Welcome to So Sous Me, an occasional series in which we get to know the men and women who help burnish the reputations of Seattle’s most prominent kitchens and chefs.
Baton Rouge native Patrick Ayres was recently promoted to executive sous chef at Canlis, which means he helps run the show under chef Jason Franey at the sophisticated Seattle classic (which, by the way, is all over the James Beard Award longlist). Although Ayres initially studied music, he left after realizing that he was no match against kids who began training at age four. At a loss for what to do next, he ruminated on his passions and realized that “the only thing I always loved doing every time I did it was cooking.”
After making the big commitment to cooking, Ayres went to culinary school and scored a head chef job at a neighborhood Italian joint in Colorado. Despite the cushy position, Ayres says he wanted to be more creative, while the owners were wary of change. His move to Seattle gave him the chance to find a kitchen that was a good match for his creativity.
Ayres had a brief stint at the short-lived Artisanal in Bellevue, where he says he often had to work 17-hour shifts at the mercy of lackluster kitchen management. From there, he moved on to Canlis, where he was able to work his way up from garde manger, to exec sous chef. “It’s great to be in this kind of a spot in this caliber of a restaurant,” says Ayres. Like most ambitious culinary types, he has ambitions of going solo someday.
Here, a few questions for Patrick Ayres:
If you were to open your own restaurant today what kind of food would it serve?
There’s still too much to learn to narrow it down like that. Right now I’m learning from every dish I do. I’ll tell you this though: I’ve grown addicted to the purest ingredients. I’m serious…not sure I could ever go back. Other than the fact that the cooking will be refined, in the perfect coastal town, delicious, and known for innovation I’m not sure I could really pin it down for you.
What’s your favorite part about being an exec sous chef?
Being able to turn the pressure of the position into beautiful execution. There’s great pressure, but it forces creativity, organization and delegation. I love the amount of growth it demands of me.
What’s the most difficult task that you have been faced with as an exec sous chef?
The most challenging jobs are the larger events. We do a fair number of them, and with the type of food we do here, that means a lot of work goes into the organization and prep. One dish may have a dozen or more steps to it and require several days of preparation. Creating 100 of these in 12 minutes (as we had to while hosting Eleven Madison Park) is an adrenaline rush, but if you’re not organized, it’s a nightmare.
Tell me about your worst restaurant job.
I won’t name names, but the worst place I’ve worked was a little Italian restaurant in Louisiana. It was when I first started culinary school and would’ve worked anywhere to pay my way through. All the food was out of a bag or a can. The marinara was way too sweet, nothing was made in house and literally every dish, whether it was spaghetti and meatballs or penne alla vodka was covered in a huge handful of mozzarella and baked. There was just a great void of passion and attentiveness that I couldn’t imagine being a part of today.
Where do you like to eat in Seattle? And what do you order?
I am rarely awake for breakfast, but for brunch Tilth’s pulled chicken biscuits and gravy is just ridiculous. For lunch, I like La Carta de Oaxaca, tacos al pastor —I’m convinced there’s nothing better than traditional Mexican food and these guys do it right. For dinner, the Book Bindery’s Shaun’s foie gras is consistently transcendent.
What cookbook do you go to most often for inspiration?
The first book that really blew me away and I still look to is The French Laundry. The beauty of the food and the way Chef Keller writes about it is captivating. Others I look to are Alinea, Girardet, and Eleven Madison Park.
Describe your favorite comfort food.
I’ve built a career on fine dining, but when it comes to eating comfort food, I go back to southern soul food. I’m a Louisiana boy: jambalaya, gumbo, and boiled crawfish. When it’s right, the cooking is so honest – it takes me home.