Back in December, when Brian Canlis started a worldwide search to find the next chef to run his family’s storied fine-dining restaurant, he heard about a cutting-edge young chef named Aisha Ibrahim in Bangkok who had distinguished herself at a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants.
Using hip lingo, Canlis recalled, laughing, “I slipped into her DMs on Instagram and said, ‘You have no idea who I am, but you come with a raving review from a colleague. Would you ever want to hop on a Zoom call and talk about being a chef at Canlis?’ ” he recalled.
Did she ever. She got that message at 7 a.m. one day, and that same morning Canlis and an excited Ibrahim were exchanging emails about their philosophies and influences. “I was pleasantly surprised,” Ibrahim said. Of course, she has heard of Canlis, she said.
On Monday, Canlis named Ibrahim the seventh executive chef in the 70-year history of this renowned Seattle restaurant. She’s the first woman — and the first woman of color — to lead Canlis. In heading the 26-person kitchen staff, Ibrahim will get to reset the Canlis menu as it heads into a post-pandemic world. Only two dishes, the signature Canlis salad and the soufflé, can’t be tweaked and must remain on the menu.
Ibrahim, 35, started work at Canlis on April 30, and her partner, Samantha Beaird, will also work at the restaurant as a research and development chef.
At a time when the restaurant industry has faced backlash for perpetuating a toxic culture dominated by white males, the Canlis family appears to have moved beyond that. Ibrahim identifies as gay and was born in the Philippines. She immigrated to the U.S. at age 6.
Before getting the Canlis job, Ibrahim had runs at several high-profile restaurants around the world including a stint as sous chef at three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Northern California under acclaimed chef David Kinch. She did a couple of internships in Japan before moving to the Basque region of Spain to work at the three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi. Her last gig was as chef de cuisine at the swanky Aziamendi restaurant in Thailand, north of Phuket.
Ibraham replaces Brady Williams, a James Beard Award-winning chef who left Canlis in February to plan for the opening of his own restaurant later this year. Brian Canlis said the family was given six months notice of Williams’ departure and quietly started searching for Williams’ replacement on Dec. 1.
Fifteen minutes into his initial Zoom interview with Ibrahim, Brian Canlis said he “stepped off camera so she couldn’t see me, and I mouthed the words, ‘she’s the one’ to my brother Mark. I knew it right away.”
The Canlis brothers later flew Ibrahim, 35, in from Bangkok for a weeklong interview that culminated in a seven-course dinner she cooked for the Canlis family and Williams on Feb. 26. “She blew us out of the water,” Brian Canlis said of that trial run.
The feast Ibrahim composed for the Canlis family for her test run had hints of Southeast Asian influences along with techniques and flavors from Northern California, Japan and Spain.
Her menu incorporated salmon, apples, Walla Walla onions and other bounty of the Northwest, which was important to the Canlis family, who wanted the dishes to reflect the region but with an innovative spin.
In that seven-course test run, Ibrahim started the family off with a geoduck salad, served raw, with pear and kohlrabi pickled in a fermented rice drink, amazake, from Tahoma Fuji Sake in Seattle, along with brown rice vinegar, grilled nori oil and dehydrated nori.
For the salmon, she cured and grilled the coho loin over apple wood and coals, and served it in a broth made from grilled bones steeped in soy milk seasoned with miso. She adorned it with crispy leeks and drops of hazelnut oil to finish.
Her test trial came in late February, when the produce and ingredients around Seattle weren’t exactly as fresh and as bountiful as in the summer, Ibrahim said.
“It was nerve-wracking. I’m not going to lie,” Ibrahim said, laughing.
It wasn’t just Ibrahim’s culinary skill that endeared her to the Canlis brothers. “More than making the best food, she was the best leader of people,” Brian Canlis said. “We want to be a part of rebuilding a broken industry. She’s the best person to help us do that.”
Canlis has constantly reinvented itself throughout the coronavirus pandemic-induced restaurant shutdown — going from being one of Seattle’s top fine-dining restaurants to morphing into a burger drive-thru, a drive-in movie theater, a community college, a crab shack and a yurt village that offered an outdoorsy dining experience. Its latest pivot is The Canteen, an outdoor BBQ joint that begins service today.
With the pandemic-induced capacity restrictions still in place, the Canlis staff needs time to adjust and regain its footing before Ibrahim can put her imprint on the menu — that likely won’t happen until July at the earliest, she said.