Monday, June 1, 2009

Scarpetta Chef Scott Conant Diagnosed with Spaghetti Brain

I think I’m just about ready to open up my own psychology practice. My credentials are impeccable. Not only did I minor in psychology while in college, but I’ve been dating a psychologist, and I used to watch the Dog Whisperer.

Believe it or not, there are some naysayers. To see if I’m really ready, lately I’ve been on the lookout for unusual people to analyze, and this past weekend in New York, I found a gem. His name is Scott Conant, and he is one of Food and Wine’s ten best new chefs in the country and winner of the prestigious James Beard Award. Conant currently runs the kitchen at Scarpetta in a Greek revival townhouse on the edge of the Meatpacking District. It was at Scarpetta this past weekend that I tried Conant’s spaghetti with tomato and basil, and, within the first few bites, I knew that he would be my Anna O.

The spaghetti dish is, as Chef Conant says, “simple.” The noodles, served in an elegant, molded heap, have rough-cut edges and coarse-textured surfaces, perhaps to prove that they’re made on the premises. They absorb Conant’s long-cooked tomato sauce to their cores. The sauce has the pale orange hue of parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and is piqued with thinly cut, fresh basil and crushed red pepper.

In other words, spaghetti and tomato sauce. The ingredients are as uncomplicated as the soil-tilling Italian peasants who came up with the dish hundreds of years ago. Uncomplicated, yet it’s considered one of the best plates in the City.

With innovators like Jose Andres running around saying things like, “Traditional cuisine that does not evolve will disappear,” how do you explain an old-school oddball like Scott Conant? Hasn’t this guy read the rave reviews for Mario Batali’s spaghetti on a stick and Japan’s spaghetti sandwich? Does Conant belong on a food farm or the funny farm?

To find out which, and to prove to the District of Columbia Board of Psychology that I’m ready for professional licensure, here’s my analysis of Scott C. Just to show I mean business, I’m basing my examination on the major schools of psychology.


Cognitive psychologists study mental processes, including how people remember.

Scott C. doesn’t need his scrap books. He remembers just by cooking. When he hand-mixes a heap of flour to make spaghetti, his mind plays movies from his childhood that star him and his grandmother cooking in a small town outside of Benevento, Italy. His fingers move in synch. “One of my first pasta memories is watching my grandmother make cavatelli and orecchiette from scratch on a big wooden board,” he says. He adds that his biggest influence wasn’t the Culinary Institute of America or his internship as a teenager at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. It was his nonna.

Is the frequency of these memories simply the inevitable imprint of Conant’s extraordinary food experiences growing up? Or are they actually part of an adaptive, cognitive strategy that he’s developed over the years? The psychologist in me says that Conant plays back these memories of tradition to remind himself how to cook well, even when he’s bombarded with all the flimsy trends around him like spaghetti on a stick. Frank Bruni certainly thinks the strategy paid off; he gave Scarpetta a three-star review last year. Who says psychology never helped anyone.


Humanistic psychology focuses on individual free will, personal growth, and self-actualization.

Just because Scott C.’s grandma showed him the pasta ropes early on doesn’t mean he had it all figured out as an eight-year old. You don’t get to be a guest judge on Top Chef without losing a few personal quick-fire challenges first.

I like New York Magazine’s description of this growing process. They compare the development of world-class chefs to world-class prophets. “Like prophets, chefs sometimes disappear for periods of time to wander introspectively in the desert.” For Conant, that meant abruptly quitting gigs at midtown Italian restaurants Alto and L’Impero and wandering for a year in the wilderness. The prophet analogy breaks down a bit when you learn that he spent his year away from the restaurant business in the Hamptons. If Moses helped the Israelites to salvation by finding water in the desert, maybe Conant saved himself from the Hamptons by stumbling upon a wine tasting at Wolffer Estates.

And, like Moses in the desert, it seems Conant also saw a vision of God while he was at the Hamptons – Tom Colicchio, whose casual, inviting style he borrowed for his new restaurant, Scarpetta, when he came back from his cooking hiatus. Whereas L’Impero was stuffy and filled with tuxedoed waiters and opulent menus, the dining room at Scarpetta is spacious and colored in muted, earthy tones.

Maslow said that one of the final phases before self-actualization is the need for symmetry, order and beauty. With Conant’s improved sense of style and aesthetics at Scarpetta, he appears to be on his way.


Gestalt psychology is based on the idea that we experience things as unified wholes. Reality is organized in the simplest form possible.

When Conant reads this post and calls begging for more insights, I’ll provide a full battery of psychological tests, but one that I’ll skip is the inkblot. It would be pointless. Whereas more eccentric chefs like Batali would probably see a bunch of complex images (orange crocs with ponytails?), Scott C. strikes me as the type of guy who would only see the blot. Blots are blots, just like spaghetti is spaghetti.

“I love a simple spaghetti,” Conant explains. “It holds so much potential. Just let it be, and it’s already great. Less is more. Pasta is my favorite thing to cook.”

According to a 2007 article in the Times, the Italians who perfected spaghetti in the 18th century shared Conant’s instinct for simplicity. Their red sauces occasionally included meat, but they were often just tomato and basil. Today, Italian families in America add ingredients like oregano that would be alien to their ancestors. Kim Severson explains, “This is a cuisine of adaptation, of nostalgia, of comfort. By overemphasizing some of the seasonings Italian immigrants brought from home, they could more easily conjure it up.”


To this point, I’ve described a stable guy with a healthy exuberance for making some of the finest spaghetti in the world. But now it's time for Conant’s dark side.

Behaviorists describe punishment as a consequence that causes a behavior to occur less frequently. And Conant’s most punishing experiences have come at the hands of Italian chefs. Conant is only half-Italian, and the pure-breeds judge his cuisine harshly. Asked to describe his most humbling moment, he said, “I’ve had so many. They usually involve an Italian standing over me saying ‘You stupid American.’”

As Pavlov would have predicted given this mistreatment, these days Conant isn't about to give Italian chefs any love. This was an unfortunate reality for Top Chef contestant Fabio Viviani, nicknamed the Italian Stallion, when Conant appeared as a guest judge. Conant’s anger was palpable as I watched him through the two-way mirror at my psychology lab / television screen, and I vigorously scribbled down the following exchange in my log book:

Conant: What matters is what is on the plate.
Fabio: I understand.
Conant, wagging his finger: Do you understand?
Fabio: I do.
Conant, still wagging his finger: I don’t know if you understand that. The greens you provided were wilted. The cheese that you put with those greens with no acid on them …
Fabio: Acid with cheese, chef? Please. You have an Italian restaurant.
Conant: Excuse me. Excuse me. [Puts his hand up.] Take it easy. I’m the judge here. Not you. Relax. It didn’t work. You failed at making a perfect dish. You failed. That’s not our fault. That’s your fault.

Conant said later, “I really think Fabio was capable of far more. That’s why I was a little tough on him.” Or was it because Fabio is Italian? Is there anything sweeter than punishing the punisher?


This school of thought emphasizes the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior, and Freud would have a field day with Conant. Isn’t all of Conant’s dedication to traditional Italian cuisine really driven by his unconscious desire to convince Italian chefs that, despite his genetic limitations, he’s as Italian as they are? I also think Freud might have a theory to explain why Conant rejected the cuisine of his father’s American ancestry - not going there.

Self Psychology

William Kohut described human empathy as a therapeutic skill. When a patient acts in a certain way, “put yourself in his/her shoes,” and find out how it feels for the patient to act in this way.

Following Kohut’s guidance, I found some of Conant’s recipes on the internet. By imitating his approach to cooking tomato and basil spaghetti, I would better understand my troubled patient. Maybe there was a slight conflict of interest in choosing this course of treatment: the prospect of eating four servings of the tastiest pasta on the planet. Dr. Marcy had not participated in the other treatments described above, but she thought her guidance would be crucial for this one.

You have a better chance of getting a treasure map from a pirate than a chef’s award-winning techniques, and Marcy and I were a little skeptical about how honestly Conant had recorded his recipe. When we had this dish at Scarpetta, we both attributed the richness of the sauce to excess butter, but Conant claimed to only throw in one tablespoon.

The rest of the ingredients, though, looked about right: a pound of high-quality spaghetti, 20 ripe plum tomatoes, a pinch of crushed red pepper, a tablespoon of parmesan, and fresh basil leaves.

How could we mess up anything so straightforward?

Ed Levine of Serious Eats has some thoughts on the matter: “[Conant’s spaghetti with tomato and basil] is one of those dishes that you swear you should be able to make at home, and yet you know you won’t be able to. His food is deceptively simple. Each dish calls for many steps deftly executed.”

Our first misstep was forgetting to buy a potato masher to mince the tomatoes as they cooked in the saucepan. Through some extreme mistreatment of my University of Maryland coffee mug, I managed to finely chop them, but when Scott Conant says mince, you mince.

I did remember to mix the spaghetti, which was nearly al dente at this point, with the sauce after it had simmered for exactly 45 minutes. I then turned my attention to a process that Conant calls “aeration,” which seems more aerobic than gastronomic. You toss the pasta “high above the pot” with “a lot of exaggerated movement” and “a pan-jerking motion.”
The technique is supposed to coat the pasta with the sauce; introduce a little air so the dish feels lighter and brighter; and make the chef look cool. Whether I achieved the first two goals is debatable, but I definitely fell short of the third. My exaggerated movement mostly consisted of losing my balance while attempting to twirl the heavy pan about like a lacrosse stick. Spaghetti noodles sprung boldly from the pan and gracefully bathed in the air, only to crash-land all over the stovetop.

To the surviving strands we added fresh basil, cheese and butter. We saved these ingredients for the very end of the cooking process so they wouldn’t be diluted by any further heat, and plated. The result wasn’t unsatisfying, but Bruni probably wouldn’t call it “pure Mediterranean bliss,” the description he chose for Conant’s cooking.

So maybe self psychology is harder than I thought. But next time, when Marcy isn’t looking, I’m secretly adding more butter. That way she’ll think it’s authentic and tasty. Maybe I know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Scott C., after all.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Maybe you should be the one taking the EPPP. Also, next time, you should try secretly adding more butters.

  3. I'm making this again Monday, this time with more butters. I'm also going to mince the tomatoes and double the red pepper flakes (I think last time we only used two teaspoons). Any other thoughts?

  4. More butters is good. More cheese and salt too.