Grove Stand: Chef Clay Conley and his Palm Beach Empire
Credited with sparking Palm Beach’s roaring culinary scene with his stable of award-winning restaurants, Clay Conley reveals that the secret is just making food that he wants to eat.
Clay Conley grew up in Limerick, Maine, a tiny town in the foothills of the White Mountains. Despite his origins, he can’t come up with a single rhyming limerick, dirty or otherwise. Still, it’s clear his childhood influenced him. His mother, a Czech-American school teacher, was a good home cook, and his systems analyst father spent his off hours tending to 2,000 fruit trees on the property, along with pigs, sheep and other delicious critters.
His upbringing may not have set things in motion for Conley, now 44, to be the chef and owner of a raft of award-winning restaurants in Palm Beach County. Being the chef behind Buccan, The Sandwich Shop, Imoto and Grato, he was a James Beard semifinalist in 2012, 2013, 2017 and 2018. Two things were perhaps more predictive of his success: He started washing dishes in a restaurant at age 14, and, after dropping out of college following stints at Tulane and then at Florida State, he moved to Boston to work for superstar chef Todd English.
He set his sights on Olives, English’s upscale Mediterranean flagship, but by Conley’s own admission, he was too young for the job. English gave him a shot making salads and risottos at Figs down the street. He stayed with English for 10 years, opening more than 20 restaurants and eventually becoming corporate culinary director—a prestigious gig, but one that is more administrative than it is culinary.
Conley aimed to change that, auditioning for chef de cuisine of what would be Miami’s first AAA Five Diamond restaurant, Azul.
“I went down and did a tasting. I made a study in tuna three ways, a wild mushroom consomme with shaved white truffles and a roasted mushroom salad, a bouillabaisse with grouper and a Moroccan lamb, again with three preparations. I was a young chef, putting a lot of stuff on the plates. I chalked that up to me being a kid.”
It worked, and he helmed the restaurant for five years before opening Buccan, which many folks credit with kick-starting a Palm Beach dining revolution, in 2011.
“My partners Sam Slattery and Piper Quinn, we’d always had this casual wood-grill, small-plates concept. We’d looked in Boston and Colorado and had a couple close calls in Miami. Piper, who lives in Palm Beach, said, ‘Why don’t you come up for the weekend and check out this place?’”
The first menu, he says, was huge and cheap, with items like short rib empanadas, steak tartare and squid ink orecchiette, a New American style not unlike what is served today. Buccan is loud, casual and focused on what emanates from the brick oven. A mailbox store adjacent to Buccan went out of business, and in 2012, Imoto, which means little sister in Japanese, was born.
“It’s much quieter, a little more chill,” says Conley, who has no formal culinary training and honed his skills on the job. “It’s a completely opposite experience from Buccan.”
The next year they added The Sandwich Shop, taking over a nearby florist’s shop, mostly for the storage and office space. But with 150 square feet of storefront, they started selling sandwiches and smoking and sous viding their own meats. Keeping up the momentum, Conley opened Grato in January 2016.
“It started out pretty traditional Italian. Now, it’s got some traditional elements but is a little more creative than it was originally. That’s what people expect from us.”
Conley won’t speculate on precisely what’s next, but there’s no doubt he’s shifted the thinking in the once-conservative food culture of the tony island. Until the next project emerges, he’s got enough on his plate: He and his wife, Averill, whom he met at Florida State, have two children—Camden, 3, and Micaela, 6.
Last year, the couple planted a big garden for the restaurants, with six raised beds, each 10 feet by 50 feet. “Okra, eggplant, zucchini, radishes—we fumbled around for a while, then I hired a proper gardener.” Conley, who once lived in Tokyo, loves Japanese flavors, as well as Peruvian cuisine, raw dishes and those that make good use of acid and spiciness. And he thinks Palm Beach County is up for the ride.
“We’re not in Miami,” he says. “But Palm Beach has an equally sophisticated palate. There’s that cliche about older rich white people, but there’s been an influx of another generation.”
Still, Conley maintains he doesn’t really think about crafting food for any particular audience.
“It’s about how I would want to eat. That’s what Todd did. He just made food he thought was delicious.”