food or drink knowledge.
Do you have any favorite Phoenix restaurants? It’s been too long since I’ve been there so I don’t think it would be fair of me to answer. To be honest, as a brand, we don’t really have an opinion, so even if you asked me what my favorite restaurant is in my neighborhood back home, I don’t think I’d answer.
What are your plans for the future? We are always looking. We have some possibilities in other cities, and hopefully I can do more overseas as well. We take it one show at a time.
Next weekend marks the launch of AZ Central's inaugural Food & Wine Experience. It will take place Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7-8, at Scottsdale Fashion Square. The event will showcase Arizona's culinary talent and beverage craft with exclusive seminars, master classes, and acclaimed visiting chefs. Chef Aaron May has personally invited his friends Michael Ginor, Akira Back and Chuck Hughes to join him in producing the Grand Finale Dinner, and Chef Paul Bartolotta has joined this esteemed team. I am a fan of this famed Chef, having dined at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at The Wynn in Las Vegas, where I feasted on langostinos, Ligurian octopus, branzino, and orata flown in from Italy. Chef Bartolotta's 30 years of experience spans an illustrious career, from his European apprenticeship in Italy and France to acclaimed restaurants in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas. He has been honored with two James Beard Foundation awards, in 1994 for Best Chef: Midwest (Spiaggia in Chicago), and in 2009 for Best Chef: Southwest (Bartolotta in Las Vegas). I had a chance to talk with this renowned chef in anticipation of his visit to Arizona.
We’re excited to have you in Phoenix. Have you been here before? I have. My sister lives in Gilbert, so it’s a great excuse for me to be back in the Phoenix area.
And you are going to be joining all these fine chefs. And not all of which I know, which is a big plus. Some I've known for years. I’ve been cooking with Michael Ginor for 25-30 years, from my New York days, so he and I have been friends for a long time, and Graham Elliot I know from my Chicago days. I’ve never cooked with Aaron May before and I’m looking forward to cooking with him. There are also a couple of chefs I know from Vegas but I've never cooked with them.
You must be proud of your time at Bartolotta where you brought in Italian seafood on a superlative level. I did indeed. I like to think that what we did was pretty ground-breaking. I remain grateful to Steve Wynn for building me the stage for my concept and passion for Italian seafood cooking. The single element I’m most proud of is how my staff embraced my vision and concept.
Is it 11 restaurants now in Milwaukee as part of your partnership with your brother? That’s a great question. I don’t know how many; we also have catering venues and airport restaurants. Let me think about it, let’s do the list. We have Bartolotta Ristorante, and then Lake Park, Mister B’s Steakhouse, and Piccola. After that, we did Bacchus, the Grain and Pier, and then we have Northpoint, Harbor House, Rumpus Room and Joey Gerard's. Then we did Miss Beverly’s and US Bank. So those are the ones that would be official restaurants. We also have a catering company, and at the airport we've got Nonna’s, another Northpoint, and another Piccola.
That’s impressive, any more planned? We have Osgoods that is opening in a couple of weeks, and after that we are doing three other concepts this year. Osgoods is a drive-through, family-style restaurant that focuses on sandwiches, burgers, brats, hot dogs, fish frys, ribs, all of high quality of course. It's super-quick and casual with a drive-through element that we’ve never done before, so that’s exciting. We won’t own it, this is a managed property. We’re doing 4 new restaurants as part of the Mayfair Collection, and these restaurants are essentially management agreements where Phoenix Development Corporation is our partner as part of the Mayfair collection of shops, and then they’ve asked us to do a handful of restaurants. So we’re doing a large tavern concept, we’re doing a French bistro, and then we’re going to do a really fun taqueria concept.
You really have that creative mind with these originating ideas. I do. On my list is a Greek tavern concept and a Spanish tapas concept. There's a rustic trattoria concept that I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and there’s this Eurasian concept that I want to do called Shanghai Joe’s, named after my brother Joe. I make a point to be more in the background. I think I have a fair amount to do with the food concepts and the origination. Our corporate executive chef Adam is my protégé and has worked for me for years. He’s an extension of me in that market so I don’t have to be there every day, and he does a great job. I make sure that all my chefs in Milwaukee get the press as opposed to me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to keep them engaged. I want to keep them. I want them to feel ownership, I want them to get the accolades, I want them to get the credit because that way I don’t have to worry about being there every week. They take ownership, they feel important. Not only do my brother and I trust them, but I don’t micromanage what we do. It’s a little bit of a different level than what I did in New York, Chicago, and Vegas.
You will be leading the Grand Tasting Panel at the Food and Wine Experience. Yes, I’m moderating the panel of chefs on Sunday. I’m pretty excited because at these events all too often you are at a grazing table or doing a cooking demo. I really like the idea of doing more panel discussions because I think it gives the foodie, the consumer who follows chefs like us, to have an opportunity to have a window into our world. They already know our food. You guys kind of put us on the stage, so to speak, in giving us press and media.
What do you have planned for your Grand Finale Dinner course? I’m doing a traditional dish I’ve been doing for many, many years. It was a signature dish at Wynn and one of our best-selling items. It’s a dish I developed for San Domenico in New York, then I brought it to Spiaggia, and then it’s something I carried over to Las Vegas, so it’s just one of those dishes that has been in my repertoire. It’s a tradition-inspired dish. In the Veneto region, they have areas up hills and then there are areas that are along the sea coast. You’ve heard the term mare e monte - something from the sea and the mountains, or sea and the woods? So it’s a combination of seared sea scallops with porcini mushrooms, something woodsy and something from the sea.
Anything else on the horizon? Well…you never know. Let’s just say I’m excited about the future.
For tickets and more information on the AZ Central Food & Wine Experience events, including the Grand Tasting Panel and Finale Dinner, visit www.azcentralfoodandwine.com