A young gun woos the old guard
INTERVIEW BY PAULA DETWILLER
Two lively restaurants—Buccan and Imoto—sit side-by-side in the heart of Palm Beach. Both are owned and run by 39-year-old chef Clay Conley, a Maine native with international culinary experience. Conley is the former executive chef at Azul, the critically acclaimed restaurant at the Miami Mandarin Oriental hotel. Before that he worked with celebrity chef Todd English as culinary director for English’s Olives Group, overseeing 18 restaurants around the world.
Both Buccan (Caribbean for a type of wooden grill) and Imoto (Japanese for “little sister”) feature small plates with big flavors. Conley’s success in Palm Beach is evidenced by James Beard Award nominations, in 2012 and 2013, for Best Chef: South. With a cooking style described as “progressive American,” Conley loves to contrast tastes, textures, and temperatures with an emphasis on local and/or sustainably produced foods, as we discovered in this recent interview.
Edible Palm Beach: You grew up in rural Maine, tending your family’s orchard and livestock. How did that experience shape you into the chef you are today?
Chef Conley: It gave me a respect for ingredients—where they come from, how they’re produced—and also a respect for the seasons. You know, trying to use food that’s in season and available to you. That’s challenging sometimes in Florida, especially in summer.
We do use scallops and crab and lobster from Maine. I’m snobby about that kind of stuff.
I love the gold crabs from the Florida Keys, but you can only buy them whole—not ready to use. We go through 40 to 50 pounds of crabmeat a week, so using the gold crabs would be too labor intensive. But instead of using that lump crab from Indonesia like other restaurants do, I find the Maine crab. It’s got different names: Peekytoe, rock crab, or Jonah crab. We use it in our California rolls at the sushi bar, for crab cakes, and to stuff fish with.
EPB: You lived and worked in Tokyo for a time. What knowledge did you gain in Asia that you are now applying at Buccan and Imoto?
CC: Yes, I was there in 2003 working for Todd English. He asked me to open up an Olives restaurant in Roppongi Hills, a huge mixed-use development in Tokyo that has 60 restaurants and 200 stores.
It goes back to ingredients, always. The Japanese just have such respect for every ingredient. They don’t eat anything that’s not in season—and there’s actually a word in Japanese that means eating something at its prime. That’s what impressed me most about this culture: the average guy knows when he should be eating this or that.
I learned a lot in the restaurant watching the locals make “family meal” every day. They made nikujaga, a meat and potatoes dish, using all the scraps from the beef. We also used Japanese cooking techniques with Mediterranean ingredients, and vice-versa (since Olives is a Mediterranean restaurant). So I learned how to change things up, which I do a lot these days.
EPB: Tell us about your personal commitment to using local foods.
CC: We use as much as we can—and when we can’t get something locally, we’ll look for a sustainable supplier. Right now on the menu we have strip steak from Meyer Natural Angus Beef and chicken from Murray’s Family Farmed, Naturally Raised Chicken. I just think it tastes better. I’m a firm believer that you can tell if an animal was happy when you eat it.
EPB: What native South Florida foods do you like to work with?
CC: We like the local fish—in fact, we’re getting ready to put on the menu a Florida bouillabaisse made with pink shrimp, Venus clams, and some kind of local squid. We buy our tupelo honey at the West Palm Beach GreenMarket. We buy all kinds of local produce, including Heirloom tomatoes and kale from Swank Farms and Green Cay Farms. And, with the help of our new chef de cuisine, we just made a huge batch of green strawberry chowchow. That’s a sweet-sour relish made with green strawberries from Florida. We’ll serve it with a pork belly dish.