Chef Clay Conley
You’ve Come A Long Way Baby!
By Robin Jay
It seems like just yesterday. Nearly six years ago, Chef Clay Conley was the spotlight of the very first celebrity chef profile in the very first issue of South Florida Opulence. Since 2005, he had been Miami’s culinary darling at the helm of the Miami Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Azul. Conley and his wife Averill attended our inaugural Mega Yacht Gala on Fisher Island, where he wowed guests with a cooking performance. All were in awe to be up-close-and-personal with the chef who, not long prior, was the culinary director of 18 global restaurants under another super-uber celebrity chef, Todd English.
It seemed for Chef Conley, everything he touched turned to gold. No wonder Fall 2010 headlines shocked local food critics: Their beloved Chef Clay Conley was departing Miami and heading to Palm Beach. “What could he be thinking?” his Magic-City fans wondered. Would Palm Beach accept such a forward-thinking culinary whiz kid?
Certainly. Today, Conley is at the forefront of a culinary revolution in Palm Beach. With Averill by his side, Conley now has deep community roots – with two beautiful small children and ownership of four booming restaurants: His flagship, a ‘New American’ grill called Būccan; as well as Asia-inspired Imoto; the gourmet to-go Sandwich Shop at Būccan; and the recently opened
Italian restaurant in West Palm Beach: Grato.
But that’s not all the big news since we first told you about Clay Conley. In 2012, his small-plate, big-flavor concept earned him a nomination of Best Chef: South 2012 from the James Beard Foundation. South Florida Opulence met up with Clay and Averill
at Grato in January, just 18 days after their public opening. Already, the novel venue was packed to capacity. We asked Conley to walk us through the chronology of his four restaurant ventures.
First There Was Būccan
“Even back when I worked with Todd English, I always knew I wanted to open a place like Būccan,” said Conley. “New American is a broad term that allows us to cook dishes inspired by all parts of the world. I love not being pigeonholed into one certain style of cuisine. My partners Sam Slattery, Piper Quinn and I actually tried to open Būccan in Miami, but for a number of reasons it didn’t work out. Piper, who lives in Palm Beach, asked me to come up and see a space, and it ended up being the right fit. So we left Miami – and the rest, as they say, is history. Piper is a Palm Beach local, so that made things easier for us to be ‘accepted’ initially, and then once people came in, they enjoyed the casual feel to the place. The small plates concept, and the idea of sharing dishes, was something new to the island, too, but this sort of informal dining encourages camaraderie.”
Then Came Imoto
In February 2012, Clay opened Imoto, which means ‘little sister’ in Japanese. This was an intimate expansion of Būccan, offering his interpretation of traditional Asian favorites, inspired when he worked at a Todd English restaurant in Tokyo. At Imoto, you’ll find fresh sushi and sashimi, unique dumplings and tempura and creative wood-fired dishes — all prepared with the best ingredients found locally and around the world.
Sandwich Shop at Būccan
The second expansion of Conley’s flagship venue resulted in the Sandwich Shop at Būccan. “I had always wanted to open a sandwich shop (on the beach!),” Clay said. “The keys to a good sandwich for me are
1.The bread. We make baguette and brioche daily. 2. The meats, which we brine, smoke, sous vide, etc. And 3. The balance. I love acid and vinegar on all my sandwiches. The beef carpaccio sandwich with balsamic and crispy onions is my favorite.”
“Grato means grateful in Italian, and that is really the way we all feel. We have been blessed by the positive response to our restaurants and are very grateful for the business we have established,” Clay said. “Also, all the partners have had babies over the past year and we are all grateful for that, as well. I have always loved cooking over wood, and at Grato, we have a massive brick oven, grill and rotisserie. Making pizza and experimenting with pasta dough is fun.”
Clay and Averill recently celebrated another milestone: their 15th wedding anniversary.
“Clay is a great dad,” Averill said. “He helps make school lunches for Micaela and does the dishes on occasion, ha! I love watching how excited and proud Micaela gets when she has a hand in making food for the family. She always wants to ‘save some for Daddy.’ It’s really cute.”
Būccan: 350 S. County Road, Palm Beach. 561-833-3450, www. buccanpalmbeach.com.
The Sandwich Shop at Būccan: Adjacent to Būccan on Australian Avenue. Open from 11 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. 561.833.6295. Imoto: Adjacent to Būccan. 561.833.5522. Grato: 1901 South Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. 561-404-1334. www. gratowpb.com.