Clay Conley began working in the restaurant business, washing dishes at a local restaurant near his hometown of Limerick, Maine, when he was 12 years old. That experience fueled his foodie tendencies and built the foundation for a career now in its 21st year.
Conley attended Florida State University’s school of hospitality thinking he’d study to become a food-service executive. In 1996, however, he exited academics to embrace his passion for cuisine. He joined chef Todd English at his flagship Olives  restaurant in Boston. After a brief stint as a sauté cook at Canoe  in Atlanta with chef Gary Mennie, he returned to English in 1998 and was named sous chef at Olives at Bellagio in Las Vegas. Under English he became executive chef in 2000 and opened restaurants in Las Vegas, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. In 2003, Conley became culinary director for English’s 18 restaurants.
Mandarin Oriental recruited him in 2005 to take the helm of Azul, its waterfront restaurant in Miami.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No. When I was a little kid I actually wanted to be a doctor. But I grew up on a farm in rural Maine where we had more than 2,000 fruit trees around us, and I always liked being around fresh food and close to the food source.
What was it like working for Todd English?
Todd is brilliant. We had to stick to his style, but we were given carte blanche within that, so we had creative control.
Why did you leave English?FAST FACTS
HOMETOWN: Limerick, MaineAGE: 33EDUCATION: attended Florida State UniversityFAVORITE ITEMS TO COOK AT HOME: one-pot stews and spicy fish or curry soupsHOBBIES: golf, tennis, boating and dining outPERSONAL: married
Truthfully, I left for the same reason I left FSU: I missed cooking. I am stronger in the kitchen, so I wanted to get back to cooking instead of overseeing cooking. Someday, like most chefs, I’d like to open my own restaurant, and I’d like to write my own cookbook.
What kind of dishes do you prefer to create?
Some of my dishes are inspired by the Mediterranean influence of Todd’s style, while I also like to create some classic New England dishes. For instance, I serve my take on traditional New England clam chowder. It is a mélange of crispy clams, confit of pork belly and a malt vinegar-spiked broth. I always try to find the best, freshest ingredients, but I don’t do a lot of fusion.
How is the economy affecting your business?
We are feeling it. We are off a little bit. It is normally quiet in the summer, but talking to others in town – everyone is feeling it. We are lucky, as weekends with the hotel are incredibly busy. We haven’t had to make any changes. We watch our expenses and are always paying attention.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Opening the Olives in Tokyo. I learned so much there because the beef is amazing, as is the fish market. They have a whole different respect for food. Everything you buy in the grocery stores is amazingly fresh, and there is never any bruised fruit on the shelves. Each piece would have a little netting on top. We would go out after work at 3 a.m. and have amazing meals. Tokyo was crowded, yes, but it was an organized, quiet and calm crowded.