(Originally published February 2, 2015 on Examiner.com)
NOTE: Since this article was written, Scarpetta in Beverly Hills has closed
“Freddy I have to tell you is one of the most talented people I have in my company and one of the most talented people I know. He runs a great kitchen. He’s an interesting balance that you don’t get very often with a chef that is super creative, constantly pushing himself to be better, and also really understands numbers, labor, food costs and things like that. He motivates and he’s firm, and that’s an interesting balance as a chef as well to be able to motivate your staff and be able to discipline them simultaneously. He’s a good Staten Island boy who is out here in LA knocking it out of the park every night.” Chef Scott Conant
How does a half Puerto Rican, half Ecuadorian “good Staten Island Boy” end up in LA and such an integral part of celebrity Chef Scott Conant‘s team plating modern Italian cuisine at Scarpetta in Beverly Hills? Growing up with Ecuadorian father, who loved to cook, and growing up in an Italian American community helped shape chef Freddy Vargas’s later culinary path. Cooking shows, especially those featuring Emeril Lagasse, also made an early and lasting impact on Vargas’s career.
With an Ecuadorian father, Freddy grew up eating dishes like arroz de pollo, ceviche, and Seco de pollo, a chicken stew with potatoes, carrots with lots of cilantro. Living on Staten Island, a New York City borough with a lot of Italian Americans, he used to eat at his friends’ houses too. Here he ate Americanized Italian food like baked ziti, and sausage and peppers. When Freddy was in 8th grade, he watched Emeril Lagasse’s “Essence of Emeril.” Vargas use to come home from school and watch Lagasse’s show every day. As a fourteen year old with braces, Freddy did his own cooking show that included an impersonation of Emeril complete with “bam” and “kick it up a notch” that his parents captured on video. Fortunately for Freddy, his parents never uploaded any of these videos to YouTube.
Despite these easy inspirations, Freddy spent his first two years at a college on Staten Island studying other subjects. After losing motivation, he then told his father he was enrolling in culinary school instead at what was then known as the New York Restaurant School and is now known as The Art Institute of New York. Initially Vargas signed up for the two year management program thinking he wanted to work in the front of the house, but shortly after enrolling he realized he loved being in the kitchen, so Freddy quickly changed his emphasis. After school, Vargas spent a year working in a hotel on Staten Island that did a lot of catering. A person he worked for at the hotel sent him to a country club also on Staten Island where he worked another six months under the direction of the chef at that time Robert Burke, David Burke’s brother. Chef Robert Burke helped Vargas get his next job in Chef David Burke’s “David Burke & Donatella” on the Upper East Side.
Vargas recalls working at David Burke & Donatella was really tough. He worked lunch and dinner, a twelve hour day, plus he had an hour and half commute each way so his entire work day was sixteen hours every day. However, despite the really long hours, Vargas recalls his time at Donatella fondly since it gave him a real sense of what it took to be a cook in New York City. David Burke & Donatella’s kitchen was constantly busy with a lot of volume and covers. Cooks also had a chef de cuisine constantly in their ear to let them know when there was room for improvement. Burke’s kitchen was ran by Chef Eric Hara. Vargas worked the fish station there most of the time as well as hot apps and the meat station. The kitchen was very small, very hot, and very demanding.
After a year at David Burke & Donatella, Vargas left Burke’s kitchen and went to work for Chef Floyd Cardozat Tabla, one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants that has since closed. Freddy fell in love with the food at Tabla. He was really amazed by all the spices that Chef Cardoz used. When you ate Chef Cardoz’s food you got a little bit of everything: acid, sweetness, and texture. Cardoz’s food really blew Vargas away. Economically working at Tabla was difficult. He went from working a lot of hours for Burke to a lot fewer hours at Tabla. He didn’t go to Tabla for more money, he went to Tabla to learn, but still Vargas after six months left this position. This was when a former sous chef he worked with at Donatello contacted Vargas to join Scott Conant at Scarpetta in August of 2008 not long after this original Scarpetta opened.
Vargas entered the original Scarpetta in NYC as a line cook working the meat station. Scott was in the kitchen. Scott also expedited. The restaurant located in the Meat packing District received three stars from the New York Times and was very popular. Later New York’s location had two chef de cuisine’s working at that time Michael Pirolo and Ryan Morrison. Vargas had worked with Morrison at David Burke & Donatella. The restaurant had two CDC in anticipation of opening up Scarpetta’s second location in Miami in December of 2010. Michael Pirolo was set to become Miami’s CDC.
When Pirolo went to Miami, he asked Scott if he could bring Vargas to help open up this new location. Scott agreed. So Vargas was off to Miami to help open up this new location. In Miami, Vargas was a sous chef. After seven months in Miami, Scott sat down with Chef Vargas and told him he wanted Vargas to move back to New York and be a chef there. At that time Scott Conant was planning on opening another new location in New York City called Faustino. So Chef Vargas went back to NYC during June of 2011 where he was the executive sous chef until Faustino opened in December of 2011. So that December, Chef Vargas took over control of the kitchen in NYC.
In October of 2011, Scarpetta in Beverly Hills opened. Chef Vargas came out for a week to LA to help with the opening. Whenever a new Scarpetta opens, all the chefs come and help for that first week. In January of 2012, Vargas came into work and Scott asked Vargas go to LA for another week. So Vargas came to LA for a week that January. He then went back to NYC for Super Bowl Sunday. The very next Monday after the Super Bowl Scott asked Vargas to go back to Los Angeles immediately on that Wednesday, and Chef Vargas has been at the Scarpetta in Beverly Hills ever since.
Chef Freddy Vargas almost quite literally lived in the kitchen when he arrived in Los Angeles to take over control of the kitchen at Scarpetta in the Montage Beverly Hills. He lived in a room at the Montage Hotel for his first two months on the job. He’d come down from his room before lunch, work all day, then after dinner would head back up to his room a few floors away. Those first few months were very demanding. A lot of work had to be done. Though these first few months also gave Vargas more experience, and knowledge as well as a different insight into what the restaurant business is all about. So during this time he had to stay extremely focused with his head down to make sure that what was then Scarpetta’s newest location was performing up to the level of Scott Conant’s existing locations.
By accomplishing this demanding job, Vargas further gained Conant’s trust and respect as an integral member of Conant’s team. Since Vargas has also worked with Conant for so long and fully understands Conant’s food philosophy for Scarpetta, Conant also gives Vargas a lot of opportunity to develop the non‐ signature menu items on the Beverly Hills location’s menu.
Despite Conant’s mother and grandmother being Italian, Vargas said that it was never Scott’s intention to replicate plates from Italy. Authenticity isn’t the concept. Scarpetta’s signature dishes‐ like the raw yellowtail or the braised short ribs‐ are not necessarily dishes found in Italy. Rather Scarpetta has a modern approach to Italian cooking that keeps the soulfulness of Italian food. So the food utilizes great ingredients with layers of simple flavors. Vargas reiterated for him “Italian food is best when there are a few ingredients with thoughtful layers of flavor.” The plating at Scarpetta also is simple and modern. Since Vargas notes, “we’re in a modern age, we have a more of a modern approach. Scott wants each restaurant to keep up with the trends. We’re not looking at plates that were done in the 1990’s. Scott always wants everything to be very contemporary. So, for example, we have a dish on the menu called smoked corn and lobster copeta. Copeta just means in a cup or a bowl so, basically it is lobster with some shrimp and corn on the bottom. We also clean the shrimp heads and deep fry them so they’re nice and crispy. We then put these fried heads in the robot coup with some bread crumbs. After letting the crumbs dry out, we pass them through a china cap strainer so we don’t get any of the long pieces of the head in the dish. This just adds another layer of shrimp flavor.”
Another recent dish on the menu, the pici with Santa Barbara spot prawns, ricci di mare and cherry tomatoes also used the robot coup’ed fried shrimp head with breadcrumbs to add flavor. Vargas loves using Santa Barbara spot prawns, as well as uni, because of their availability in this region. The prawns are always fresh, never frozen like the prawns he used to get on the East Coast. So he almost always has some sort of prawn dish on his menu. Plus this particular pici dish has spice elements that reflect some of the influence from Freddy’s time at Tabla working for Chef Floyd Cardoz. Vargas noted he’s picked up influences from all the places he has cooked that impact what he cooks today.
The pici pasta is made in house. Chef Vargas and his team make all of their own pasta in house. They don’t use an extruder. They instead use a regular pasta cutter. Vargas believes that Scarpetta has some of the best pasta dough in restaurants in LA. His dough uses double zero flour and semolina. They use a varying mixture of both in the dough depending on what type of pasta they’re making plus a lot of egg yolks.
In LA there’s a big interest in farms. Restaurant patrons are more knowledgeable about where their meat, fish and produce are from than restaurant patrons in New York City. New Yorkers aren’t necessarily this aware yet so sourcing isn’t as much of a focus there as it is here. In general though Chef Vargas notes that the biggest difference between restaurant patrons in NYC and LA is that in NYC patrons go out to dine whereas in LA patrons go out to eat. In NYC it’s more about the complete experience. Plus especially in regards to decor with Italian restaurants, for Vargas the other Italian restaurants he’s visited in LA tends to be more casual. There aren’t many Italian restaurants like Marea, Babbo and Locande Verde that have more of a fine dining feel. Scarpetta’s LA location being in a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills does have a much more upscale feel than most of the other Italian restaurants in the region.
One thing that Chef Vargas decided to import from NYC to LA is a New York sandwich. When Vargas visited his family in NYC this past January he said to himself that he needed to bring these East Coast style of sandwiches back to LA because they don’t have them out here. So back in January, he asked Scott for permission to do sandwiches at lunch time. Scott was completely on board with the idea. So they openedPaninoteca in May. Paninoteca serves some classic sandwiches like the “Chicken Parmigianino,” Porchetta, and “Grilled Eggplant” on its menu as well as frequent specials like the “Lonza.” All of the sandwiches are served on bread perfected and made in house. Lonza is usually cured pork loin so for this special sandwich, his team brined pork loins for about five days, then after taking them out of the brine, they let the loin sit in regular water to take excess salt out. Next they add a spice mix that includes cinnamon, paprika, and a little bit of cumin. This loin is then smoked for six hours and sliced to order really thin. Chef Vargas and his team also make their own sauerkraut, pickles and mustard. The inspiration for this particular sandwich was looking to Alto Adige Trentino region of Italy where there’s a big influence from Hungarian and German’s cuisines.
For this Lonza sandwich, like with other items on the bar and dinner menu, Chef Vargas does research on specific towns or regions in Italy to see what kinds of food are done there. At each Scarpetta it’s up to each chef to develop him or herself, So Chef Vargas reads a lot of cook books, travels when he can, and eats out a lot to see what other chefs are doing.
Chef Vargas noted, “Nothing we do is necessarily anything you’re going to find in Italy. Rather the food at Scarpetta in Los Angeles reflects the essence, simplicity and soul of Italian food. So that’s what I do to develop myself. I’m constantly changing things and working on things so I just understand how to cook.”
Though Chef Vargas is really happy with what his team has accomplished thus far at Scarpetta, Vargas still isn’t satisfied. For Chef Vargas there is always more work to be done. So he always preaches to his cooks that he wants Scarpetta at the Montage to be the best restaurant in Los Angeles.