Perched on a hill with a breathtaking view of Lake Union, Canlis restaurant is a Seattle institution. It is one of the few remaining places in the city where patrons dress up with a suit or jacket. There is live piano every night. Currently helmed by third generation owners and brothers Mark and Brian, it has been in their family for over 70 years. The cantilevered and mid-century establishment unequivocally pioneered Pacific Northwest cuisine.
Now, Aisha Ibrahim, the first Filipino, first queer, and first woman to lead as head chef, is bringing her narrative to this storied restaurant. With a global resume that crisscrosses continents, she is writing the next delicious chapter of Canlis’ fable.
I couldn’t cook eggs when I was 18 and a college athlete playing Division I basketball. During my knee injury recovery, I began cooking from cookbooks while stuck at home. I found a lot of peace working through the process of those recipes and trying to understand that world. I started culinary school after dropping out of my full ride at college. I was first generation. It was a hard decision to make and it definitely broke my parents’ heart. I was betting on myself.
After graduating culinary school, my first fine dining service was the closest thing to a basketball game I ever experienced. Lots of demand, lots of criticism, lots of teamwork. There is a rhythm and muscle memory to it. It is the ability to read the game. There were so many parallels I got instantly hooked. I wanted to pursue fine dining because the standards are so much higher.
Of all the places I've worked, I've definitely been so strongly influenced by Japan. I applied for an externship in Japan. They didn't really pay for women to have housing there. I could only really afford to stay there for a few months. Because I had to earn that opportunity, I took it so seriously. I taught myself enough Japanese to get around. I bought myself a usuba [knife]. I committed to learning traditional knife skills before I went. Those few months in Japan really helped me understand why Japanese cuisine is relevant today. I so love the idea of learning skills from kaiseki [a technique driven multi-course Japanese dinner].
My time in Japan was the closest thing to how I felt about Filipino cuisine. We don't waste anything. It forces creativity in a very different way. I was able to experience a spiritual and holistic approach to how nature provides for us as cooks. So much of what I try to do, in the way that I cook and approach products with respect, comes from my time in Japan and my time cooking with my grandparents.
Was there pressure? Yes. Most of it came from me. I initially wasn't even going to take a call from them. I wrestled with how I would feel coming into a then 71-year-old-institution. I’m brown. I’m queer. My dad’s side of the family is one of three indigenous groups from a southern region in the Philippines. How powerful that my name sounds like a Muslim name in a predominantly Christian country. As an immigrant to this country, bringing my perspective into Pacific Northwest cuisine, how relevant am I going to be? How would my identity fit in here? As I leaned harder into my pride around it and being able to share that, to see myself in this position is something I could have only dreamt of.
Pressure—it's there, it will always be there. I will always create it, because that's the kind of person that I am. But I work through it step by step and have tried to build a team that helps me feel supported here. It was daunting at first. You're kind of steering the ship in a whole other direction. I wouldn't be where I am today without all the people on our team who have stuck by me and given me a chance to kind of grow with them here. We have a 100+ person team. It's quite a lot of people to manage. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of my job, but they helped me manage that pressure very well.
Some guests, especially longtime ones, want this to still be a steak and potatoes restaurant, which we are not doing. We had to find a way to continue honoring guests and not break their traditions, but welcome them back into the space. As I got more comfortable in my career, I really started to explore what made my heritage and my region of the world special. How can I take all of this technical knowledge that I have and share some of those flavors? Canlis is a Pacific Northwest restaurant. Each chef who takes this job is tasked with expressing Pacific Northwest cuisine, but also expressing our lens of what America looks like. At one point I wanted to put rice on the menu. The brothers noted that it was pretty Asian. I’m like “No. This is an American perspective. This is mine. A meal isn't a meal without rice in our house.”
Bottom line, we're trying to put out delicious food. We want people to feel satiated. If a guest gets to the end of the meal, and they're still a little hungry, are we too cool to serve them more food? We're not. I take seriousness in making sure that we nourish the guests in the same ways that my grandparents would have fed me.
The brothers push very hard for the team to feel encouraged to make connections with the guests. I think there is a level of humanity and connection that shifts away from this idea that is like, “Oh, my God, I'm at a stuffy fine dining restaurant. What if I dropped my fork? Am I allowed to get up? So many people don't know how to feel about fine dining. Sometimes when I see those guests walk in, I make a point to go to their tables, bring them back to the kitchen and have them hang out with us back there. Our job is to make them feel like this is their space. This dining room should be for everyone. Whether you're someone who can afford this meal once a year, once a lifetime or once a month. You are very important to us. It's kind of an anti-fine dining experience. It's delicious food, great service and incredible wines. And it's fun. Fine dining can be fun. It doesn't have to be so serious.
Each year I do an iteration of a dish called tortang talong. It’s a Filipino fried eggplant omelet and a dish my mom used to make for me. Would I ever have imagined I would put it on a fine dining menu? No. It’s whisked eggs with charred eggplant that have been peeled and a generous amount of butter. We siphon eggs and bake it so it has a custardy souffle-like texture. It’s crunchy on the outside and custardy on the inside. I feel like it's allowed me to be a little bit more expressive with bolder flavors. It's my way of just going for it. It's also offered as an entree for the first time. In the past, people would want rice with it. This year, we're actually serving it with rice. It's more of a complete dish than it's ever been. We have beautiful tomatoes on top and pickled cucumbers. I hate banana ketchup so I made a play on a sauce escabeche instead. It surprises guests. People are like, “Why would I want to order eggplant? There is a halibut dish or a steak option.” Sometimes I’ll just send it to someone to see what they think. Then they are like “oh my god, it’s so good.”