In just about a year and a half, Clay Conley has opened two restaurants and picked up a James Beard nomination for best chef in the south. Most importantly, we picked his Peking Duck Tacos as number one of our 100 favorite dishes. We decided to sit down with the award winning chef to have a chat.
Clean Plate Charlie: With just about a year and a half in Buccan. How has it changed since you first opened?
Clay Conley: Not a ton -- "if it ain't broke don't fix it!" [laughs]. Actually, we are always tweaking the food and I think I have a much better grasp on what people want.
Was it Būccan's success that prompted you to open Imoto? Or were you always planning for the concept?
The space became available next door and we initially planned to use it to expand the back-of-house areas and create private dining. But then we thought better use of the space would be to expand and enhance the Būccan concept. Asian-influenced cuisine had always been a part of the menu at Būccan; I am drawn to its bright, fresh flavor components. The idea of a menu focused on this appealed to me greatly.
Why Palm Beach?
After several places fell through in Miami, our business partner, Piper Quinn, suggested the location in which we now are. After visiting, we really liked the space and the town. Being a "neighborhood" restaurant was part of the concept, and considering the tight-knit community of the area and the number of high-frequency guests, it was the best decision we ever made.
Where did you grow up?
Limerick, Maine... about forty five minutes southwest of Portland.
When did you start cooking?
When I was a teenager. I went from dishwasher to prep cook. In a pizza joint. With my sister.
Well, you've definitely come a long way since then. We were told you lived in Japan for a while. How and why did you end up there?
My wife and I moved over there to open a restaurant for Todd English; it was a project that put us overseas for over seven months. It was also when I connected with my other business partner, Sam Slattery, who was Todd's director of Ops at the time. It was an incredible experience, both personally and professionally. The Japanese have a lot of integrity; especially when it comes to their cuisine.
We've heard they have a crazy restaurant scene over there. What were your favorite places to eat in Japan?
Daiwa sushi in the Tsukiju fish market. Sushi and beer at 5 am has to be my best memory. A noodle shop that served the richest pork tonkotsu ramen, and "ethnic" places--Korean barbecue, Chinese. The food was fantastic everywhere. We would pick up sushi from a convenience store!
What are your favorite things to eat in south Florida?
Café Boulud on Palm Beach--I love their brunch. Victoria's in Lantana, really good Peruvian food. Oriental Food Market on Dixie is awesome; it's a grocery store with one table in it; they serve great Thai food. Darbster--anything. Chez Jean Pierre on Palm Beach--anything. Souvlaki Grill in West Palm--octopus salad, spanakopita.
Do you have a favorite dish or two off either or your menus? Do you consider any to be your signature dish?
One of my favorite dishes at Būccan is the short rib empanada with salsa criolla and aji amarillo. This dish is the perfect balance of richness and acidity; and some heat. The velvety short rib and crunchy dough creates a great textural contrast. One of my favorites at Imoto is the Peking duck tacos with plum sauce and sesame carrots, for the same reason; balance and contrast.
Obviously we agree on the duck tacos. How did you come up with that idea?
The original idea for the duck tacos actually came from my partner, Piper. I knew I wanted to use confit duck instead of Peking-style duck and I knew I wanted to use some traditional Peking duck flavors. So this is what I came up with: fresh plum sauce, spicy mustard, hoisin, sesame glaze, and a carrot scallion salad.
Did you do anything special to celebrate your James Beard nomination?
Were you really disappointed by not taking home the award?
Not really. It was actually pretty great just to make the list.
That aside, how does it feel to have the #1 dish on New Times' 100 Favorite Dishes?
With two highly acclaimed restaurants, where do you see yourself going from here?
Settling in. Tightening up our current operations.
Who are your least favorite customer?
People who say they don't like something before they even try it.
Do you have any food phobias?
What is that?