As Buccan’s wait staff move briskly around him, preparing the sun-dappled, Palm Beach eatery for the evening crush, Clay Conley is reminiscing about his favorite fish market in Tokyo, where he spent seven months readying Todd English’s now-shuttered Olives restaurant.
“At five-in-the-morning, that place would be full of people,” Conley remembers. “They won’t eat anything that is not in season or at its peak.”
When asked if the Japanese are as hooked on the sea-to-plate concept as their American counterparts, he shakes his head at the culinary moniker. “I don’t use those ‘to-plate’ words. Besides, how else are you going to do it?” he laughs.
The food critic favorite should know. In 1996, Conley left Tallahassee – where he had been studying hotel restaurant management at The Florida State University – and moved to Boston, scoring his first big break: a modest cook position at Todd English’s Figs in Charlestown, Mass. “I wanted to work at Olives but there wasn’t an opening,” Conley recalls. “Everyone wanted to work there.” A few months later, English promoted him to chef tournant at Olives in Boston.
After a 10-year tenure, nine years in Olives’ storied kitchen trenches and the last as English’s corporate cooking director, Conley was ready for a change. He packed his bags and headed south with his wife, Averill, to helm the perennially packed Azul at the Mandarin Oriental Miami.
Five years later, he was ready to do things his own way. In 2011, Conley opened his first restaurant, Buccan. A year later, its little sister, Imoto, was born.
Today, the 39-year-old restaurateur’s resume is chock-full of career-defining honors and accolades, including two James Beard “Best Chef: South” nominations and, most recently, a prime spot on the Best Chefs America’s coveted “Top 25 Best Chefs in the American South” list.
“Awards are great but they are not what is most important,” says Conley. “Finding a way to give back to the community is more appealing to me.”
Since his early days at Olives, Conley has been teaming up with the country’s leading non-profits, like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Share Our Strength, to host chef dinners or donate the food he’s famous for. When his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Micaela, was born in 2012, many say his soft spot for philanthropy only grew softer.
Executive Chef Zach Bell, who first approached Conley about co-chairing Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation in Palm Beach, agrees: “The birth of his daughter combined with the understanding that an incredible fight lay ahead of us [wiping out childhood hunger], helped bring the message home for Clay. His passion for the cause erupted.”
Growing up on his parent’s farm in Limerick, Maine, Conley remembers never wanting more food (“We had chickens and pigs,” he laughs.). Pointing to the country’s abundant supply of resources, he says hunger should not even be an issue.
Back at Buccan, Conley is considering what he would do if he wasn’t one of the most venerated, philanthropically focused chefs in the Southeast. “A farmer,” he says, grinning. “Can’t you see Averill and I living on a couple of acres in Loxahatchee?”
If it involves growing his next crop of greatness, absolutely.