After months of searching, Canlis has a new chef and he reports for duty April 13. His name is Brady Williams and he's moving here from Roberta's in Brooklyn to be just the sixth chef in the restaurant’s history, a 28-year-old guy running a 64-year-old kitchen.
Back in October, Canlis’s previous chef Jason Franey announced he was leaving for a chef job in Monterey, pursuing ownership and hopefully Michelin stardom. At the time, Mark and Brian Canlis joked about an interview process that could involve laser tag, a road trip with their mom, perhaps a costume change or two.
They never did play any laser tag; the Brothers Canlis actually hired the one guy who didn't require any getting-to-know-you capers. He still had to impress their mother.
There are few jobs in Seattle like this one. A chef from a fine dining epicenter moves here and must bring both serious culinary skills and the ability to instantly become part of a tight-knit restaurant community. Not to mention a tighter-knit family business that embraces cuisine, costume parties, and self actualization with equal fervor.
While Franey was trained in French methods, Williams came by his culinary education on kitchen lines around Dallas. Williams’s Japanese American heritage informs his dishes, a logical fit with perhaps the first fine dining establishment in America to look to Japan for inspiration rather than France and Italy.
Though he grew up all over, Williams does have some Seattle ties, namely several years of elementary school on the Eastside. He swears he’s always been a Seahawks fan—“Even when they were bad. Like the Rick Mirer years.”
The Brothers Canlis are masters of spinning good stories, especially when they involve the restaurant their grandfather founded in 1950. So it’s not surprising their tale of Williams’s dark horse ascent from a gonzo Brooklyn pizzeria to new executive chef of Seattle’s most iconic fine dining restaurant has all the meet cute trappings of a Reese Witherspoon movie plus the bromance of a Jason Segal vehicle. Hell, the story even begins with a double date.
The Canlises had known of Franey’s impending departure for the better part of a year, which is why Brian Canlis spent last summer in New York. It was ostensibly a “friendternship” working with his good friend (and uber restaurateur) Will Guidara. But the younger Canlis now admits an ulterior motive: “I wanted a sabbatical; I needed a chef.”
He and Guidara dined all over town, including Roberta’s, a wood-fired pizzeria in Brooklyn where diners wait for months for a seat within the ramshackle warren of cement walls and shipping containers. Pies are served alongside dishes you wouldn’t expect to see at a pizza place—grilled mangalitsa pork collar or maybe celery root baked in salt, drawing heavily from a multi-level garden in the center of the property. Something else you don’t usually see at a pizza place: a 12-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant called Blanca that serves 22-course, $195 tasting menus.
“I tell people it’s like working on a pirate ship…except not at all,” says Williams. He moved to New York from Texas two years ago to be executive sous chef of this entire unlikely compound, under chef Carlo Mirarchi. Here he pivoted between a pizzeria doing enough business to employ a trio of full-time woodcutters to fuel the oven (Williams says all three, naturally, hail from Seattle) and a tiny restaurant that just earned its second Michelin star.
Brian Canlis didn’t actually meet his future chef on any of the nights he ate at Blanca or Roberta's. His soon-to-be wife Mackenzie arranged a night out with her old roommate, graphic designer Dana Tanamachi, and her husband—that would be Brady Williams.
The couples hung out through the summer, though Brian Canlis says hiring Williams didn’t occur to him, mostly because of his age. That November, Mark Canlis visited New York and met Williams for a beer, at the suggestion of a Canlis board member who knew the young chef from his Dallas days. The idea of him trying out for the job didn't come up (Williams swears, "I wasn't being coy or dense...it just didn't come up.") though he clearly made an impression.
Meanwhile, Franey’s plans went public, and the Brothers Canlis started interviewing in earnest. They heard from chefs from Seattle to Singapore, but ended up flying four candidates (and their partners) here for a tryout, a tasting in restaurant parlance.
The Canlises told potential chefs: Don’t cook like Canlis. Cook food that shows what you’re about. The setup might sound familiar to anyone who has watched a finale episode of Top Chef—minus the manufactured histrionics and egregious product placement.
Culinary abilities were one thing. Fitting in with Canlis culture was another. The restaurant has a committee that meets regularly to ensure its mission—find success by putting others before yourself—isn't just fluffy BS. They wanted a chef similarly inclined, someone that could be a leader, but not in a shouty, showboating sort of way. “People become like each other," says Mark. "It’s an esprit de corps. Jason got that; I have to have a chef that gets that.”
Hence the brothers concocted a few schemes, like asking candidates to cook a staff lunch. Mark and Brian acted as sous chefs, but their focus wasn't cooking skills: How do people give orders? How do they lead? Do they collaborate? Is it fun? The brothers would purposely screw up simple tasks to see how—or if—chefs would correct them.
Amidst this chaos, and under a veil of strict secrecy, they arrived upon a woman they were fairly certain would be their next chef. She too hailed from New York, had a great pedigree, and nailed two separate tastings.
Williams’s name bubbled up often in the brothers’ nearly constant conversation about hiring a chef. It would be great to find someone like him. What about…actually him? Mark posed the question via text message the day after Thanksgiving.
“We’re probably hiring this other person,” Mark told him…right before inviting Williams out to Seattle. He didn't even know Williams's particular job title at Roberta's and remembers telling Canlis staff, “I really like this guy…I have no idea if he can actually cook.”
The Canlises tell of other chefs who showed up at SeaTac with coolers of ingredients, even cryovac-sealed bags of premade sauces. Williams arrived on a sunny day in late January with a loose plan, but no menu. He borrowed Mark’s car to wander the aisles at Ballard Market and pick up Shiro shoyu and Japanese sweet potatoes at Uwajimaya. He and his wife Dana met various Canlis family members and had waterside oysters at Westward before crashing from jet lag.
The next day he prepped, with help from two sous chefs, then ate at Canlis with the Parents Canlis—Chris and Alice, the embodiment of the restaurant’s history. The family asked Williams to critique the food coming out of the restaurant’s kitchen. Which, one might imagine, gets awkward. Mark pressed him on his least favorite dish of the night. It was the scallop course. “I wanted it to taste more like a scallop,” Williams admitted.
The next morning Chris Canlis called his younger son and said “You’ve got your chef.” Still, nobody had tasted his cooking.
At noon the next day, Williams was ready with seven courses, including his own take on a scallop dish. For the brothers it was a blowout meal. One that totally upended their hiring plans.
Says Mark, “If you take out a map and you look at Tokyo and Copenhagen, we’re kind of in the middle.” So was Williams’s food: Local and seasonal, but not in a foraged moss kind of way, Asian but definitely not sushi. Protein and vegetables took turns in the leading role, like a dish Mark Canlis describes as "beets with blood sausage, not blood sausage with beets."
That night Williams took the redeye back to New York and was back at work the next day. He wasn't necessarily looking to leave New York, he says, but the gig just fit, both personally and professionally. And he is a Seahawks fan.
He reports for duty in Seattle April 13, but don’t expect any major changes in the short term. Side note: As of March 13, the Canlis kitchen is serving a 10-course tasting menu celebrating all these traditional dishes.
Williams says getting to know the restaurant and the staff comes before reimagining the menu. But he, Mark, and Brian are already in deep discussions on how they might better integrate Canlis past, present, and future—specifically how Williams's style of cooking will interface with the classics (the duck, the Peter Canlis prawns, the Canlis salad) that reflect the restaurant’s history. Stay tuned.