He's worked in kitchens for three decades. He's gotten rave reviews from the New York Times. His Manhattan eatery, L'Impero, won a James Beard Award for best restaurant. You've very likely watched Conant in action, because he's been a judge on Chopped, Top Chef, and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. He's traded cooking techniques with Anthony Bourdain for an audience of millions.
In one of the most competitive restaurant scenes in the world, Conant was on fire.
But at 45, Conant says, he needed a change of pace. Not long ago, he met Stefano Fabbri, owner of Pomo Pizzeria Neapolitano. They hit it off and decided to start a restaurant together in midtown Phoenix. Conant really embraced the Valley — he swiftly bought a house in Phoenix and moved his family west. Now he lives with his wife and two daughters, and a pool.
Earlier this month, Conant and Fabbri opened Mora Italian, an "upscale-but-fun" restaurant on Seventh Street. The menu is something to behold: The Connecticut native started cooking as a teenager, and he takes inspiration from his Italian-American upbringing. But as Conant is quick to clarify, he doesn't do "traditional" Italian fare. He mixes and matches different ingredients from different parts of Italy, creating a style all his own.
You could’ve just opened a restaurant in Arizona and gone back to New York, but you ended up moving to Phoenix. What prompted the move?
I needed a change from New York. I needed to spend a little more time with my kids, with my family, just be able to check out. I still have an apartment in New York, and I have businesses there. But three months after I got here, I lost 40 points to my blood pressure. I can start to appreciate life a little bit more.
How did you meet Stefano Fabbri?
We met through a mutual friend. They were going to do Mora as a Pomo. He said, “I want to do a regular restaurant, but I’m a pizza guy. I want a chef with a little bit of pedigree. Someone who can help us create something really special.” After the first meeting, we looked at each other and said, “We might have something here.”
What did you originally envision for Mora?
The vision is pretty simple – just to make customers happy. It’s an upbeat space. It’s a large restaurant with a lot of seats. There’s a sense of conviviality. There are rustic tones and layers of colors. There’s a street-art-inspired wall. You can be serious [about the experience], but the place is not.
What I often hear from Italian chefs is that it isn’t just about making food; it’s a way of being.
It’s definitely a lifestyle. This isn’t what I do for a living. This is who I am. Even the way I cook at home, it’s the same style I cook here. It’s in the DNA of growing up in an Italian family. There’s the appreciation of life. That’s the goal.
I read that you spent some time learning to make pastries in Munich, Germany. Did that have an effect on your work?
It was a really interesting time. I was there just after the wall had come down, so there were a lot of people moving around. There were a lot of people from East Germany who didn’t know what a pineapple was. On the other side of the coin, from the food perspective, Munich is so centrally located, I got to see France and Italy and Czech Republic every chance I got. And I still draw from that experience. Like, there’s such a deep tradition of pork. I got to know pork very well. It’s nice to be able to use those culinary experiences and extend your culinary vocabulary.
How did you get into television? Is that something you aspired to, or did you get a phone call?
Just from a business perspective, if you take television as an advertising mechanism, it fills the seats. It’s a great way to create a balanced business. Until the internet figures itself out, television really is the perfect vehicle for that. And that’s what it was designed for. I always considered myself a cook. I’m a chef’s chef. I’ve been cooking for over 30 years. I wanted to stay in the kitchen. But television became something a little bit different. When I got the call, I thought, “I’m gonna take the leap.” As I look at those earlier seasons, I see I was a little uncomfortable.
When you’re on camera, do you have a persona? Or is your TV personality pretty much the same as the real you?
(Laughs) I was talking to a marketing guy today, a really good friend of mine. I said, “There seems to be this idea that I’m very firm, and kind of a dick.” But when people meet me, they’re like, “You’re really nice.” I always say I’m the victim of a tough edit. It’s not that I don’t have those things in my personality, but really I’m fun and gregarious. In certain shows I come across as a little bit firm, but I’m also very fair.
It's safe to say the dining scene here is very different from New York's. How have people been responding to Mora?
The major difference is that people want to be here and they want to enjoy themselves. In other markets, people sometimes come just because they want to check it out. So far, the reaction has been extremely positive. It’s not perfect. But the goal is to make the customer doesn’t necessarily experience [the negative parts]. You’re jumping through a lot of hoops, internally. We were open a week, and people had already been here four times.
It sounds like you’re still really busy.
That’s right. At the end of the month, I’ll have seven restaurants. I actually just got back from LA. I spent three weeks in K Town. I’m back in New York the week after next. As I told my agent, I came to Phoenix because I wanted a moment to exhale, but I’m not here to retire.
For more information about Mora Italian, visit the restaurant's website.