Following a stint in Japan, a successful decade working with Todd English as culinary director for Olives Group, and a post at Azul at Miami’s Mandarin Oriental, Clay Conley was finally ready to open his own restaurant. So, he broke away and headed up to Palm Beach to open Búccan in 2011. The restaurant, which has an eclectic menu and a homey vibe, has been spot to eat on the island for a few years running and garnered him a James Beard nomination in 2012. Then, he opened a 40-seat sushi and small plates concept next door called Imoto, which is as loved as its big sister.
HL: Is the dining audience very different than in Miami?
Conley: You do have some people that are more conservative, but then you have a lot of people that are really into food and interested in trying new things. We have more regular clients, which is nice. During the season, someone might come every Tuesday at the same time, and want the same table and the same entrée.
HL: You’ve said you wanted the restaurant to feel like you’re going to a friend’s house.
CC: Yes! People don’t want white tablecloths every night, and we change the menu all the time. I think it’s a pretty good value too; we really setout to make Búccan affordable for the island. No matter how much money you have, you still want value.
HL: The menu is eclectic, but it’s not fusion.
CC: That’s right. If I do a dish that has Thai, then the whole dish has Thai flavors. I’m a little strict. If I’m doing a French-inspired dish, I don’t put soy sauce in it. But I don’t want to limit myself to doing just one type of cuisine.
HL: What do you have to try the first time you go to Búccan?
CC: There are a few. The Hamachi, squid ink orecchiette, and the hotdog panini out of the brick oven.
HL: What do you think is the most important thing in the kitchen?
CC: The staff is the most important thing for me. Having people that you can trust to put food out exactly the way that you designed it. We’re lucky – we’ve had a lot of same guys here since we opened.
HL: What is the common thread you see amongst great chefs?
CC: Well, Todd never sat still. The good ones are always tinkering and changing or tweaking stuff. There’s always something that can be done.
HL: What is your favorite thing about your experience here at Búccan?
CC: The freedom of owning your own place… the freedom to do whatever you want. We selected everything here: these copper tables, chairs, and paints. And I do love to do cool things and not have to get them approved by everyone and their brother. That’s great.