Canlis Hires Its First Female Executive Chef – The New York Times

Canlis Hires Its First Female Executive Chef

Aisha Ibrahim will lead the kitchen of the celebrated 70-year-old restaurant in Seattle.

Credit…Jeremy P. Beasley

Since closing its dining room in March 2020, Canlis has reinvented itself several times over, shape-shifting from Seattle’s loftiest fine-dining restaurant into a bagel shop, a crab shack and a drive-in movie theater.

Now, the restaurant has made another, more permanent change, hiring Aisha Ibrahim as its new executive chef. Ms. Ibrahim, 35, is the seventh chef, and the first woman, to helm the Canlis kitchen in its 70-year history. She started work on April 30.

Ms. Ibrahim succeeds Brady Williams, who ended a six-year run at Canlis in February, and who plans to open his own restaurant in Seattle later this year.

Canlis opened in 1950 in a striking midcentury modern building with views of Lake Union, serving a menu of surf-and-turf classics with a Pacific inflection. In recent years, under the leadership of its third-generation owners, the brothers Mark and Brian Canlis, it has evolved from a beloved local institution to a player on the national fine-dining stage. Jason Franey, who arrived from New York City’s Eleven Madison Park as executive chef in 2008, revamped the menu in a modernist idiom: more artful plating, with more crumbs, foams and emulsions.

Mr. Williams, who brought a renewed focus on Asian techniques and ingredients, took over in 2015. In 2017, Canlis won its first James Beard award, for Outstanding Wine Program, under the wine and spirits director Nelson Daquip. In 2019, Mr. Williams was named Best Chef: Northwest, and the restaurant received the Design Icon Award in celebration of its remarkable home.

In hiring Ms. Ibrahim, Canlis will continue to look to Asia for culinary inspiration.

Born Zsahleya Aisha Ibrahim in the southern Philippines, Ms. Ibrahim immigrated to West Virginia at the age of 6. (She is the fourth executive chef at Canlis with Asian heritage.) She attended college on a basketball scholarship, but when an injury ended her sports career, she applied to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco.

Ms. Ibrahim worked her way up through Bay Area kitchens to become a sous chef at Manresa, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif., before moving to the Basque region of Spain in 2015 to work for the chef Eneko Atxa at Azurmendi. Ms. Ibrahim went on to become chef de cuisine at Aziamendi, Azurmendi’s sister restaurant in southern Thailand.

Before joining Canlis, she spent two years preparing to open her own fine-dining project in Bangkok, which was scuttled by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Ibrahim’s partner, Samantha Beaird, will join the staff at Canlis, too, in the newly created position of research and development chef.

Ms. Ibrahim said that she was drawn to Seattle for the unparalleled quality of ingredients from the forests, fisheries and farms of the Pacific Northwest. She plans to spend her time at Canlis exploring the region’s Indigenous ingredients, the nuances of its microseasons and the city’s historic role as a gateway to Asia.

Ms. Ibrahim admitted to being surprised to find herself back in the United States, having sworn off the country’s brutal kitchen culture for jobs in Spain and Thailand, which have afforded her a more balanced lifestyle.

“Fine dining in the United States has burned out my generation of leadership to the point where we’re asking, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ ” she said. “But Canlis is very much a people-first program. I’ve been around the block in terms of working at high-end restaurants, and that’s not at all common.”

After a pair of Zoom interviews for the job, Ms. Ibrahim flew from Bangkok to Seattle — her second-ever visit to the city — to prepare a seven-course meal that sealed the deal. Mark Canlis described her cooking as simple, understated and sophisticated. “Her food was an invitation in,” he said. “It wasn’t flexing or showmanship.”

The chefs at Canlis have always been like honorary family members, Mr. Canlis said, and hiring a new one can feel “like adding a sibling.” Cooking skills are just the table stakes.

“What makes Aisha the best chef for this restaurant has to do with caring for people, leading people and creating a culture,” he said. “Everyone has a desire to build a better industry, but she’s already living that kind of life, and invested in people in the kind of way that inspires us.”

The leadership change comes on the heels of a year that has been the most turbulent, but creatively fertile, in the restaurant’s history. Casting about for ways to keep their staff employed during the pandemic, the Canlis brothers have busied the team delivering meals around Seattle, serving burgers and bagels from the restaurant’s parking lot, and hosting virtual bingo shows.

Currently, guests can dine on a $145 four-course menu served in 12 private yurts (plus one “treehouse,” on the restaurant’s roof), or come for cold beers, brisket and Frito pie at the Canteen, a counter-service smokehouse set up in the parking lot. (Reservations for both are currently sold out.) Mr. Canlis said that he hopes to return to indoor service in July.