By any measure, Chef Scott Conant already has a lot on his plate: He’s a judge on Food Network’s mega-hit Chopped (and a frequent presence on other shows), a best-selling cookbook author, the father of two young daughters (ages 4 and 7), and the owner/executive chef of a thriving portfolio of upscale Italian restaurants. So what inspired him to open his latest, Fusco, an elegant but unstuffy boîte in the heart of New York City’s new culinary capital—the Gramercy Park neighborhood? Simply put, showing love through cooking is in his blood. Fusco is his maternal grandmother’s maiden name and the restaurant’s ethos is infused with her spirit. “When I say the goal of the restaurant is to provide ‘old world hospitality,’ I think of my grandmother sitting at her table making cavatelli,” says Conant. “The intention is it’s a friendly, warm, comfortable place where you feel like you can go for drinks for a special occasion or just have a salad and pasta with a glass of wine at the bar. There’s something for everybody. Everybody is welcome.”
What else can people expect at Fusco?
It’s simplicity, executed well. Every single dish represents the integrity of the product, the integrity of the cooking technique. It’s an evolution of the style of food that my grandmother would cook. Most importantly, the goal is to make people happier on the way out the door than they were when they walked in.
So it’s about the food, not about the scene?
You can sit in the dining room and see couples in their 70s next to a table of four 20-something young women or kids coming in because they see the [Food Network] shows. That’s the good news. It’s not intended to be trendy. It’s meant to have a good vibe, a good atmosphere. It’s meant to be friendly and serious but not take itself too seriously.
I love that you have a simple spaghetti pomodoro on the menu.
Those are the things that make Italian cuisine great, frankly. I have a few dishes like that, that are just utterly simple. The tomato salad, Greco style. It’s a tomato salad with whipped feta and a little bit of Greek inspiration, but it’s far from a Greek salad.
And you’re serving the full menu in the bar. Why?
We never say no to a guest. We may be booked in the dining room but you can always walk in and sit at the bar or at one of the high-top tables.
What are your favorite memories of growing up in Connecticut?
I grew up in Litchfield County. I have these great memories of the rolling hills and the beautiful New England countryside. I still think Litchfield is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And I went to a vocational high school in Waterbury, called Kaynor Tech, where I focused on culinary arts.
So you knew early on that a career in food was in your future?
Yeah. I took my first community cooking classes when I was 11. And the principal and instructors at Kaynor were instrumental in helping me get into CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. I’ve spoken to them over the years, and they use me as an example of, ‘If you put your mind to it, you can achieve what Scott’s achieved.’ It’s touching.
Is there a family background in the restaurant industry?
No. My mother worked at a credit union and my father was a machinist, a toolmaker.
They must be incredibly proud of you.
Yeah, it’s sweet. My father passed a few years ago, but he got to see a little bit of the stuff that I’ve been doing. I don’t consider myself a successful person yet. I feel like I’ve had a few successes, but I work hard and I’m ambitious. So, long way to go. This is just the beginning.
You have restaurants in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, and you’re a TV star. What would be the next level, to you?
I just want to keep getting better. I want to keep honing my skills. I really enjoy what I do. But there’s a lot of stresses within it. I want to be able to enjoy vacations at some point. To identify that work-life balance is huge; that’s what I’m working on more than anything.
So how do you stay sane in the midst of everything?
The challenge is, I travel a lot, to different restaurants. And I spend a lot of time away from my family. We moved to Scottsdale, AZ, around 15 months ago, and my kids go to school there. I spend a tremendous amount of time in New York City, and I have an apartment here. When I’m away from my family, I don’t mind working all the time. But when I’m home with them, I try to put my phone away. It doesn’t always work. But I try to be present, especially with my little ones, because it’s important. I want them to know they’re loved, ultimately. And the reason why I do what I do is for them, to make a better life for all of us.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
I honestly have no idea. I shudder at the thought. Really. I don’t know who else would have me.
How does being on TV benefit your business?
I do television for one reason and that’s only because it’s a fantastic advertising platform for the business. That’s it. I don’t do it because I like it or because I want to be famous.
So your restaurants are where your heart is?
Yeah—it’s about making people happy. I can touch people with every single dish.
Black Truffle Risotto With Egg & Parmigiano
Serves 4 to 6
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (enough to coat the pan)
3 tablespoons shallots brunoise
1 ½ teaspoons garlic brunoise
Crushed red pepper flakes, as needed
Kosher salt as needed
2 tablespoons butter, unsalted
1 ½ vialone nana rice
½ cup dry white wine
5 cups white chicken stock
1 ½ fresh thyme leaves, chopped
½ cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
2 each egg yolks
Preserved black truffles (Conant likes Jaloon Specialty Foods), as needed
Fresh truffles for shaving, as needed
1. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, garlic, crushed red pepper and a pinch kosher salt, and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute. (Take the pan off heat if garlic browns.) Add 1 tablespoon of butter, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is very tender, 5 minutes.
2. Add rice and cook, stirring, for 1 minute to toast it lightly. Increase heat to medium, add the wine, and cook until most is gone.
3. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and cook, stirring, until the liquid has been absorbed and evaporated. Add another 1 cup of stock and increase the heat so that there is a fair amount of bubbles on the surface (this agitation helps release the starch as the rice cooks).
4. Add another 1 cup of stock and continue to cook, stirring and adding more as needed. To see if it’s time to add more, drag the spoon through the rice; if the liquid doesn’t immediately fill in the space, it’s time. With the third addition of broth, add thyme.
Continue to cook, adding broth as necessary, until risotto looks creamy but rice is still al dente, about 18 minutes.
5. Take risotto off heat. Add remaining 1 ½ tablespoons of butter, the cheese, and the truffles and stir well. Stir the egg yolks well; then stir them in until well combined.
6. To serve, divide risotto among plates and top with freshly shaved truffles.
By Suzanne Zuckerman
Photos by Nicole Franzen