Making Elegant Look Easy
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography Courtesy of Mora Italian
As his Phoenix eatery, Mora Italian, celebrates its second anniversary, celebrity chef Scott Conant and I had a conversation about food, family, and how Arizona lured him westward after decades of living and working in the Big Apple.
“I was 27 years in Manhattan, and New York City living is challenging at times,” says Conant. “I wanted to spend more time with my wife and kids—I wanted to have a relationship with my [two] children as they grow up. The central location means I can easily fly to Las Vegas, Los Angeles or New York. Now, when I am home.
“It’s so relaxing; I feel like I’m at a resort. I love desert living and being able to jump in my car and drive to the mountains. It’s a beautiful spot to live and has such a sense of place, which I really appreciate. And everyone is so nice.”
Conant is easy-going and friendly, the picture of sprezzatura, an Italian word for studied nonchalance: the art of making elegant look easy. It’s his brand philosophy. He truly comes across as remarkably relaxed for a man who operates three restaurants in three states, including Cellaio Steak in New York and Masso Osteria at Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, makes regular television appearances as a judge on “Chopped” and host of “Best Bakers in America,” both on Food Network. He recently launched Sprezza, a line of upscale pantry ingredients and has authored three cookbooks.
Make no mistake. Conant has been working hard since taking his first community college culinary class at age 13 in his native Connecticut, paving the way for his matriculation at Culinary Institute of America and a stint in Germany. By the time he reached his 20s, he was getting rave reviews for running the famed kitchens of some of New York City’s most famous Italian restaurants: Il Toscanaccio, Chianti and City Eatery.
As one might imagine, the Conant family’s decision to permanently relocate to Scottsdale raised a few big city eyebrows, including that of his famed friend and sometime co-star, Chef Bobby Flay.
“Just before I first moved here, Bobby Flay texted me and asked, ‘Are you really moving to Phoenix? What’s going on?’” Conant says with a laugh. “I said, ‘I just need the change, man. I just need to get out.’
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bobby and everything he’s done in his career. We check in with each other from time to time and now he says to me, ‘You made the right move. You’re doing really well. Congratulations!’ That means a lot to me.”
Conant notes that it was a combination of great friends in Scottsdale, excellent business opportunities in the greater Phoenix area, and a series of events that precipitated his relocation. At the top of the list were skyrocketing real estate taxes in New York, which increased from $3,000 to over $100,000 per year on his office space.
“That, for me, was the last straw,” says Conant. “When you’re losing businesses because of political decisions, I find it unacceptable. Without getting into politics, it infuriated me that people lost jobs because of it. It was super frustrating to me.”
In Arizona, he’s found that the business climate, the immense pool of restaurant talent and the friendships he’s made suit him perfectly.
“There’s something about the way the entrepreneurial spirit is embraced here and that I love,” Conant explains. “That resonated with me. We have great friends here, we have made great new friends and I have great business partners. I’m really happy we made this transition, from a personal and professional perspective. Being here, I liken it to be able to exhale and just enjoy your surroundings.”
As Conant embraces the wide-open skies and possibilities of Arizona, I had to ask how he fashioned Mora Italian to fit the more laid-back, Western vibe of the desert.
“Mora is decidedly more rustic than some of the fancier restaurants I’ve had,” Conant explains. “We narrowed down the number of components on a plate, and that’s the concept of Mora. It really is about full extraction of flavor and simple, straight-forward cooking in an osteria-like setting.
“That sense of inherent goodness is what I really want to put inside the food. I want that to come out. I think that soulfulness and honesty is the intention of Mora in the first place and I think that resonates with people. It’s not going to be pretentious because I don’t feel like it’s a pretentious town in any way, shape or form.”
He raves about the staff at Mora Italian, led by the skills and market experience of Chef de Cuisine Matthew Taylor, previously known for his work at Gertrude’s and Market Street Kitchen, and general manager Lance Mills. Conant lauds the team for their willingness to make the restaurant a world-class destination.
“I love that spirit, the culture of hospitality,” says Conant proudly. “We’re trying to create that culture of goodness at the restaurant. It resonates with the staff and, most importantly, it resonates with the guests.
“It starts from the team at the top and all of us are about making people happy. That’s what I’m trying to create. Being in the city that we’re in begets that goodness.”
As much as he loves his adopted home state, you can’t take New York out of the man.
“New York City has been such a major part of my life and my career,” Conant says. “I still have my team there and travel there once a month. I have family and friends there. My Instagram handle is @conantnyc. My home base is now in Arizona, but I still wear a Yankees cap every single day of my life. I’m wearing one right now. There’s only so much I can give up!”
Chef Conant hits the gym daily to stay healthy and TV-ready, but what taste temptations does he find irresistible?
“Skippy Extra Chunky Reduced Fat Peanut Butter is my absolute Kryptonite. If I have it in the house, I’ll eat it—not just a spoonful or two. I’ll eat like 3/4 of the jar. That’s too much obviously, so I’ll feel sick, but I can’t stop myself. The texture, the flavor, everything about it, I just absolutely love.
Trader Joe’s Organic Corn Chips
“They’re evil! They’re dangerous! I had them in the car one day and was driving around taking calls and going to meetings. I ate so much of a bag that I hid them beneath the back of the passenger seat so I couldn’t reach them. My 8-year-old found them the next day on our ride to school and she said, ‘You know, Dad, I see that you’re hiding corn chips in the car.’ She totally busted me. I was mortified, but I said, ‘You know what? Yeah, I did, because I don’t want you to have them! They’re mine!”