On July 1, for the first time in 16 months, Canlis will open its dining room for service. And for the first time in the iconic Seattle restaurant's 70-year history, a female executive chef will be at the helm.
Canlis announced Aisha Ibrahim’s hire in May, two months after the previous head chef, Brady Williams, left to pursue other projects. Ibrahim was the sous chef at California’s three-Michelin-star restaurant Manresa, and grew her career internationally, cooking for chef Eneko Atxa at Azurmendi in Spain and sister restaurant Aziamendi in Thailand, as well as in Malaysia, Taipei, and Japan. When Canlis co-owners Mark and Brian reached out in early 2021 about applying for the new job, she was still overseas looking into opening her own restaurant in Thailand.
Ibrahim had only passed through Seattle briefly once, awhile back, but the opportunity to make her mark on a storied Pacific Northwest dining destination was too good to pass up. “To be able to walk into a 70-year-old restaurant that you’ve never seen regular service in, there’s so many challenges about that,” she tells Eater Seattle. “But I look at this as a unique opportunity. We get to reset the whole restaurant. We get to reset how we organize the kitchen. We get to reset how we approach challenges and stress as a team ... I’m highly optimistic. It’s kind of annoying for a lot of people who aren’t.”
Though she was still working through final details of the new menu at the time of this interview, Ibrahim cites the abundance of wonderful local produce and seafood as a major draw (she had already worked with purveyor Taylor Shellfish for a decade, and now she’s happy that they’re so close). “The spot prawns are so beautiful. And we still have salmon, just kind of working around the profile of what’s happening in late June, early July,” she says. Ibrahim also notes that the restaurant will dig deep into fermentation, collaborating with a local brewery on some of the byproduct produced and incorporating sake lees into their efforts. She adds that she’s a fan of “bright flavors,” so utilizing seasonal fruit will be big, particularly berries and apricots.
Ibrahim says her experience at Japanese kaiseki restaurants has informed her work, and the lessons of regional sustainability that she picked up in Spain will apply to the offerings at Canlis. While the main restaurant will still have its tasting menu format (with the famed Canlis salad and soufflé the only holdovers), Ibrahim says the bar will be an area where she might extend the kitchen’s creative juices, perhaps developing some inventive takes on American classics. “It’ll be a way for us to try things that we can’t do for 160 guests [per night].”
Over the past year, Canlis wasn’t afraid to try new things, whether it was a burger drive-thru, an outdoorsy smokehouse, or even a “community college” with online cooking classes. Co-owner Brian Canlis noted back in March, at the height of the pandemic, that “fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now.” More than 16 months later, the restaurant appears ready to get back to what it does best in terms of offering a fine-dining experience for special nights out.
But hiring Ibrahim is a signal that the old Seattle standby continues to be open to change, and has been cognizant of the shortcomings in the restaurant industry. Brian Canlis said during her job interview with him and Mark, “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.”
In that vein, the Philippine-born Ibrahim — whose partner Samantha Beaird works as the restaurant’s research and development chef — says that addressing toxic kitchen culture is a high priority. She says her role as a leader will be to instill understanding and compassion among staff, particularly in an often fast-paced, high-pressure environment. “It’s important to take a look at yourself and in moments of high stress continue to approach people in a room with respect,” she says. “Because you’re in a room full of adults and professionals … I should be able to talk to you person-to-person to kind of discuss, ‘Hey, this needs to change.’ Let’s focus on creating an environment about teaching and learning.”
“When I was beginning to cook it was like the time of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and how cool it was to just be a pirate and total asshole,” she says. “Those days are over. They’ve been over for a long time. And I’m glad for that.”
Being in the industry for 15 years, Ibrahim has become all too familiar with stories like the sexual misconduct accusations against JuneBaby chef Edouardo Jordan, and hopes to bring about more positive change in the industry. “That’s one of millions of stories,” she says of the Jordan allegations. “It’s disappointing to continue to find these things out, but at the same time, how do we move forward? Does it make me angry? Absolutely. I mean, I’ve endured things like that in my career. Those kind of predatory behaviors from that role, we have to find ways to continue stopping that from happening.”
Those issues will continue to loom large, but Ibrahim is focused on the task at hand, full of hope, and inscribing daily affirmations in her Notes app about “coaxing positivity.” She’s getting settled in the city, wrangling her dog Mochi, and appreciating the abundance of tacos around town, something she missed in Thailand. Starting on the first of July, the curtain officially rises on the new era of Canlis, and the chef says she can’t wait to get going: “I’m excited to see the dining room come to life.”