ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Chef Clay Conley of Azul at Mandarin Oriental, Miami

Not every chef gets to healm one of Miami’s most highly praised restaurants. But Executive Chef Clay Conley seems to take it all in stride.  At age 35, Conley already has served as protégé to famed chef Todd English, working his way up to executive chef at English’s Olives at Bellagio in Las Vegas, with flagship restaurants in Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Because of his innate talents in the kitchen, and his multifaceted skills in restaurant operations, he was named culinary director for English’s 17 restaurants when he was a mere 29 years old. Conley also worked briefly with fellow famed chef Gary Mennie at Canoe, and has worked various temples of haute cuisine throughout his decade-long career.

Conley was tapped by Mandarin Oriental, Miami in 2005 to helm the chopping block at the award-winning waterfront restaurant Azul. Since then, he has appeared on The Today Show and Fox and Friends, and has been featured in high-profile publications such as Esquire and Gourmet [Editor’s note: on a local front, he graced the cover of DiningOut Miami when HL Editorial Director Stephanie Wilson was working as DO’s regional editor.] This culinary prodigy loves the thrill of partaking in the evolution of a dish, from creation to finish; we can thank him for Azul’s delicious menu items such as Hamachi Tiradito, a uniquely flavorful blend of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. Here, he tells us of his experiences both at Azul and the many other culinary venues that have brought him to where he is today.

Haute Living: What makes working for the Mandarin Oriental, Miami different from the other kitchens that you have worked in?

Chef Clay Conley: Mandarin Oriental, Miami is a great place to work. I like the fact that Azul has its own identity, unlike most hotel restaurants. This allows us to have the support of the hotel while having freedom to shape elements of the restaurant.

HL: What are some of the lessons that resonate with you the most from your years working with Chef Todd English?

CC: Todd is a brilliant chef. I worked for him for 10 years in a variety of roles. Not only did he teach me how to cook, he also taught me how to run a business and manage multiple units.

HL: Were you always set on becoming a chef?

CC: I took my first restaurant job when I was 12 or 13 washing dishes, and from then on the kitchen is where I knew I wanted to be. I really loved the energy of being busy. Before that I wanted to be a doctor.

HL: It’s safe to say there was a considerable amount of pressure being tapped for Azul, a restaurant that was earning buzz before it even opened. How did you cope with that?

CC: It’s funny, when I came to Azul I was not very familiar with the Miami dining scene. So naively, I really didn’t feel a great deal of pressure. I think I put more pressure on myself now than I did then.

HL: What is your favorite menu item on the Azul menu? What’s the most popular menu item?

CC: My favorite menu item is the Hamachi Tiradito. We created it for a promotion at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. It blends together flavors from two of my favorite cuisines, Peruvian and Japanese. I wanted to make a dish that was approachable to the Japanese clientele, but at the same time bring a little bit of Miami flavors as well. This dish is also our most popular.

HL: What is your favorite type of food to eat?

CC: Japanese food is my absolute favorite. When I lived in Tokyo I ate everything I could get my hands on.  The Japanese passion for food and respect for ingredients really blew me away and left a lasting impression.

HL: Tell us one of the most unusual or memorable experience in the kitchen.

CC: While working at Azul, one of my cooks left a huge pot of oil on the stove and forgot about it. Needless to say the pot lit on fire. It was Saturday night and the restaurant was full, and six-foot flames were shooting off the pot. I couldn’t afford to extinguish the flames and risk having to shut down the restaurant down so I grabbed the flaming pot of oil and brought it to the back kitchen. I threw the flaming pot of oil into a pot sink full of water and a huge fire ball completely covered the entire ceiling and the sprinklers went off. The explosion was like something out of an action movie. We didn’t shut the restaurant down though.