The Frugal Foodie: The Oval Room’s Tony Conte

A rollercoaster economy doesn’t mean giving up on good food. One local chef proves it by whipping up dinner for four for less than a ten-spot.

Tony Conte is grilling me. Quiet in demeanor and hands casually shoved deep in his jeans pockets, it’s not an intense, spotlight-in-the-eyes kind of interrogation, but he’s firing off questions at a rapid pace.

“Do you have a high-pressure cooker?” No.

“A food mill?” No.

“What do you have?” A pretty basic kitchen, with an assortment of pots and pans I’m slightly embarrassed about. Oh, and my blender is broken.


“I have a crockpot,” I offer up weakly.

For this inaugural Frugal Foodie column, I’ve asked Conte to cook dinner for four for under $10. Every other week, we’ll challenge an area chef to cook on a budget, whether it’s a French-themed dinner for two for under $10 or a Thanksgiving feast for four for under $25. Items typically found in the pantry—sugar, flour, olive oil—don’t count in the chef’s budget.

Conte circles the produce section of Harris Teeter, contemplating his options. He stops in front of a pile of Buddha’s Hand and starfruit and peppers me with more questions.

“Is butter a pantry item?” Yes.

“Eggs?” A couple of eggs, yes. A dozen eggs, no.

“Spices?” Salt, pepper, your average dried spices, yes. Anything a little unusual or fresh herbs, no.

We circle the produce section one more time and then, without picking anything up, head toward the meat aisle. Conte studies the options and finally picks up a pack of four large chicken legs. He heads back toward the veggies, grabbing a package of carrots, four Yukon Gold potatoes, and a fresh bunch of rosemary. We check out, and the bill rings up at $9.44.

At the Oval Room, Conte serves up striped bass with toasted-almond-and-licorice dressing ($25), carmelized strip steak with passion fruit mustard ($32), and other creatively flavored dishes befitting his training at the four-star Jean-Georges in New York. In my kitchen, he prepares a simple meal of roast chicken and potatoes with carmelized carrots. He is meticulous, methodical, and neat.

“Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] would be proud,” says Conte as he arranges the chicken over a bed of cubed potatoes, and he tells me how his mentor made this exact meal for the staff one day.

When I asked him if this was harder than expected, he told me that as a chef it was difficult to check his ego, to not be elaborate in showing readers what he can do. “You have to be okay with doing chicken or something more basic,” he said.

If a simple, well-prepared roast chicken is good enough for Jean-Georges’s staff meal, then it’s good enough for me.

Roasted Chicken & Potatoes
Serves 4

4 Yukon Gold potatoes
4 chicken legs
Pack of fresh rosemary
Olive oil, as needed
Butter, as needed

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Peel potatoes. Rinse and pat dry. Cut into cubes. Place in bottom of roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and a few whole sprigs of rosemary.
Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place on top of potatoes.
Bake for a half-hour, basting occasionally with its own juices. Place a pat of butter on top of each piece of chicken. Bake until done – about 10 to 15 minutes more.

Caramelized Carrots

Serves 4

1  pound carrots
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons butter
1 sprig rosemary, minced
1 cup water

Peel and roughly chop carrots. Combine all ingredients in saucepan. Add cup of water and simmer over medium-high heat, covered, until tender and glazed.


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