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Celebrity Chef Scott Conant Kicks Off Greenwich Wine & Food Fest

Fun fact: The Ponte, a chic and contemporary new Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, draws inspiration from Waterbury. Yes, Connecticut.

Confused? Here's the connection: Restaurateur and James Beard award-winning chef Scott Conant was born in Waterbury, raised in Oakville, and graduated from the Kaynor Technical High School culinary arts program. He named the eatery after the community of people from Pontelandolfo, Italy, (including his grandparents) that settled in his hometown.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's the foundation of who I am, my personality ... and also, from a hospitality perspective," he says in a recent phone interview. "I remember the way my aunts and cousins and grandmother and everyone would treat company when they came to the house, the way everyone embraced the idea of guests. That's a similar approach that I always want to take into the restaurants, where people leave happier than when they walked in the door."

"Chopped" fans know Conant as a mainstay celebrity judge on the Food Network competition show, with a specialty in sophisticated Italian fare. He's had a busy 2017 so far, opening three restaurants: Mora Italian, an osteria in Phoenix, and The Ponte, both debuted in February, followed by New York's Fusco in April. In September, Conant returns to his home state for the Greenwich Wine & Food Festival, where he'll be honored at a special Master Chef wine dinner on Sept. 22.

Q: Your Connecticut roots are deep. Do you have any favorite hometown foods or restaurants?

A: There are a few favorites that I love. La Tavola, with a guy [chef Nicola Mancini] that I went to high school with, and later to [Culinary Institute of America] as well. Nardelli's for grinders is one of my all-time favorite things. I love those damn things. I'm definitely an Italian grinder guy … I love those, seriously, I could eat it every day if I could, if my weight wasn't an issue. And also, Frankie's [Hot Dogs]. We used to hang out there in high school. That's good stuff.

Q: Pasta is your specialty, and critics have referred to your pasta pomodoro in particular as "pure Mediterranean bliss." How long did it take you to perfect that signature dish?

A: [Laughs] I'll take that [compliment.] That's a derivative of a dish we used to do at San Domenico in New York in 1989, 1990. I've tweaked it, changed it, kind of used that as a base. … It's interesting because I went to Beneveneto [Italy] and I would say that it's probably the closest dish that I've had to my own dish. I guess it goes back to my DNA makeup, I'm assuming.

Q: What was it that drove you to pasta as sort of your specialty?

A: It's funny, the way those things work, right? I don't feel like pasta is my specialty. I feel like I make good pasta but I think more than anything, I'm a good cook. But I don't do traditional pastas in the sense of region to region, carbonara … all that stuff. That's not what I do. Frankly, it's not that interesting to me. So I make up stuff as I go along and I have fun, and I like to think that I have a level of creativity in some of my stuff. But I think you get stuck sometimes, people like the pasta that I cook, and I'm kind of stuck as the pasta guy now. I've been called worse. (laughs.)

Q: This is your first time attending the Greenwich Wine & Food Festival. What do you like about culinary events like these?

A: The fun thing for me, about these festivals in general, is getting the opportunity to meet the people who, number one, watch us on the shows and maybe go to our restaurants, who are — I'm hesitant to use the word fans, because it's a bit pretentious, but people who like us.

Q: Are there other chefs you look up to and admire as pillars of the industry? Anyone up and coming you want to recognize?

A: Oh my God, so many. Nina Compton, used to work with me a couple years ago, she's in New Orleans and she opened a restaurant called Compère Lapin. I just really love what she's doing. Evan Funke, now he's a guy who I think is a pasta master. He has a restaurant called Felix in Venice, in Los Angeles. I'm actually doing a collaborative dinner with both of them, different nights, at Fusco in New York City. I just have so much respect for them and for what they're doing. I feel like in New York, not a lot of people know what they're doing, so the intention for me is to kind of showcase them at Fusco to celebrate their talent and bring them to the forefront in NYC, because I think they're really, really talented individuals.

Q: After opening three restaurants in a matter of months, what's in the works for the future? Any short- or long-term projects you can talk about?

A: I have a whole bunch of projects I'm working on. I'm working on a Catskills project coming up first quarter of next year, it's going to be a steakhouse in Resorts World, a big casino they're building up there. I'm excited about that. I just signed a deal to do something in Frisco, Texas, outside of Dallas, also. We're still shooting "Chopped"; that's going on. We just got picked up for a few more seasons there. I'm super, super busy. And also, maintaining the three that I just opened. It's rather hectic.

THE GREENWICH WINE & FOOD FESTIVAL at the waterfront Roger Sherman Baldwin Park Sept. 22 and 23 kicks off with a Master Chef wine dinner honoring Scott Conant Friday at 7 p.m.; tickets are $325. Saturday's events feature a grand tasting from noon to 5 p.m. with samplings from more than 150 food and beverage vendors, along with celebrity chef appearances, cookbook signings, seminars, a burger battle and specialty food demonstrations. The festival will close with musical performances by the Ian Murray Band and Train. General admission tickets for Saturday are $155; VIP options are $385 to $625.

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