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In the Kitchen: Return to the kitchen
After traveling the world, Conley gets back behind the line at Azul
By Joan M. Lang
September 01, 2008
Clay Conley's menu reads like an itinerary of where he's
been and the products he's cooked with. Born in Limerick,
Maine, and now the chef at Miami's award-winning Azul in the
Mandarin Oriental hotel, Conley's career path has taken him
from Boston - where he worked with Todd English of Olives fame
- to Las Vegas to Tokyo, and his cooking combines a New
Englander's sensitivity for seafood with the vibrant flavors of
the Mediterranean and Asia.
Seafood constitutes at least 65 percent of Azul's menu at
any given time, a reflection of the hot Florida climate and the
luxe atmosphere of the restaurant and hotel. Conley is fond of
seafood appetizers, especially raw preparations like oysters,
ceviches and tartares.
"Seafood is a nice, light, appetizing way to begin a meal,"
says Conley, who likes to construct a meal as a progression of
intensifying flavors, and encourages his customers to dine the
same way in the manner that he designs
In addition to the regular a la carte menu, Conley offers a
multi-course tasting menu that changes at least three times a
week. Conley also teaches regular weekend cooking classes for
hotel guests and locals, such as a recent New England Clambake
program co-hosted by the owner of White Water Clams in Hialeah,
Conley keeps close to his purveyors in all matters, and has
cultivated many local fish suppliers - approximately 60 percent
of Azul's seafood is locally sourced.
"It's really fun to work with a whole new group of fish than
what I'm used to in New England," he says. "Customers expect
it, and we get wonderful fresh seafood down here, including
Spanish mackerel, stone crab, snapper, grouper and
One of Conley's favorite morning rituals is to hop on his
Vespa scooter and ride down to Casablanca Seafood, a retail
market and restaurant ( SFB Aug. '08, p. 36) that has its own
fishing boats and dock.
"They'll call me if something really interesting comes in,
and I'll usually go over there and pick it out myself," says
Conley. Other suppliers include Gary's Seafood in Orlando,
which supplies such high-end restaurants as French Laundry in
"With seafood, freshness is a real priority," adds Conley,
"and that's why working closely with purveyors is so
That and proper handling. For instance, in working with so
many raw menu specialties, Conley has developed a number of
procedures to ensure top quality.
"The less handling, the better," he insists. "Use gloves,
and change them often. You don't want to raise the temperature
of fish. As soon as you cut it, return it to the refrigerator.
Keep it well-iced at all times."
At Azul, Conley has a unique opportunity to incorporate all
of his culinary training and interests. Having risen to the
position of culinary director of Todd English's far-flung
restaurant empire over the course of 10 years, Conley is well
versed in Mediterranean flavors and techniques. He also lived
in Tokyo and traveled in Asia while opening the Olives there,
falling in love with the Asian culinary sensibility. But with
all that reference material, he wanted to return to the kitchen
and hands-on cooking, and he lets his creativity fly at
The signature Yogurt Marinated Swordfish is a good example.
Introduced last summer and now so popular that it's a permanent
menu fixture in some guise, the specialty represents the kind
of flavor and texture interplay that characterizes all Conley's
food. Served with a toasted pita and tomato salad, cashews and
two saucy elements - minted yogurt and brown butter lobster
sauce - the swordfish preparation is all about the culinary
domino effect: hot against cool, spicy against sweet, smooth
Pulling from influences both Indian and Moroccan, Conley
begins by marinating local Gulf orange swordfish in a
tandoori-like mixture of yogurt and puréed raw cashews, spiked
with paprika, coriander and other Indian spices, before being
grilled. For the pita salad, which takes its inspiration from
fattoush - the Middle East's answer to panzanella - pita chips
are doused with herbaceous za'atar and fruity extra virgin
olive oil, then toasted until crispy and mixed with tomatoes.
The dish is finished with a cool, sprightly tart accompaniment
of yogurt flavored with mint, vinegar and cilantro, then topped
with a warm and nutty flavored brown-butter lobster sauce with
cashews. The item has been a huge hit with Azul's
In addition to hotel guests, the restaurant enjoys a fan
base that is 60 percent local in-season, an unusually high
success rate for hotel food-and-beverage, and testament to
Conley's ability to play to locals' well-educated tastes.
One thing that he educates customers about is
sustainability. "Most don't really care, but I think that's
starting to change," says Conley, who cares very much (his wife
works for the International Seakeepers Society). "I look for
responsibly raised farmed products whenever I can get the
appropriate quality." A new favorite: Japanese farmed hamachi,
an exceptionally fatty product that's perfect for Azul
specialties like the marinated raw hamachi tiradito (a
"It's amazing what kind of products you can get if you're
willing to do the legwork and find them," says Conley. "The
marketplace is really changing, and there's some fabulous
seafood out there."
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,