It isn’t lost on Aisha Ibrahim that she ticks a lot of boxes. The first female executive chef at storied Canlis is, yes, a woman, but she’s also Filipino. An immigrant. Her family is Muslim. She’s gay. During an initial phone interview with Mark and Brian Canlis in January, the brothers asked Ibrahim what it would feel like to be the next chef for Canlis.
“My response back to them was something like, you know, I’ve been a female and a person of color my whole life. What would it feel like for you guys?” she says.
Mark Canlis recalls that Brian instantly answered, “If our mission is to inspire all people to turn toward each other, it sure seems like we’d do that better if you were at the helm than if another white male were at the helm. An outside perspective that we’ll never have, and never be able to have, would help this restaurant speak out and serve the city.”
But Ibrahim, 35, isn’t just the boxes she ticks. She’s the oldest of three kids and has two younger brothers. Her family moved from the Philippines to Evans, West Virginia, when she was 6 years old. She played college basketball at Elon University, shifting to the culinary world after an injury. Her middle brother still won’t play her in basketball (they’re way too competitive with each other). She’s a dog mom and was a kid who loved inspirational posters. Her favorite one read: “Success always looks easy to those who weren’t around when it was earned.” She sets goals, not only yearly ones, but each month, in her notes app, she writes things to herself as a reminder of those goals.
She’s spent the past 15 years in kitchens across the globe, from San Francisco to the Basque region of Spain to Thailand. Prior to the pandemic, she spent two years preparing to open her own restaurant. In January, while she was working as a consultant for a restaurant group, it became clear things with investors in Thailand weren’t going through. She began to entertain the idea of exploring job opportunities back in the States, or even in Taiwan.
Out of the blue she woke up one morning to a direct message on Instagram from Brian Canlis asking if she would want to talk about possibly becoming the next chef at the iconic Seattle restaurant. She hadn’t lived in the U.S. for the majority of the past five years. She’d been to Seattle once — for a night — on her way to the San Juan Islands while on a coffee tour of the Pacific Northwest. She had only driven by the Pike Place Market sign.
After Brady Williams announced in January that he was leaving Canlis to start his own restaurant, the Canlis brothers kicked off their search for a new chef via an Instagram post — a very public statement for a process that’s normally rife with politics and shrouded in secrecy. They began receiving cover letters and résumés from across the country, while making a shortlist of their own. If candidates provided a cover letter and a résumé, they were then asked to write the first few paragraphs of a mock Seattle Times article announcing their hire and submit a one-minute video of themselves throwing their whole heart into something they were bad at.
“If they did all that, you got an interview with us on the phone. No matter if you were Bob, a cook down the street with no experience, you got 30 minutes with us on the phone,” Brian Canlis says.
Ibrahim’s experience was a bit different. She had a video call with the Canlis brothers prior to writing her article or making her video. By the time they flew her in for a multiday interview, it was mid-February, but both brothers say they already knew they had found their next chef. Brian Canlis says he knew 15 minutes into the first video call, while Mark Canlis says, “She had me at Dougie,” in reference to Ibrahim’s video of her very awkwardly dancing the Dougie.
Ibrahim and her partner Samantha Beaird (who also now works at Canlis as a research and development chef) flew to Seattle for a nine-day trip that included dinners and tours spent with the Canlis team, culminating in an evening where she cooked for them. She flew home on her birthday, March 11, and by her second day of quarantine back in Thailand, she had accepted the job.
Yes, she impressed them with her cooking. Ibrahim loves to get granular with micro-seasonal ingredient lists. She spent a recent day off at a bookstore looking for tomes on Indigenous ingredients. She’s aging fish and duck. Her heart “races” when she looks at the onion varieties and tomatoes coming from nearby biodynamic farms. She has missed geoduck and salmon while in Thailand because she works “as sustainably as possible when sourcing.” She’s got a delivery of 20 pounds of cattails coming to the restaurant for potential inclusion on the menu.
But, as Brian Canlis said, “It’s not just about what you do with a knife and a stove. It’s what you do with the humans around you. That’s why we hired her; we chose her because we think she is that person that our whole staff can look up to.”
She wants people to know she’s firm, but fair. When it comes to her role as executive chef, she says, “I feel like it should be what isn’t my job.” She sweeps and mops. She’s happy to be a vocal or silent leader.
“It’s part of all of our jobs to be critical as professionals, so what happens between clock-in and clock-out is a conversation about how to be better,” she says.
Ibrahim has spent a long time learning what kind of leader she wanted to be, drawing not only from her days spent as a point guard (“Your job is to make everyone on the team look good,” she says) and her confidence in coaching people, but from what she’s learned from the chefs she’s worked with.
Specifically, a chef in Spain who helped her realize she didn’t want to just go work for a chef who was an incredible cook, but someone who was a “person you want to be like.” Also, there was a transformative time staging at Tokyo’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Ishikawa, where her first night there, the entire staff gathered for a preshift meeting and held hands.
“I was like, ‘We’re joking, right?’ We don’t do that in our world,” Ibrahim says.
The staff was then posed two questions — the first was, “When was the last time something was so cute it made you want to cry?” Ibrahim thought it was a joke they were playing on her, but then the head chef and owner Hideki Ishikawa answered first, recounting that on his way to work he saw a baby raccoon and it was so cute he followed it for a bit. It’s the only answer Ibrahim remembers.
The second question was about a point of conflict between the kitchen staff and dining room staff during the previous evening’s service. Each side told their story of what happened, and everyone discussed the incident.
“That blew my mind. The point of taking a step back and a restaurant making a choice to resolve a conflict for everyone resonated so strongly with me. It was the exact opposite of what I had been trained at that point,” Ibrahim says.
For Ibrahim at that time, leadership in a kitchen meant that show of force was everything. Demand respect by being the scariest person in the room; “scary good at cooking and scary to approach.”
That vulnerability she witnessed while working for Ishikawa made an impact with Ibrahim and changed how she thought a kitchen could run.
On her first night in the Canlis kitchen, she spilled potatoes on her shoe and the kitchen froze. Things felt tense.
“I would stand next to a cook, and they would be shaking. I leaned over and said, ‘Hey chef, we’re just cooking. I’m just here to help you,’” she says.
She had expected to walk into a kitchen where people were scared and tired after 15 months of pandemic pivots, and she was right. But it’s getting better.
“The expectation isn’t that we’re perfect. If you’re doing your best, I’m not going to get mad at you. It means your skill level isn’t there yet and you need to learn how to ask for help and I need to recognize you might need help,” Ibrahim says about the changes she’s making.
Mark Canlis says he believes Ibrahim is the “kind of leader that will inspire a whole country of cooks to change the way they become chefs.”
Ibrahim thinks of it as a question — is that something she wants? She does. She wants the industry to change. She thinks of how representation matters and the feeling she had the first time she ate at San Francisco’s Benu, a Michelin-starred restaurant run by South Korean immigrant Corey Lee and how impactful it was to her as a young cook.
“It made me feel like [the food] was placed at the table for me. I’m getting so much love from the Filipino community and the gay community and it’s amazing — I’m hoping that does for the next generation what that meal at Benu did for me. Made me feel like I don’t have to be a white male to succeed.”
As the dining room gets ready to reopen July 1 with an entirely new menu — save for the soufflé and the Canlis salad — Ibrahim says she’s thinking about the guests, too.
To her, they aren’t just seat numbers at a table. They are people, this is an occasion. She feels fine dining is a “unique opportunity for us to be able to give the most heightened experience to a guest.”
“I think about when my parents ate at Manresa for the first time and how special that was,” Ibrahim said, referencing the three-Michelin-starred restaurant she worked at for a while in the Bay Area. “This could be that two-top. I want to cook in a way that’s elevated, in a way that allows someone to know through subtleties that we’re there to take care of them 100%.”