After sifting through scores of candidates, Canlis has hired its new executive chef, the first woman but only the seventh person to head up the kitchen in the restaurant’s 70-year history. Chef Aisha Ibrahim reported for her first day of work Friday, after a journey that included an international move, multiple zooms, a faux journalism assignment, and one intentionally embarrassing TikTok-style dance video.
Ibrahim arrives as Canlis debuts its short-term canteen concept, meaning she’ll technically oversee the alfresco yurt menu and the contents of a newly installed smoker as she works with third-generation owners Mark and Brian Canlis to determine what this landmark restaurant will actually look like when it returns (hopefully in July) after 16 months of empty chairs and endless pivots.
Her presence marks a fitting new chapter in a cooking career that includes time spent in influential kitchens from Thailand to Spain, specifically in sibling restaurants Azurmendi and Aziamendi, as well as popups in Malaysia and Taipei and stages in Japan. Before that, she worked at Manresa, one of just 13 restaurants in the United States to hold three Michelin stars (the international arbiter of fine dining doesn’t include Seattle in its influential guides).
While all these elements seem a logical fit for our city’s highest-profile restaurant, Ibrahim and the Brothers Canlis acknowledge they have yet to establish any specifics about the new chef’s menu. In normal times, this process might unfold over a series of meals, at the restaurant and elsewhere. Their sole window into Ibrahim's cooking was the meal she prepared after flying in from Bangkok for a three-day stay that included a yurt dinner with various Canlises and her own seven-course audition. Mark Canlis still remembers one dish of crab and rice—"so understated and so sophisticated.”
Born in the Philippines and raised in West Virginia, Ibrahim played college basketball before turning to culinary school. She says her experiences in Japan, especially exposure to kaiseki, provide significant inspiration. “I’m such a student of seasonality,” she says. She’s also not a fan of three-hour meals so precious they leave you unsated. “My goal is to focus on a meal that can be complex, but also really satisfying.”
Before the pandemic unleashed its perpetual limbo, Ibrahim was in discussions about opening her own fine dining project in Asia. “I wasn’t sure that going back to the US was ever going to be a thing I would consider,” she says. Opening her own place abroad, “I would have more of an ability to control the culture I could build.”
Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 miles away, chef Brady Williams announced he would depart Canlis to open his own project. This left Mark and Brian Canlis searching for a chef amidst an international fine dining landscape hobbled by coronavirus and warped by revelations about toxic workplaces and unworthy heroes. As messages from interested chefs piled up, Brian Canlis reached out to an associate who recommended a woman he knew was doing great things in Thailand. Brian did what any restaurant owner would do when making a professional overture—he slid into her Instagram DMs.
Ibrahim had received a few job overtures in recent months, “and just immediately turned them down.” As a woman of color, her radar was up for tokenism. She knew Canlis mostly from industry coverage of its various pandemic pivots. “I was talking about those in strategy meetings in Bangkok.” She’d visited Seattle exactly once, and wasn’t sure she wanted to return to the US in the first place.
But she was intrigued by the application process the Brothers Canlis had devised, an attempt to synthesize their values with a requisite dash of flair. Interviews are usually about showing your best self, says Mark. But really, “A job pulls out the worst of people. It’s stressful and hard. You will run into our humanity and brokenness and weakness. We’ll run into yours. That’s work.”
Chef candidates had to write a headline and sample news story—essentially their version of the one the New York Times just wrote—announcing that applicant’s theoretical hiring. “You learn a lot by what people include in those first two paragraphs,” says Mark. But the real winnowing happened when the Canlises asked candidates how they had personally grown or confronted their own need to change over the past year. “So many people had jack shit to say.”
Via Zoom, Ibrahim described staging at a decorated restaurant in Japan, and her initial skepticism at how the chef ran the nightly staff meeting, asking the team to hold hands and address conflicts, even reflect on something they saw that day “that was so cute, it moved them to tears.” In that moment, Mark Canlis wanted to adopt the way she was speaking about that meeting. “I wished she were talking about my restaurant.” But really, it was her TikTok dance that sealed the deal.
Another part of the process asked potential chefs to submit a video—60 seconds, max—that shows them “wholeheartedly doing something that you are not very good at.” Ibrahim’s partner, Samantha Beaird, immediately volunteered two potential topics: yoga and dancing.
Ibrahim, a self-proclaimed introvert, decided her goofy dance moves made for better viewing than her inflexible limbs and went all in on performing a short dance routine. Watching her, Mark remembers, “You knew she had depth and character and guts and fortitude.” It also bodes well for a restaurant where elaborate costumes and capers feature prominently in the business plan. Beaird, meanwhile, will work in the research kitchen Canlis runs up north in the Bread Lab.
Ibrahim will spend the coming weeks working through the kitchen’s various stations and getting to know the people in them. Meanwhile, she and the Brothers Canlis will dine and discuss what a Canlis menu will look like in 2021; her interest in Japanese technique offers some continuity after Williams, who earned the restaurant its second James Beard Award in 2019.
“Here’s the crazy thing,” says Mark: “She’s never eaten at Canlis.” While the pandemic kiboshed the usual method of seeking inspiration through a flurry of restaurant dinners, “it freed us up to think about this differently.”
Canlis will hopefully reopen its dining room in July, giving Seattle a proper intro into Ibrahim’s cooking. To echo Mark Canlis, “I can’t wait to try her food.”