The former sous chef experiments with varieties of wheat, barley, buckwheat and other grains in pastas; pizzas; and, of course, breads.
WHY WOULD Niels Brisbane, a former sous chef at Canlis, Seattle’s grande dame of fine dining, decide to commute 60 miles north to the Skagit Valley?
I drove to The Bread Lab/Canlis Research Kitchen in Burlington to sit down with Brisbane, culinary director. Despite its seven ovens, The Bread Lab is a bit chilly and dark on this morning — and surprisingly still. “It’s a pretty big space for a few people,” says Brisbane, referring to the staff of five, plus three graduate students. The quiet is totally different from a busy restaurant kitchen.
Brisbane, 28, wears a gray apron and jeans, holding a Washington State University coffee cup. He says he shares the Canlis family’s commitment not only to serving outstanding and innovative food, but also to making the world a better place. “There’s a bigger mission,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend my career feeding the elite.”
A Washington native, Brisbane had heard about the groundbreaking work of Stephen Jones at The Washington State University Bread Lab, which started in 2011. Researchers there test 10,000 varieties of wheat, barley, buckwheat and other grains to develop new varieties that taste great, are nutritious and grow well in our climate.
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“I wanted to be a part of that,” Brisbane says, flipping a pen in his hands. Brisbane’s mission is to help chefs find tasty uses for these new grains. The Bread Lab largely depends on private donations, and Canlis funds more than half of his salary.
In a 12,000-square-foot space at the Port of Skagit, The Bread Lab is part high-tech lab and part professional kitchen. There’s equipment to measure the protein and ash levels in flours, and ovens for baking bread and pizza. More than two dozen small mills — made of plastic, metal or wood — are packed into the mill room.
In the Canlis Research Kitchen, Brisbane tests different pastas; pizzas; and, of course, breads. “A certain grain might not be great for bread or Italian pasta, but it might be great for Asian-style noodles,” says Brisbane, who majored in biology at the University of California Davis.
A current interest is buckwheat. Brisbane says it grows well here and has interesting potential. With a short growing cycle, buckwheat is a nutritious and delicious grainlike seed. At The Bread Lab, he’s experimenting with a buckwheat cavatelli, a noodle that is shaped by hand into elongated shells. His innovative work earned him a place on the Eater Young Guns 2018 list.
In addition to working with superstar chefs like Edouardo Jordan (of JuneBaby, Salare and Lucinda) and bakers like Mel Darbyshire (of Grand Central Baking Company), Brisbane also partners with regional farmers. Most of Washington’s wheat is grown east of the Cascades, and most of it is exported. By producing grains that thrive in the Skagit Valley, The Bread Lab is helping to rebuild a local grain economy.
“We’re trying to change the food system. It’s broken in our country,” says Brisbane, who grew up in Lynden. He says that most mass-produced or commodity flour is stripped of nutrition and flavor.
But rebuilding the food system takes a long time. It takes years to create a network of farmers, millers, bakers and merchants like communities had 100 years ago.
“It’s very special what we have here in the Skagit,” he says of the diversity in agriculture and the quality of the topsoil. The special place, and a chance to improve the food system, makes the drive worth it.