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In the Kitchen: Return to the kitchen

After traveling the world, Conley gets back behind the line at Azul

One of Conley's favorite rituals is to hop on his
    Vespa and go to Casablanca Seafood. - Photo courtesy of 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 
his menu.

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, Fla.

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 swordfish."

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 California.

"With seafood, freshness is a real priority," adds Conley, "and that's why working closely with purveyors is so important."

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 Azul.

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 against crunchy.

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 customers.

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 Peruvian-style ceviche).

"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, Maine

 

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