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Scott Conant Interviewby Pattye Grippo    
Scott Conant

This is an interview with Scott Conant, host of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, from July 15, 2010.

Temperatures rise as teams of hopeful restaurateurs attempt to open their dream restaurants in Food Network's new primetime competition series, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. Hosted by renowned chef, Scott Conant, owner of Scarpetta and Faustina at the Cooper Square Hotel, each one-hour episode features dueling teams who must conceive, plan, and open their own restaurants in 24 hours. On each team, one person handles front-of-house issues like decor, seating, and service while the other manages back-of-house matters like menu planning, shopping, and cooking. When the doors open, each restaurant serves a group of diners along with Scott and a rotating panel of judges. Based on the restaurant's concept, execution, and viability, the judges choose a winning team who receive $10,000.

Question:
Can you give us a quick overview of the show, what you're excited about, what everyone can look forward to and what's going in your life in the restaurant world?

Scott Conant:
The show is 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, and it's essentially two teams who have been asked to open up a restaurant in 24 hours, which is pretty interesting [laughs], it's a lot of fun. They have a huge space, we basically cut that space in half, and each team opens a restaurant on either side of the room. The teams have to create a concept, design a menu, they design the room and they have a budget to do so - and they're off to the races. I always say, and I tell them all the time, you guys are starting the 24 hours to open, but it's like a race to the starting line. Then you have to serve up to 100 customers when you open for service. It's a lot of fun, there's struggles, there's people who have a hard time and people who really nail it. There's a lot of surprises as well, even for us as judges sitting at the table. In my own life and career, I have restaurants in Miami, New York, we're opening up in Toronto next week and opening up in Las Vegas in December. We're opening up two spaces in Las Vegas.

Question:
I'm a big fan of Chopped, I'm familiar with you from that show. Are you still planning to make appearances there now that you're involved with 24 Hour Restaurant Battle?

Scott Conant:
I do. We're gearing up for a new season, I'm trying to work it out on my schedule the best that I can, because I'm also opening up a restaurant, and the restaurants are always the most important thing, because people are coming in and they're expecting an experience and we really want to provide one. I'm trying to work on a season on Chopped, and I just want to preface by saying that I'm a lot nicer than they make me look on the show [laughs]. Sometimes I watch it and I'm like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I come across like that!' We will be shooting more Chopped shows, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Question:
Obviously the contestants are faced with an incredibly hard task. With teams of two, I assume one person is in charge of the menu while the other is in charge of the aesthetics. Which do you think is the more difficult of the two roles?

Scott Conant:
I don't know if you can think of each one as easier or more difficult than the other. They're two completely different sets of muscles. It's really hard to set up a dining room, and any chef that thinks it isn't should try it sometime [laughs], it's really, really tough. Putting together a menu, it's not just the food or the description, I always say that menu is a little piece of your marketing plan. People need to figure out what your restaurant is just by looking at your menu, and then when they look up from the menu at your decor, there needs to be something in perfect sync between those two. I'd say of the two, I'd choose the kitchen, but it doesn't mean that it's easier by any means [laughs]. I just think it's a nice place to hide as well. [laughs] I think it's more difficult if you have to deal with more demanding customers, it's difficult to keep that smile on your face all the time.

Question:
You're opening up a restaurant in Toronto. Can you tell us something about it?

Scott Conant:
I can tell you a lot about it. I'm actually sitting in the dining room right now, it's almost finished. We're doing staff tasting today, and it looks like we'll be opening sometime next week during the weekend, I'm not really sure when it is since we have some details to work out. With that being said, I gotta tell you, I'm so pleased with the design aspect. We had Studio GAIA out of New York City design the space, and they're also doing our spaces in Las Vegas. There's such a great balance between the modern elements as well as the rustic feel. I always say that the intention is to make it feel like rustic Tuscany meets urban Milan, and I really feel like Studio GAIA nailed it with this space. I'm really excited about it.

Question:
I've seen the "All in the Family" battle episode. If you were given the same challenge of opening a restaurant with the same 24 hours and same budget, what would your theme be, and what would you call it?

Scott Conant:
It's unfortunate that I'm kind of a one-trick pony. [laughs] I don't know how to do anything I don't already know how to do. [laughs] I lean on my staff for inspiration and execution all the time, with that said, I don't know what I would name it. I think naming a restaurant is one of the most difficult things to do, because if you pick a bad name, it kind of torments you over time, but if you're fortunate to get one of those names for a restaurant that kind of goes away and what it is, and nobody thinks about it because it just flows, that's the best place to be in. if I had to open up a restaurant that I don't already do, I think I'd do a sushi restaurant. I love Japanese food, I think it's my favorite. I took a trip to Tokyo about a year ago, and I was so blown away by the quality of food there, that I would try and do something like that.

Question:
There's a point in the premiere where we have the chefs in the kitchen, and they're faced with a daunting task, and then you pop in the kitchen. You consult with them, but were you able to gauge what was going on with them right away?

Scott Conant:
You have to remember that I've been working in restaurant kitchens since I was a kid, I was 15 years old, I took my first classes when I was 11 years old. It's pretty much all I know, so if I don't have that going for me, I got nothing. [laughs] I'm pretty quick on the uptake because I've been doing it for so long. A lot of these people are amateur restaurateurs, so it's not necessarily the breadth of experience that we have, myself as a host and a judge, and the other judges. My intention is always to provide them with a little bit of insight - number 1, to really ground them when I walk into the kitchen. Let them know, nothing that you think is bad is really as bad as it seems. There's always something that we can do with what your concept is to make it a little bit more clear, and really simplify the vision. I try to make them feel more grounded about what they try to do.

Question:
Everyone has that guilty pleasure food - what's yours?

Scott Conant:
It's really bad, but I happen to love extra chunky, low-fat peanut butter. My wife, she thinks I'm disgusting, because I'll just sit there with the jar, eat half of it and just feel sick afterwards. It's really bad. [laughs] I love it, but it's one of those things I can't have it in the house because I'll just eat it.

Question:
How did you become involved with this project?

Scott Conant:
I do Chopped currently on Food Network, which is a lot of fun, and we have such a good time with it. When they started talking about this show, they asked me to read for it, and it kinda worked out. It was really that simple. I kinda wish there was a better story attached to it, but unfortunately there isn't. [laughs] They picked me out of a bunch.

Question:
The first episode is family based as far as competitors go. What other types of competitor relationships should we look forward to seeing?

Scott Conant:
The Battle Italiano is going to be a really interesting show, I think that's one of my favorite shows, because I cook Italian food and I grew up with Italian food, Italian family and all that stuff. Those things are close to my heart. There's a couple of moments in that show that are kind of touching and crazy and kind of like living with an Italian family [laughs], it's very funny. I think some of the other dynamics are couples, best friends, father and son, sisters - there's a lot of different dynamics on there. There's some best friends, where you'd be insane to assume they were best friends since they're such different people, but that's another one that I think is really interesting as well.

Question:
Do you have a specific go-to piece of advice for the contestants?

Scott Conant:
I do. I tell them whenever they ask, I try not to impart too many words to them, but when they do ask, I always tell them, the complete, full execution of simplicity for me is the ultimate sophistication. It's kind of a paraphrase of Leonardo da Vinci, but at the end of the day, it's really about honing your simple elements of what makes a restaurant great. To execute that to the full ability, you're going to wind up with something spectacular. The second thing I tell them all the time, there's a promise you make as a restaurateur, when people walk in to that restaurant, the reason they go there is because they want an experience. You have to provide them with that experience, and make sure that you follow through on every detail of what that experience is meant to be.

Question:
I noticed from the first two episodes, that they're both on the east coast. Can we expect the show to eventually travel, or is this season mostly on the east coast?

Question:

Scott Conant:
I'm not sure what's going to happen with the traveling element of the show. I'm not part of the production plan, but I love the west coast personally, so I'd love to travel there. That's all I can say, if my words have any influence then maybe it would, but I wouldn't count on that. [laughs]

Question:
What advice would you give to a layman who is thinking about trying out for the show, is there a specific person you look for, for the show?

Scott Conant:
I'm not involved in the casting either, but if somebody were to try to be cast for the show, I would tell them the same things. There are definitely strong personalities on the show, and I think that you need a strong personality to open up a restaurant. If you're meek, you're not really going to succeed in the restaurant business, because there's so many things to do constantly, so many different sets of muscles, like I said before, that are needed to execute something like that. Be bold, bring it! I think the expression that Ted Allen uses is something along the lines of 'Bring it 100% or go home'. It's one or the other, so that's what I would say.

Question:
I noticed the judges rotate a little bit during the different episodes. Do you think some of the judges were different that others? What was your experience with them?

Scott Conant:
It's very funny, it's a great question. What I found with the different judges was, people who look at the restaurants from the restaurateur perspective, the chef perspective, the front of house person, maitre d - whatever it is - somewhat have different opinions on the way a restaurant should work - the elements of quality of the restaurant, the marketing/PR side of it, which I thought was very interesting. We didn't have any issues, I don't remember any arguments at the judge's table, [laughs] although Gabriella Gershenson and I disagree on one dish, but we'll talk about that another time. Other than that, it was really interesting to hear how a marketing person thinks about the same restaurant than the people who are in foxhole, so to speak.

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