Chef Clay Conley: Enjoying the flare of the flame

Chef Clay Conley: Enjoying the flare of the flame
Chef Clay Conley (Courtesy Photo)

Owner and Executive Chef Clay Conley has sparked a flare in Palm Beach County’s culinary scene with his fiery hot line of award-winning restaurants—Buccan, Imoto, The Sandwich Shop in Palm Beach, and Grato in West Palm Beach.

Conley has always known his way around the kitchen. At the age of 13, he started as a dish washer on his family’s farm in Maine. In his early 20s, he moved to Boston to work with culinary legendary, Chef Todd English. Ultimately, he served as the celebrity chef’s culinary director, overseeing 18 restaurants around the world.

A four-time semifinalist for a James Beard Award as a “Best Chef in America,” Chef Conley and his restaurants have been recognized in national and international publications including Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Travel + Leisure, NY Post, Conde Nast Traveler, Miami Herald, Complot, Boston Globe, Fodor’s, and USA Today.

Meeting the Chef. . .

Name: Clay Conley

Nickname: Clay More [His sous chefs named him Clay More because he’s known to give “more” than one-hundred percent effort in everything he does.]

Lives in: Lake Clarke Shores

Restaurant(s) affiliation and location: Chef and owner of Buccan, Imoto, The Sandwich Shop in Palm Beach, and Grato in West Palm Beach.

Hometown: Maine [At the age of 18, he moved to South Florida to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Clay was the last of the children in his parents’ house, so they too moved to Florida as they were tired of the winters in Maine.]

Years as a chef: 20

Trained with: Todd English.

Signature as a Chef: His love of fresh ingredients and full-flavored dishes.

His Secret:  “Just making food that he wants to eat.”

Culinary Credentials: Twenty years as an executive chef. First executive chef at the Bellagio, in 2001.  After his tenure as executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental. he relocated to Palm Beach County in 2011 to open his first chef-helmed venture, named Buccan. Conley’s success followed with Imoto, a Japanese/Asian concept. In 2016, he opened Grato, a high-quality neighborhood Italian restaurant in West Palm Beach— the type he’d want to frequent with friends and family.

Dishes he’s re-known for: Simple dishes with a bold, flavorful fare.

The Interview . . . 

How did you get started in the culinary world?
Chef CC: I was looking for a job and so I was looking for jobs to do. I worked on a farm before that and moved on to the restaurant business washing dishes, fell in love with it, and did it throughout high school and then college.

I trained with Todd English throughout my formative years. I worked with him for 10 years. He’s definitely the biggest influence in my career.

Did you go to culinary school?
Chef CC: No.  I was one of those kids who wanted to do a million things. School can teach you a little bit, but at the end of the day, cooking is a trade. You got to get in there and do it every day.

What dishes are you known for?
Chef CC: There are some dishes that have been on the menu for a long time, but I’m known for very bold, very rich flavor dishes, using a lot of acidity to counter-balance those rich, heavy flavors. Very bright and different textures and temperatures.  There’s a pop in my dishes. It sets off the rest of the stuff.

You spend a lot of time in the kitchen. What makes for a good working environment?
Chef CC: As I get older, I’ve realized that there needs to be a calm environment in the kitchen. Nobody yells here, there’s no screaming and throwing of stuff. It’s important to give your staff constant feedback, and set goals. They have to know what they need to be working towards and what they need to be working on, as supposed to the old days when the chef would yell at you and you didn’t know why. So, for us, it’s important that people are happy when they come to work. It should be a nice, enjoyable place to work.

What are the top tools every chef should have in their kitchens?
Chef CC: A big Microplane is big for us. We use a lot of citruses, parmesan cheese, high-speed, Vitamix blender is essential.  You can get really smooth purees with them. And of course, sharp Japanese steel knives are always a must.

What really inspires your culinary creations?
Chef CC: Many different things. I read a lot of cookbooks, I go out to eat a lot. Well, I used to go out to eat and travel a lot more before last year, of course. I like to visit many cities and go to the food farmers markets and check out what other chefs are doing, whether it’s a specific style of food or something completely different than we do here, or even if it’s the same, to see how they use the flame and how they prepare it. I think there’s always something that you can take from other chefs and from traveling and reading.  We once had a taco that was inspired by a Taco Bell commercial. It was a really cool taco that was crispy on the inside and soft on the outside—ours was a kind of an elevated version of that.

I like to check out what other chefs are doing, whether it’s a specific style food or something completely different than we do here, or even if it’s the same, to see how they use the flame and how they prepare it.

When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef?
Chef CC: When I first started working in a restaurant, maybe I didn’t know it at the time, but I really loved working in this industry—I loved the energy of a restaurant.  I washed the dishes as fast as I could so that I could go and cut mushrooms in the back and then run back and wash some more dishes. Something about learning new stuff and working in the kitchen really clicked with me.

So, all through high school, I was telling my parents that that’s what I wanted to do, but they really wanted me to go to college. And I did, but all through college I knew that’s really what I wanted to do.  I finally left Florida State, where I was in the hotel management program to pursue my culinary career. That’s when I moved to Boston to do that.  But as soon as I started working in restaurants I knew that’s what I really wanted to do.

What’s your signature dish?
Chef CC: These have been on our menu since we opened: The Steak Tartare, the short rib empanadas, the tuna crisp, the hot dog Panini, and some of the classics: the squig Panaquedi.

What’s your best dessert?
Chef CC: I’m not a great pastry chef, but we do have great creations inspired by childhood and local favorites like the key lime pie and a chocolate smores dessert. None of them are complicated. I like desserts to be very simple. Personally, I prefer fruit desserts, but we have a little bit of everything.

What’s your overall cooking philosophy?
Chef CC: It’s changed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve always been about the integrity of ingredients but when I was younger, I felt I had to put more on the plate—more components, more of everything. And perhaps there was insecurity there, but now I’m about simpler plates, simpler components, really let the ingredients shine.  I do a ton of wood fire cooking so now it’s super high-quality ingredients cooked over open fire, enjoying the flare of the flame, dress simpler and not so complicated.

I do a ton of wood fire cooking so now it’s super high-quality ingredients cooked over open fire, enjoying the flare of the flame, dress simpler and not so complicated. 

What makes you a unique chef compared to other chefs?
Chef CC: I don’t know.  I guess I pride myself on providing a great place to work; I care greatly about our staff and we like to have a family atmosphere. I hope that everybody that works here feels that if they ever need anything that they came come to me, or me and my partners.

Tell me about your restaurants.
Chef CC: I spend more of my time at Buccan in Palm Beach, just because my partner and I are there, next to The Sandwich Shop. The way that we eliminated stress, at least on my plate, is by not being afraid to spend the money and hiring very highly skilled and qualified people to assist us. I used to try to do everything myself and now we have really great chefs and sous chefs. This team has been cultivating over the past 11 years, is running now in such a way that if I need to step away, I can do so. Obviously, I still like to play with the menu, but it’s a peace of mind to know that if I’m not here, stuff is executed better than if I were there doing it myself.

How often do you participate in the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival?
Chef CC: This is our tenth year participating in it. We used to kick off the festival and close it at Buccan. But now, we kick it off on Thursday night. We’ve done that the past two years.

At the festival’s First Bite, which you are hosting with chef guests Billy Himmelrich, Tony Mantuano, Brandon McGlamery, and Marc Murphy from the Buccan kitchen, what should diners expect to see from the dishes you’re preparing?
Chef CC:
We will be bringing our innovative take on modern American cuisine. The four-course dinner is served family-style with wine pairings provided by Ridge Vineyard.

I haven’t finalized my dish but I usually let the guest chefs decide what they’re doing. Mark Murphy is going to do a snapper fish course, Tony Mantuano is doing the pasta for us, and I’m doing the first course. And I’m thinking . . .  since citrus is just starting to kick off, I’ll use tangerine or some sort of citrusy sauce.

Why do you think people are so into food festivals?
Chef CC: Now it’s a chance to get back out of a couple-year lockdown. But, why do people like the food and wine festival, most especially the one in Palm Beach, It’s just very intimate. If you’re a person who’s into food, you can go to the event and have a conversation with the chefs. There’s a lot of access for people who are into foods to come see some of these chefs. This year, there are a lot of good chefs. There are other festivals that are a lot bigger and you’re not going to have that ability to really meet and speak with the chefs. So, I think that’s what’s enticing about this one.

If you were to choose a dish to describe your personality, what would it be?
Chef CC: I don’t know. Wow! Now, that’s a hard question.

Would you share a technique you use when sourcing ingredients, cooking and prepping in your kitchen?
Chef CC: Always use fresh ingredients. There’s no substitute. Fresh ingredients have the power to highlight great elements in a dish.

Chef Clay Conley: Enjoying the flare of the flame