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Canlis, a Magnum Opus

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It's widely considered Seattle's most iconic restaurant. A restaurant steeped in history and tradition. Canlis.

Over the past year, Refined had the unique opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at inner-workings of this beloved Seattle institution, in order to capture a moment in time during a landmark year for the restaurant, and discover why it has, and continues to, stand the test of time.

An [Abbreviated] History

Peter Canlis moved to Seattle and opened the restaurant back in 1950, with the goal of making his mark on the nation's emerging fine dining scene. At the time, the piece of land where the restaurant was built - the same one Canlis still stands today - was considered "way outside the city". But as Peter said, "If it's within a dollar cab ride of downtown, they'll come."

And come they did. Diners, dressed to the nines, traveled from near and far to celebrate, to indulge, to experience a meal unlike they'd ever had before.

Now, many decades later, Canlis remains a part of the very fabric of Seattle and, at the same time, it is perhaps more relevant than ever in today's hyper-competitive and ever-changing dining scene. It also continues to be part of the family.

Third-generation owners Mark and Brian Canlis have put their own stamp on the restaurant. Their goal, simply put, is to put other people first. That manifests itself in the dining room with an unwavering commitment to hospitality and service, and in the kitchen, where Brady Williams, a talented, young executive chef is pushing the limits while still paying homage to the past.

Re-Revolutionizing A Local Legacy

"Our grandfather Peter Canlis set out to create a revolutionary restaurant that was the best in America," said owner Brian Canlis. "He was all about the best, and perfection, and beauty. My parents [Chris and Alice Canlis] brought this incredible sense of warmth, hospitality and making people feel valued."

"I think it's a really special part of this city and an important piece of the legacy of Seattle and obviously means so much to our family," added owner Mark Canlis.

But don't take it just from the family. Providence Cicero has been Lead Restaurant Critic for the Seattle Times since 2008.

"Canlis is Seattle's most essential restaurant, and not just by virtue of its age, but by how gracefully it has aged," she said. "It's really been Seattle's 'special occasion place' for a long time. So many milestones have been celebrated there. It means a lot to a lot of people."

Cicero's first experience at Canlis was in the early to mid 90, when Chris and Alice Canlis were presiding.

"[They were] the epitome of hospitable hosts, and they raised their sons in the restaurant," she said. "Brian and Mark wisely went off and did their own thing, worked outside the family restaurant. I think that was a really smarted thing to do. When they came back, they managed to blend that New York experience working for Danny Meyer - possibly the most outstanding restaurateur in the country in many ways - [to] merge with the family ethos of hospitality."

Neither brother thought they would necessarily be back to run the family business.

"We all kind of went off and did our own things for a while," said Mark. "Brian and I ended up in the military in DC and New York City. I just got a call one day. It said 'Gosh in order for this thing to continue, I think we need a different generation. Would you be interested?' I was a helicopter mechanic at the time. There was a different sort of mindset for me. Brian came back the same way. Tip-toeing and questioning 'Hey, is this right for me?' Once we started working together, we just fell in love with it."

Each owner over the last three decades has brought a different energy to the restaurant.

"Peter Canlis would throw you out if he didn't like you," said Brian. "My parents said 'Gosh every human being on Earth is welcome'. If my grandfather wasn't the best at loving people and my parents maybe weren't the best at trying to be the best restaurant in America, Mark and I are trying to do both."

As Cicero says, it's very risky to try and change a restaurant - especially one that has a long tradition.

"People have expectations," she said.

Brian and Mark got to work right away.

"We took a lot of the old food off the menu, we updated the format, we changed everything," said Brian. "A lot of people didn't like it. They were like 'We want you to go back to the way you were'. Well, if you go back far enough, the way we were was a revolutionary restaurant where everything was new. Well, we want to do that. We don't want to be a tribute to the past and give you the food that you were having in the 60s. Let's give you stuff you've never had before."

Finding The Third Brother

Brady Williams began his culinary career in Dallas, then moved on to the kitchens of New York City. He first became acquainted with the Canlis family while working at acclaimed Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta's (and it's 12-seat, tasting menu-only, restaurant-within-a- restaurant, Blanca). At that same time, Mark and Brian were searching for a new chef. Only 28-years-old at the time, Williams was considered a long-shot to earn the job. In 2015, he was named Executive Chef at Canlis.

"I was living and cooking in New York City, in Brooklyn. I had heard of the Canlis family, the restaurant, through a couple of people," said Williams. "When they were looking for a chef, my name came up."

But, you'll be shocked to learn, hiring a chef in a restaurant you're attempting to make the best in the country is almost impossible.

"It's a near impossible task. It's kind of like finding a franchise quarterback," said Mark. "There's not a ton of them out there. They have to be a leader on and off the field, and they have to be able to throw the ball. To me that was Brady."

The restaurant has only had six chefs in their almost seven decades of existence.

"So, Brady, I've always thought, was just the perfect chef for Canlis at the right moment," said Cicero. "The stars aligned there."

"He was the sexiest guy that applied," said Brian with a laugh. "No, that's not true. He was second sexiest."

But Brian didn't think they'd end up hiring Williams.

"I met [him] when I was working in New York, he was a friend of my now wife. We just had dinner one night and I said, 'You know we're looking for a chef'. This kid was like, 27 and cocky and he was like 'I don't want to go be the chef at this old restaurant in Seattle'. And I was like 'I don't want this young guy. What has he done?' But, we also fell in love with each other a little bit that night. So, literally five or six months later I couldn't get Brady out of my head and, as it turned out, he couldn't get us out of his."

"It's like some Sleepless in Seattle situation where he's in New York and we're in Seattle," he laughed. "We called him up and said, 'Would you want to fly out here and just cook a little bit?Could this maybe work?'

Williams remember saying no for about a month, before realizing the opportunity was one of those thing he needed to pursue and just see for himself. Though his interview was a little different, because he didn't bring anything with him.

"We'd been doing all these interviews with all these other chefs and everyone comes so prepared and so dialed in," said Brian. "Brady was like 'Yeah, I'm just going to go to the market. I'm going to go look around and I'll whip something up for you guys'. Then he just crushed it."

Williams' felt a connection to Canlis, both to the family and the restaurant itself.

"There was something in the walls that just felt familiar and relatable to me," he said. "This restaurant reminds me, in so many ways, of my grandmother's house, which was the house I grew up in. There are very few restaurants like this anywhere, but you can't build a restaurant like this. I realized this was a really special opportunity, so once I was here I knew I wanted the job."

"I loved his sentiment," said Mark. "I loved his own story, his own Japanese roots and his own coming out of hockey and cooking in New York and starting with pizza. Like, all these various - it just sort of worked."

He was the opposite of what they were looking for, but that made it all the more right.

"When that happens it's like 'Oh, this might be right,'" said Brian. "It's always been me and Mark as these two brothers. Brady was the first guy we met that was like, I think this is the third brother. I think this is who we've been missing. Don't tell my third brother that. We actually have a third brother, but he's not in the restaurant business."

"It was just a beautiful merging of sense, sensibility, style," said Cicero. "His cooking is very simple, very beautiful, technically superb and then he immediately went about looking for the things that are of the place here."

A Canlis Dish: From Conception to Plate

The menu at Canlis is carefully curated and changes regularly. In its current iteration, guests choose one dish option for each of the four courses (though often there are snacks and surprises included as well). Williams leads the process of creating new dishes, though more often than not it's a collaboration between the culinary team, wine team and the Canlis brothers themselves. The process, from the conception of a dish to the time it hits the plate, is painstaking and can go on for months - or sometimes even years.

"The process is everything, and there is no process," said Williams.

"[It's] like a large slice of crazy, and you just can't imagine how far away it starts," agreed Brian.

Williams and his team make weekly trips to both the University District Farmer's Market and Ballard Farmer's Market to buy product, meet local farmers and taste what's in season.

"Typically it starts was an ingredient and we build a supporting cast, which can be anywhere from one to three, maybe not more than that, things that compliment it," said Williams.

"Brady comes to us with his tail wagging and says, 'I just found this vegetable' or 'I just found this farmer who's raising ducks in this way' and he's all excited about it," said Brian. "So, he finds one ingredient and he just builds on it."

Sometimes the relationships formed at the farmer's markets evolve to the point that farmers make weekly trips to Canlis, or grow specific products to spec specifically for the restaurant.

"We care a lot about who grows our green garlic or who raises our pigs and we should - I want to know who makes my plates and have a relationship with that person too," said Williams. "The wrong plate - very pragmatically speaking - can make a great dish good, or a good dish average. The plate needs to be considered as part of the experience as much as any other component of the dish."

Canlis works with several ceramicists, who create plateware for the restaurant, often these pieces are custom creations made to showcase a single, specific dish. One of those ceramicists is Akiko Graham of Akiko's Pottery, who works out of her home studio in South Seattle. She and Williams share a special friendship that began when he first took the role of Executive Chef.

"Watching [Graham] work and just knowing her process, I think she is very comfortable with what she does and what she wants to create," he said. "I think that is awesome. It is almost so simple and so perfect that you have to really look at it, and hold it to uncover all the details and all the care and technique that goes into what she does, so I think that mirrors what we do in terms of the cuisine we create. It's a very similar ethos."

Williams fondly refers to Graham as his "Seattle Mom."

"We have a very special relationship," he smiles. "I've come over [to her house] for Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthdays. I've flown with her to her daughter's wedding in Mexico. So I feel like a part of the family, like an adjacent part of the family for sure."

Williams feels strongly that the right plate can really take a dish to another level. After ingredients are sourced, the creative process continues at the restaurant, where he and his team work to create and refine each dish.

"There's an austerity about [Brady's] cooking, but it's austere in a luxurious way," said Cicero. "That sounds like it wouldn't be possible, but I think it's the flavors he coaxes from what could be considered ordinary ingredients...And you know, he's barely over 30 still, so maybe he's at the peak of his powers right now and in an amazing place for him to display what he can do."

As for ideas, Williams has dishes that he's cooked a million times before in his head, but never in actuality.

"[Dishes] that I'm waiting for the right thing, whether that's an ingredient, or technique, or moment to put it on the menu," he said. "Then it's just a laborious process of making it a million times and hopefully we land somewhere where we're happy enough with it to put it on the menu...We fail a ton in the creative process and we learn a ton through that."

The majority of dishes are built to showcase a single ingredient.

"The way Brady cook is, [if] it's asparagus - with pickled asparagus, with raw asparagus, with cooked asparagus, with asparagus puree," said Brian. "He deep dives one ingredient that gets him super fired up and that's fun to watch. At the very end he asks for our help."

Once the dish is in its final stages, everyone gathers around to analyze.

"We all kind of look around, and stare at it, and peck at it, and poke at it and say 'Alright, cool. Can it be better?'" said Mark. "Every once in a while Brian and I get to sit down and say 'What are 100 guests going to say about this dish?' Because if 84 of them like it, that's not good enough. I think with food you have the opportunity to do something creative and you have the opportunity to do something thoughtful, but you also have the opportunity to do something universal. To do all those things in one dish, it's really hard."

This is where the good relationship between the "three brothers" is imperative.

"It's cool [Williams] cares what we think," said Brian. "That doesn't always happen with chefs in other restaurants. It really is a partnership where he understands food better than we do, but we understand the guest better than he does and we need each other, I think, to create the perfect dish."

An Evangelical Approach To Hospitality

The dining experience at Canlis is as much about hospitality and service as it is about the food. The Canlis brothers know more often than not the diners who pack the restaurant are there because 'tonight has to matter'. To that end, Mark and Brian's goal is to create a safe, welcoming space where people want to bring those most cherished moments. That idea fuels the restaurant's approach to hospitality.

"I think all of hospitality is about relationship," said Mark. "And I think all of relationship is about trust. I think trust is the currency of relationship."

Cicero calls the brothers' views on hospitality "evangelical."

"They can, I think, inspire their staff," she said. "It's like a little university, sort of. If you work at Canlis, certainly in the front of the house, you're going to get grounded in a style of service that is rare these days."

There is a saying up on the wall downstairs, that says "Keep The Promise."

"That idea is that people don't come to Canlis for some random reason," said Brian. "They're not just like 'Oh I'm hungry, let's go get some food.' They come to Canlis because tonight has to matter and it's our job to make sure it does."

"You're not going to trust Canlis if there's a spot on the glass, or if there's one tiny detail missing," said Mark. " You're going to start to not trust us. There's a lot of grand things that happen here, but it begins with the tiniest details."

The brothers know some people may think the importance they place on standards are silly.

"When we pour water it has to be timed perfectly with the other person pouring water like it's choreography," said Brian. "When we put the bread plate down it has to be exactly one inch from the knife, it has to be exactly 1.5 inches from the candle and exactly three-quarters inches from the bottom. We use rulers and we're obsessive. That's ridiculous, but what we've learned is all these crazy standards remind our staff all the time that if little details matter then the big details matter."

Cicero has personally experienced how those small details can make all the difference.

"When my daughter was about 10 years old I took her to Canlis," she said. "I had to go for a piece I was writing, so I took my daughter. She went to reach for her glass of Sprite, [which] was just maybe two inches farther than she could actually reach, and in the time she stretched out her hand - the server was at the table and pushed the glass towards her so she could reach it without having to go any further. To me that was an amazing piece and illustration of just how much they keep an eye on things."

Brian calls his staff "a bunch of restaurant nerds."

"[They] take pleasure in things that normal people would not take pleasure in, and most of the guests don't even notice it," he said. "I think 90% of the stuff we do, no one notices it, but they feel it.

His favorite thing the staff does in the dining room is called a "mongoose."

"Let's say I clear a plate, but then the guest catches my eye and wants to have a conversation," he said. "Fine, well now I'm holding a dirty plate. It's not nice to hold a dirty plate while having a conversation. So, if I see someone out of the corner of my eye, one of my people down the aisle, I will, without breaking eye contact with the guest put [the plate] behind my back at the exact time they're walking by and they'll always take it. Guests never see it, but every once in a while they do and they're like 'Where'd the plate go?' Those moments are so nerdy, but they're so fun."

The 2019 James Beard Awards

The James Beard Awards are considered among the most prestigious awards in the culinary world. After missing out on the Winner's Circle for the better part of two decades, Canlis won its first James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program in 2017. In 2019, the restaurant earned two nominations: Brady Williams for Best Chef Northwest and the restaurant for Outstanding Service. The restaurant also received the foundation's Design Icon Award, which was announced two months prior to the awards ceremony. Though Canlis ultimately did not win for Outstanding Service, Williams took home his first James Beard Award on May 6th in Chicago.

"James Beard was this incredible man," said Mark. "The Beard Foundation will tell you the James Beard's are the 'Oscars of the Food World.'"

Brian and Mark see them as a stamp of approval.

"Our industry doesn't have a lot of chances at that," said Brian. "It's always fun to know the city [of Seattle] loves us, but when the entire country says 'You deserve this thing, that means a lot.'"

When they went to Chicago for the awards, they already knew they were walking away with at least one. The Design Icon award had been announced several months prior.

"We got to put Mom and Dad on stage [while accepting the Design Icon Award]," said Mark. "Which just felt right on so many levels. Got to watch Mom cry."

"I think we all cried a little," Brian agreed. "You gave a good speech."

Right before Mark went on to give the speech, Brian handed him a flask.

"Well it was so funny," said Brian. "We were backstage. He's about to give the speech and as a good brother, I had a flask of whiskey in my pocket. So, I was like 'Here Mark, just have a small pull'. It was a cheap flask, the kind you squeeze."

A squeezable flask, a nervous Mark...

"He grabbed [the flask] and it went all over and down his shirt," laughed Brian. "He's covered in whiskey and he stinks, and then they're like 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Mark Canlis!'."

"If you could've smelled that speech, you would've thought I was completely hammered," said Mark. "It was not representative of who we are, but we made it through. I feel like we made it through."

Host Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell, from "Modern Family") witnessed the whole thing.

"He was cracking up in the back," said Mark. "It was pretty fun. It was really special to be up there as a family, that felt meaningful and significant in so many ways."

Even now, looking back - it's a blur.

"When you win an award you get ushered backstage," said Brian. "There's all these long hallways, you take an elevator and another hallway. It's very confusing. And you come to a room with photos and champagne, then you get ushered down another hallway and you're in another room with press. We know Brady's award is a few awards later, so we're so fast. Champagne, interview and then run back to our seats just in time for Brady's award. So there wasn't even a moment to enjoy it! Then you get back to the seat and Brady is nervous and our whole team is there."

"It's terrifying," said Mark. "You tell yourself it doesn't matter, but I'm sorry - 90 seconds before you're absolutely enraptured. You're hearing it in slow motion. It's like one of those dream scenes. And then they called his name"

And then they called his name. And, like Mark says, "it just felt right."

"I've looked up to a lot of chefs who've won awards," said Williams. "I think, in general, it's a nice industry-wide affirmation that what you're doing is on the right track."

The Perfect Night

"If there was one message I could give at the front door it would be [that] we're not waiting for the king of Spain to show up," said Mark. "We're waiting for you. This whole thing; the baker arriving at four in the morning, the cooks getting here at nine in the morning, the staff getting here hours early to iron tablecloths and buff stemware that's so fragile it breaks when you frown at it, all of that is just for the most common person I can find. That's what Canlis is about."

One of the things the brothers love about restaurants, in general, is that "it's one of the few places on Earth where (all guests) get the same thing."

"So if a local billionaire walks in, he or she gets the same food, the same tablecloth, the same view, the same chair," said Brian. "In an airplane that's not the case, in a hotel that's not the case, but in a restaurant it's the exact same, and I think there's beauty in that. There's magic in the ability to level the playing field and say 'No matter who you are, no matter how much money you're making, you deserve the most amazing night of your life.'"

So, what is a perfect night like at Canlis?

"A perfect night at Canlis. I don't know if I could describe it, but it's why I still work here," said Mark. "It's a really powerful thing. It feels a lot like surfing. It feels a lot like you're on the edge of something really powerful, doing everything you can to not get crushed by that wave and at the same time, not letting it pass you by."

"I love every seat full. I love the energy. I don't think fine dining should be quiet and solemn," said Brian. "I think there should be a buzz in the air, so you've got the loudness out in the dining room and then you've got quiet, intense, serious focus in the kitchen. And the guests have no idea about any of it. They're just in their own little bubbles, facing each other and they have no idea. I love that. I love that we're doing a thousand things that they don't see. They're just face-to-face with each other having the best time, and we're back there just scrambling like a duck. It looks like we're graceful, but our little feet are [moving so fast] under the water, but the guests don't see it. It's great."

They say they know when it's a good night.

"You know? You can just tell," said Brady. "I can step out of the kitchen, and there's just something in the air, something in the vibe that you know, you know it's a good night."

"It's way more than just eating," said Mark. "It's like the community did something tonight. They partied...and people walk out and they feel cared for. It's pretty special."

Special thanks to Mark Canlis, Brian Canlis, Brady Williams, Jessica Powers, Providence Cicero, Akiko Graham, the University District Neighborhood Farmer's Market, James Beard Foundation and the entire Canlis kitchen and front of the house staff.

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