When Manhattan chef Scott Conant makes Christmas dinner, the menu honors his mother's Italian background—but also his father's New England heritage and his wife's Turkish roots. Oh, and there's a Dominican-inspired cake, too.
Scott Conant is the chef-owner of several outstanding Italian restaurants (notably New York City's Scarpetta and Faustina) and the host of the Food Network show 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. But at Christmas, he's just a cook. "During the holidays, I slave over the hot stove at home," he says. "Despite my ambition and my desperate attempts to be successful, I crave a very simple life." Greeting guests at their annual holiday dinner in Manhattan is Conant's Turkish-American wife, Meltem, with a plate of cheese and black-pepper breadsticks balanced on one arm and, in the other, little Ayla Sophia Reina Conant bundled up in a blanket.
If he wanted to, Conant could lay claim to the iconic New England scene that occupies the American imagination—all floral aprons, chimney smoke against a vivid blue sky and American flags fluttering in the cold air. "My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Roger Conant founded Salem, Massachusetts," he explains, then adds wryly, "It's been downhill ever since." Conant grew up in Connecticut, "on the border between Yankees and Red Sox territory—I was on the Yankees side," but during the holidays, the family visited his father's relatives at their farm in Maine. "It was very Norman Rockwell, with mincemeat pie." Then they'd head back to Connecticut to his mother's family, the Varrones, who emigrated from Italy just before World War II. "Christmas there meant Italian-American classics," Conant says. "A huge antipasto plate with meats and cheeses, soup like stracciatella, homemade cavatelli—which they called 'macaroni'—and of course, braised pork."
© Petrina Tinslay
This year, Conant's main course is a tribute to both his New England and Italian roots: a slow-cooked pork loin glazed with molasses (a New England staple) and balsamic vinegar. "I am in a really porky mood," Conant chuckles: In addition to the pork loin, there's pancetta lurking in the sautéed brussels sprouts with sun-dried tomatoes and scattered on the Bibb salad tossed with a warm root-vegetable vinaigrette. While Conant bastes the pork loin, he cracks joke after joke. "I'm the biggest clown in my restaurants," he says, "but never at the expense of a customer."
Other dishes on the menu are Turkish-inspired, in honor of Meltem. Conant recalls the first time he visited Meltem's mother in her hometown of Zonguldak, east of Istanbul, and experienced the food there. "The flavors were different from any I'd ever had before. They blew me away." He re-creates some of them in a silky potato soup topped with shrimp tossed in Turkish red-pepper paste and an eggplant börek—a flaky vegetarian phyllo pie filled with eggplant, tomatoes and green peppers—that takes the place of the pasta course he would normally serve. "The börek is exactly Meltem's recipe. She made it for me when we were dating, and it was one of the things that won me over."
© Petrina Tinslay
Roger Conant might also be surprised by the dessert his great-great-great-great-great-grandson serves at Christmas: a satiny white Dominican cake layered with dulce de leche. "When we have parties, we always get a Dominican cake from the Bronx or Washington Heights," Conant says. This year, he made his own version, folding the Italian hazelnut liqueur Frangelico into the dulce de leche filling. "It's kind of like the rum-soaked sponge cake at Ferrara's I ate growing up," he says, referring to the iconic bakery in Manhattan's Little Italy.
Clearly, Scott feels no need to hew too closely to Conant family tradition. "I grew up Catholic, but I lean more toward Buddhism," he says. "My wife grew up Muslim, but she's studied a lot of Kabbalah. We have a lot of friends who are Jewish and Christian and Muslim." When it comes to Christmas, "We're starting our own traditions," he says. "Hopefully they will continue to evolve."
Video: Watch Scott Conant Demonstrate Cooking Techniques for These Recipes
Bibb Lettuce with Warm Vegetable Vinaigrette: Crisping Pancetta
Bibb Lettuce with Warm Vegetable Vinaigrette: Cutting Squash
Potato Soup with Spicy Shrimp: Deveining Shrimp
Scott Conant's Christmas Dinner:
3 Superfast Hors d'Oeuvres
Liverwurst Toasts: Spread liverwurst on rye toasts and top with store-bought onion jam.
Smoked-Fish Canapés: Top sturdy ruffle-cut potato chips with a dollop of horseradish sour cream and pieces of smoked trout or salmon.
Marinated-Artichoke Spread: Chop fresh herbs with oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes and marinated artichokes, then mix them into cream cheese. Serve on crackers or with pita chips.