Dining

Good Vibrations

How chef Clay Conley uses music to set the mood at his restaurants
Clay Conley
Chef Clay Conley and steak tartare at Būccan | Photos: Andy Ryan

June is Music + Food Month on Tasting Table.

Two-time James Beard nominee Clay Conley, chef/partner of Palm Beach's B?ccan, Imoto and The Sandwich Shop at B?ccan, is a highly acclaimed chef to be sure, but he's also known as a huge music nerd—the kind of guy who gets up at 4 a.m. to sneak out to his guesthouse to jam the guitar before his wife and kids wake up.

In Conley's restaurants, it's imperative to use music to set the mood and help the entire meal run smoothly. Early in his career, when Conley worked as Todd English's director of culinary operations, cooks would rotate DJ duties, formulating their own playlists well before the Spotify days. "One of my favorite mixes was from a guy at Olives, who'd always play Cuban music," he says. Conley now incorporates a few descarga (Cuban jam sessions) in with his jam band favorites (think Phish, Widespread Panic and the Grateful Dead, who Conley's seen 30 to 40 times) while the kitchen swings into gear.

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During service, it's all about setting a sophisticated-yet-playful mood in the dining room. Old-school jazz, like Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, is noticeable but not ear piercing. "I think volume is the biggest thing," Conley says. "A good dining experience is a lot of different things, but if you can't hold a conversation over the music, it detracts from the whole thing."

As the meal winds down, Conley brings everything together, switching to a playlist packed with familiar rock-and-roll tunes and turning up the volume. The goal is to create a more vibrant atmosphere without turning the restaurant into a club—it's supposed to feel natural. "We make what we like to make and play what we want to play," Conley says. "It's always better when it's genuine. People can feel that."

Here, Conley shares his favorite songs to work to, whether he's cooking for two or 12.

Listen on Spotify.

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