Photos courtesy of Abrams Books
The Chopped celebrity chef dishes on his new cookbook and what’s next on the menu at Cellaio, his Resorts World Catskills restaurant.
Scott Conant wants to keep things simple.
It seems like an irony for the celebrity chef, who regularly graces the judging panel on Food Network’s Chopped when he’s not hopping back and forth between his multiple restaurants. Yet for Conant, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and industry pro with more than 35 years of experience, food, a.k.a. the backbone of his career, shouldn’t have to be complicated to be delicious.
Need proof? Just flip through Peace, Love, and Pasta, his new cookbook that’s all about simple and easy-to-prepare recipes that are packed with flavor. Inside the book, the celebrity chef behind Cellaio, the Italian steakhouse restaurant at Resorts World Catskills in Monticello, introduces food lovers of all skill levels to recipes that he’s collected from his earliest days in the kitchen at the Sea Loft in Waterbury, CT to his current role as an acclaimed chef and father.
To celebrate the cookbook’s September 2021 debut, we sat down with Chef Conant at Cellaio to talk about his inspiration, recipes, and upcoming plans in the Hudson Valley (and beyond).
We last spoke in 2018, when Cellaio first opened at Resorts World Catskills. What have you been up to since then?
There’s been so much going on, particularly in the last year and a half. We were shut down here [at Cellaio] for a little while. With the help of the hotel in general and the team overall…we’ve really not missed a beat. If anything, I think we’re better than ever in the restaurant and continually evolving.
Chef Frank [ed. note: Chef Frank Dimino is the Executive Chef at Resorts World Catskills] is really trying to help the team set it up for success in ways that a lot of other hotel partnerships don’t work from the culinary side and the hotel side. It’s a true partnership that I really appreciate, and I think, because of that partnership, it’s always getting better. I feel like the feedback from guests as I was walking around the dining room just last night is nothing but positive. It’s a great feeling.
Congrats on the cookbook! When did you come up with the idea for Peace, Love, and Pasta?
It was in the back of my head for a while, particularly with the title, Peace, Love, and Pasta. There’s just an overall evolution that I think should happen in life. I’ve been cooking for 35 years now, so my intention was to be able to showcase some of those recipes, the highlights of the recipes that I’ve been cooking over time and tweak them a little for the home kitchen.
Is it just us, or does the title have Woodstock vibes?
Well, I listen to a lot of Dylan. [Laughs.] I think it’s part of the overall evolution that I was referring to. When I first started cooking, I was always focused on just work. It wasn’t until I had children that I really started to take time. I started working six days a week instead of seven when I had kids.
I feel like there’s just a certain – it’s hard to explain – but an overall calm that comes over you in a certain part of your life, hopefully. You know what I mean? Hopefully it happens.
I just changed my perspective and really started to think more about happiness and that work/life balance, and I think COVID helped with that quite a bit as well. Just identifying the things you love out of both aspects of your life, both work and home, I think that’s where it stems from.
[Peace, Love, and Pasta is] something I’ve been writing on books for years. It was a personal/spiritual aspect of things as well.
What type of person do you think would love this cookbook?
I think it really is a spectrum. There are things in there for people who are really picky eaters, much like my youngest daughter – and I reference that quite a bit – and things that, you know, you could sit down and then have fusilli with chicken livers and neonata, Calabrian chilis in this little Italian fish sauce. I mean, there’s a spectrum of food.
[At Cellaio], we were even serving the baked stuffed lobster that’s inside [the cookbook] that I made at my first job at the Sea Loft in Waterbury, CT. There are tweaks with it and stuff like that, but still, you know, it’s a baked stuffed lobster, which is so old-school, and there’s something about seeing it put on the table here that just warms me a little bit. It’s cool to experience.
Which of the recipes in Peace, Love, and Pasta do you reach for the most?
You know, chicken cutlets are something that are in the book both as a sandwich and a play on a parmesan – melted baby tomatoes, burrata with chicken cutlets – and that’s something that my mother used to cook. I feel like every single culture in the world has their version of a chicken cutlet. Despite what your background is, there’s some kind of chicken cutlet there. It’s just the best thing in the world.
It’s weird because in a restaurant if you deep-fry it, it’s such a completely different experience than if you pan-fry it. If you pan-fry it, it just tastes better. There’s just something about it. It’s nostalgic, you know what I mean?
That’s what I think so much of this book is about and what food is about in general for people is that it gives that sense of nostalgia that takes you back to that “ratatouille” moment…to a place in life that you can identify with.
How did the cookbook evolve for you?
I signed this deal before COVID. Inevitably, it changed a little bit, but not a lot. It was meant to be something that was a bit more chronological – my first job, second job, traveling through Europe, traveling in this place, working in this place, doing this. But then when we looked at it, it was kind of disjointed. It would be really hard for someone to pick up the book and say, “Where can I find this?” It wasn’t sectioned with meats and fish and stuff like that.
That was the only change, really, but the direction was the same. It’s things that I’ve experienced in my life and now I’m cooking at home for my children and trying to get them to open their own taste buds.
Is Cellaio your first stop on your book tour? Will you be visiting your other restaurants to celebrate the debut?
I am, but because of COVID it’s all changed. The book tour I was going to do, visiting different cities, we’re still trying to work it all out. But yeah, I’ll do dinners at the other restaurants [ed. note: Conant also leads Mora Italian in Phoenix, AZ and The Americano in North Scottsdale, AZ]. We’ll see, I might do something at friends’ restaurants down the road.
Besides the cookbook launch, what else is on your plate right now?
I’m looking at some new projects, so I’m traveling to look at projects in various cities. I’m also shooting Chopped, and we have some other stuff on the shooting schedule as well. I’ll be in Tennessee to shoot Chopped and then back home for a bit. It’s just a lot of that over the next three months until the middle of December. I’m ping-ponging around to different places and different cities. It’s a great problem to have.
What’s on the horizon for you in the Hudson Valley?
We have menu changes coming up for fall soon [at Cellaio], which we’re excited about. We have this beautiful pork belly that we’re going to put on with autumn squash. It looks great. We’ll have more player development dinners [with Resorts World Catskills] and things like that. It’s really about making sure this menu is tight and making sure the team is [tight]. Like the entire world, we’re looking for cooks and making sure our team is full. Food and beverage in particular I think has taken a hit across the country, not just here.
There’s a lot of monotony when it comes to restaurants, like make sure you do the same thing over and over. It’s really about consistency and identifying that consistency. It’s not glamorous at all but it’s necessary.
Ok, last question: What one recipe in Peace, Love, and Pasta do you think people should start with?
Great question. I’m going to go back to those chicken cutlets with the melted baby tomatoes and burrata. It’s just delicious. I mean, it’s kind of a play on a chicken parm, and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like chicken parm, right? You have these beautiful tomatoes and you don’t have to do much with them. You don’t have to get stuff from the cabinet and jarred stuff. With olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and maybe a little bit of oregano and basil, you’re good to go.
Scott Conant’s new cookbook Peace, Love, and Pasta is available now. Want to taste his cuisine for yourself? Head to Cellaio, his Italian steakhouse at Resorts World Catskills in Monticello, for the full experience.