At the age of 33, Chef Clay Conley has already logged in two decades of experience in all aspects of the restaurant industry. Conley started washing dishes at age 13, and fell in love with the atmosphere of the kitchen; he eventually found his way into Todd English’s kitchen, and it was all up (and around the world) from there.
During his 10 years with the Olives Group, Conley worked in Boston, Washington DC, Las Vegas, and Tokyo, eventually becoming the culinary director for all 18 of English’s restaurants at age 29. In 2005 he moved to the Mandarin Oriental in Miami and took over Azul, the hotel’s elegant, waterfront fine dining restaurant, where he brings the ingredients and techniques of his global experience together in his eclectic menu.
Conley draws culinary influences from his surroundings (an Indian exchange student living with him inspired his yogurt-marinated swordfish), and nearly every dish has a story behind it. His orchiette nero with conch is a clever and delicious take on orecchiette and sausage, with a touch of the Caribbean and of the sea with tender, flavorful conch and ink-colored orecchiette. His Moroccan-style lamb features a bastilla – a traditional pastry with a savory, spiced filling enclosed by layers of flaky pastry.
Interview with Chef Clay Conley of Azu l— Miami, FL
Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Clay Conley: I started washing dishes when I was 13, and I loved the energy of the kitchen. My first chef job was at the Bellagio with Todd English in 2001.
AB:Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
CC: I worked for Todd English for 10 years. I worked with him in Las Vegas and Tokyo, and then became the culinary director for all 18 of his restaurants.
AB:Did you attend culinary school?
CC: I didn’t attend culinary school, so I don’t hold people to that standard. It can be a good thing – you can learn the basics, but to truly develop your own style you need to work in the field. It’s like art school in that way. It’s not really something I take into account when hiring. I just bring people in to stage and observe their drive and how they work. Either way, they need to have experience.
AB:Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CC: Todd English and Michael Mina, who became a good friend of mine through Todd. I love Thomas Keller’s food and have learned a lot from his cookbooks. I have lots of respect for Nobu because he produces consistent products in so many places.
AB:What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
CC: For me, it’s more about seeing them work and how they fit in.
AB:What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CC: I tell them to be ready to sacrifice a lot. It takes a lot of years of working for not a lot of money, but it’s worth it in the end.
AB:What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
CC: My hands, Japanese steel knives, a large spoon, and tasting and plating spoons.
AB:Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
CC: Probably Vietnam. I’ve traveled all through Asia but that’s one place I missed. Working in Tokyo influenced my cooking and the way I treat ingredients. They won’t serve anything that isn’t ripe and at the perfect height of its season. The food is simple and flavorful, and the fish market is fantastic for any chef or anyone in the industry.
AB:What are your favorite cookbooks?
CC: Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook and Mediterranean Feast by Clifford Wright.
AB:What languages do you speak?
CC: I speak good kitchen Spanish and my mom is a Spanish teacher. Also, I speak a little Japanese.
AB:What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path –in your city?
CC: My favorite is Yakko-San. It has classic Japanese cuisine, almost tapas style. It’s definitely a chef hangout with classic Japanese food and noodles.
AB:What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
CC: Molecular gastronomy is very big still. I’m not using it very much but I think it’s very cool. My style is more of a traditional approach, with big flavors and lusty food.
AB:What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CC: I think a lot about my ingredients, and I try to find the best ingredients I can. I try to let the real flavor come out and showcase the ingredient in all of my dishes.
AB:How are you involved in your local culinary community? Nationally/Globally? What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
CC: I’m involved in tons of charity events at the Mandarin, and we will do almost anything: March of Dimes, Share Our Strength, etc. I’m member of chefs club down here, and once a month 10 or 20 local chefs host a brunch or Monday night dinner and talk about whatever is going on.
AB:If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
CC: I’m really into music, so maybe musician, but I hate to say that. I wanted to be a stock broker when I was a kid – I wanted to wear a suit and carry a briefcase.
AB:What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
CC: I always feel like I need to keep moving forward and be doing stuff. Success also means being happy and having balance in my personal life.