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Kitchen Insider: Facebook Chat with Chef Scott Conant

Food & Wine welcomed Scarpetta chef-owner and host of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle Scott Conant to our Facebook page for a live Q&A. Conant shared thoughts on cooking pasta and wild game, tips for aspiring chefs, and personal eating habits. Here are a few of the highlights.

How to Make Pasta

Question: Scott, I love watching you on Chopped. You have mentioned that when you go out to eat, you rarely get served pasta that is cooked correctly. Can you please tell me how to cook it correctly—and is it acceptable to use dry pasta? One day I will learn to make it fresh, but for now I am stuck with dry!
Scott Conant: Dry pasta is wonderful! I love it. If it didn't take so long to cook I would have a few of them on each menu at every restaurant I have. I always tell people, if you don't know how to cook pasta well, read the box; normally they give good tips. I cook my pasta in salted boiling water. The water should taste like broth. Cook the pasta about 90% of the way in the water and then finish it in the sauce. Reserve some cooking liquid to adjust the sauce if it gets too dry. It's very simple and requires a bit of practice, but it will be a MUCH better product.

Question: Any recommendations for making fresh pasta at home?
Scott Conant: Be sure to have all the tools you need laid out in front of you. Practice is the key. Too much flour can be bad news and make sure you have fun at it. Play with recipes and find out what you like best!

Question: Hi Scott! I visit Scarpetta in NYC every chance I get. I love your spaghetti and have taken plenty of folks there to convince them that yours is absolutely the best! Any tips on getting that perfect texture with pasta?
Scott Conant: I like a little semolina in the dough. I make it with eggs, "00" flour, a pinch of salt and a bit of semolina, which adds great texture and bite.

Cooking Tips

Question: A friend gave us a leg of venison—any tips on what to do with it?
Scott Conant: I would butcher it and cut small chunks of the venison, removing most of the fat. Then marinate it in red wine, juniper berries, olive oil, rosemary and bay leaf. Sear the pieces, roast until rare or medium rare, and serve with polenta.

Question: I have never cooked wild duck before. I have two to cook, and one of them is just a breast. What is the best way to cook them?
Scott Conant: Duck can be a tricky thing to cook whole. I like to sear the breasts—put a little Sicilian style spice on it—and braise the legs with oranges, light tomato and crushed red peppers.

Question: Chef, what are the key spices in Sicilian spice?
Scott Conant: The spices I use are a little fennel seed, paprika, cayenne pepper, orange zest, a touch of smoked paprika and oregano. Toast them a bit and then grind them together in a spice grinder. I don't think you'll ever find that in Sicily, but it tastes like you should.

Question: How can a person acquire or improve the ability to recognize what flavors pair well together?
Scott Conant: Good question. Flavors are an acquired skill, but also deeply personal. I believe that things we grew up with shape our palates and our preferences, and we get better as time goes on. There are a few books that help with flavor pairings like Michael Ruhlman's Soul of a Chef.

Question: Hello Scott! I'm 39 years old and only recently started cooking (well cooking anything beyond pasta or stir fries) and am loving it! Wish I'd started earlier. Question about stoves—should I invest in a gas stove or is the electric good enough?
Scott Conant: If you have an electric stove and it works for you, stick with it. If you have an oven that works, that's all that matters. I personally have gas stoves and ovens in my NYC home and I wouldn't trade them for the world. But, I'm sure that I would manage just fine with electric as well.

Question: I am tasked with bringing roasted red potatoes to Christmas dinner. Any ideas on how to make them interesting?
Scott Conant: I love simple roasted potatoes: A little olive oil, garlic and rosemary—in a 375 degree oven—and finished with flaked sea salt.

Advice for Aspiring Professional Chefs

Question: Suggestions for making the leap from serious home chef to professional cooking?
Scott Conant: Cooking at home and doing it professionally have about as much to do with one another as being a heart surgeon and carving a Thanksgiving turkey. Before you make the big leap, work for free in a few kitchens. Get a grasp for the work load ahead, then make the move.

Question: Hello Scott, my husband is attending culinary school and he truly admires you.
Scott Conant: I wish your husband all the luck. Being a chef is tough sometimes, especially in the beginning, but it's really fun and rewarding.

Question: [I] would love to attend culinary school (Le Cordon Bleu in Paris would be a dream!) but am turning 40 soon—is it too late to get started in the biz?
Scott Conant: It is never too late to follow a dream.

Question: Hello Scott, with all your other TV endeavors how often are you in your kitchens if at all? I was a Johnson & Wales grad with several years in the biz. With all your years in the kitchen how were you able to maintain your passion while paying your dues. I find that now that it's no longer a career, my passion for food has come back.
Scott Conant: I am lucky I guess. I started when I was 15 and it all still fires me up. I have fun every day. I am very serious about what I do, but I never take myself too seriously.

Eating Habits

Question: OK...Seriously, how many days a week do you eat pasta?
Scott Conant: I eat pasta everyday, or at least taste it. I need to spend more time at the gym as a result. :)
Question: Oh, don't worry! When your baby girl starts walking that will be all the cardio you need!! My daughter is 4 and she loves to cook with me. It's so awesome.
Scott Conant: I look forward to that for a lot of reasons.

Question: Scott, what is it with you and red onions?
Scott Conant: The whole point I was trying to make was that IF these [Chopped] contestants are trying to develop nuance and flavor out of food, then they need to develop flavors. By putting raw onions on top of a dish and creating a singular flavor profile that overpowers other components on a dish—that is NOT good cooking. I want the best for those cooks and chefs. That's why I tell them what I tell them. Remember, there is a lot of editing that happens and not everyone sees the whole of the conversations. Btw, on a sesame bagel with cream cheese and fresh tomato, I love a small slice of red onion—raw!

Question: What would your last meal be? What is in your refrigerator?
Scott Conant: I am working 16–18 hour days... I have NOTHING in my home refrigerator. [My] last meal would probably be fried chicken, really good fried chicken.

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