Cooking with Jason

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Week Three

Here we go again -- this time it's a three-week summary. If you notice that parts of these essays flow well while other sections seem forced, well, you're right. I get instructions like, "Summarize your first three weeks... and be sure to cover topics A, B, C, X, and Z." In this essay in particular, I wrote for awhile and then decided I'd better squeeze those required topics in there, giving the second half a bit of a disjointed feel. I know, I shouldn't have mentioned it and you wouldn't have noticed.


Friends and family members like to ask me what I’m learning at Canlis Restaurant, perhaps expecting me to tell them about some fabulous new sauce, that I’ve discovered how to grill the perfect steak, or that I’ve happened across a trick to make people like Brussels sprouts (no trick needed here—I love ‘em). Instead, to their slight disappointment, I tell them that I’m learning how to work.

It’s certainly true that I’ve learned new sauces and been presented with new ways to prepare food, but that learning pales in comparison to the practical, hands-on knowledge gained by actually working the line five nights a week. Despite the best efforts of the CIA’s chef-instructors, there’s no way the kitchens at school could ever simulate the pressure of serving 300 guests on a Saturday night. I liked to think I was setting up my station appropriately and working efficiently during, say, Cuisines of Asia, but what I’ve discovered is that without volume, there’s no way to know for sure. At Canlis I’ve quickly learned how to best set up the vegetable station for my specific style, and am working daily to improve my efficiency both before and during service. Best of all, there’s almost immediate feedback—if your station isn’t set up well, the demands of a busy service will let you know in a hurry (if the chef doesn’t call you on it first!).

In my first module, I commented that the kitchen at Canlis was like that of any other restaurant. That’s somewhat true of the way the kitchen works, as well—despite what people outside the industry may think, the kitchens of great restaurants are not filled with a dozen chefs, each with 25 years of experience, painstakingly assembling each dish with tweezers and a miniature palate knife. The techniques being used typically aren’t anything groundbreaking, either—sautéing and braising have been around forever and aren’t going anywhere.

Rather, I’ve gathered that what sets a restaurant like Canlis apart are the quality of the inputs, the care that goes into preparing them, and that everything is made from scratch. The very best meat, seafood, and produce items available arrive each day, are checked in, and stored appropriately. If something isn’t right, it’s set aside to be returned.

Stocks and sauces are simmered, skimmed, strained, and put away, even thought you could take shortcuts or use commercial bases instead. It costs more to use the best and it takes longer to do things the right way, but ultimately your food, and your restaurant, will be much better off for it.

In the kitchen, up to four stations contribute to each plate: grill, plating, vegetable, and sauté. The flow is such that the plating station sets up the appropriate plate for the menu item, and vegetable and sauté bring their items to the plate. The plate is then pushed out to the grill, where it receives the correct protein before being passed to the server (or is simply passed to the server, in the case of a plate which does not receive an item from the grill). Fire and stage calls come from the grill as well as the plating station, both of which have ticket printers, with the grill ultimately making the “send out table six” call, followed by the plating station communicating what is needed for the table to sauté and vegetable.

As mentioned above, preparations are elaborate and carefully carried out, while presentations are quite simple, as mentioned in my previous essay. Canlis believes they are using the best possible inputs and treats their ingredients very well from receiving to cooking, then gives them top billing on each plate by making the steak or piece of fish the dish’s focal point.

To this point, cooking techniques are very much the same as what I’ve been taught at school. As part of my daily mise en place, I make both emulsion and reduction sauces, and cook vegetables in a large pot of salted, rapidly boiling water, then shock them in ice water. I haven’t encountered any techniques which run contrary to CIA teaching, though it’s worth noting I’ve only been at Canlis for three weeks and have only really experienced one station.

Consistency, while not a stated goal or ideal, is certainly evident in the kitchen. I make my sauces the same exact way each day, and have observed other cooks going about their work with the same exacting repetition. This is particularly important for a restaurant such as Canlis, with its long history, stellar reputation, and established regular customers, many of whom have been dining there for more than 25 years.

As in any kitchen, utilization is very important—but not at the expense of maintaining high quality standards. If something is leftover, such as a vegetable mixture from the fish special, it might be saved and used for an upcoming family meal. Meat and seafood trim are similarly utilized. But if something is going bad, it gets tossed, not used for family meal. The chefs would much rather take the loss on an item than serve anything less than high quality food to either their employees or their customers. Other than family meal, utilization plays an important role in both daily specials as well as the daily amusé (known at Canlis as the “welcoming hors d’oeuvre”).

Monday, January 23, 2006

Week Two

Here's my second module, this one a two-part essay—the first section covers the history, philosophy and vision of the restaurant, while the second focuses on the chefs and the food. While this essay doesn't include anything about my externship, I think it's just as interesting, if not more so, than the first essay, given Canlis' long history and how seriously they take being the very best in everything they do. Enjoy.


Nicolas Peter Canlis opened Canlis Restaurant in Seattle in 1950 in its present location, on a hillside three miles north of downtown and overlooking Lake Union. Canlis was his second restaurant, opened three years after The Broiler in Waikiki, Hawaii, and immediately became famous in the city for charging an outlandish fifty cents for a baked potato. Until 1954, Canlis and his daughter Gloria lived in an apartment above the restaurant’s main floor, which was eventually remodeled into what is today the Penthouse Room, a large private dining room accommodating up to 90 guests. Four years later, two smaller rooms—the Executive Room and Caché—were added, giving Canlis roughly its current layout.

Canlis opened restaurants in Portland and San Francisco in 1959 and 1965, respectively, the former a joint venture with Barron Hilton. Following his death in 1977, his son Chris moved to Seattle to run the restaurant along with Chris’ wife, Alice. Two years later the Portland location was turned over to Hilton at the expiration of a 20-year lease, and in 1985 Chris Canlis sold the San Francisco location in order to focus on business in Seattle. With the restaurant beginning to show its age in 1996, Chris and Alice Canlis embarked on a two million dollar project which updated every facet of Canlis.

In 2005, Chris and Alice’s second son, Mark, became managing owner of Canlis, leading the restaurant in its third generation of family ownership, known as “Canlis 3.0”. The restaurant is truly a family affair—Chris and Alice remain involved in its day-to-day operations, and Mark’s younger brother Brian recently joined the management team as well.

Despite being over 55 years old, Canlis has actually changed very little since opening, and what changes have occurred are primarily physical changes to the restaurant itself. The Canlis vision, while not easily obtained, is simply stated—to create the best dining experience in the country. This vision begins with an extreme focus on service. Canlis believes that guests are bringing their most treasured possessions—their time, their privacy, their wealth, and their relationships—to the restaurant, and that it is of the utmost importance to guard these possessions. This is achieved by a list of priorities: hard work, high standards, knowledge and skills, personal attention to individual taste, comfort and elegance, and gracious service.

When Nicolas Peter Canlis opened the restaurant in 1950, he decided to go against the norm by not using traditional French service and the “captain system,” which he found stuffy and self-serving. Instead, he is credited with developing a team style of service which today is used around the world, as well as one of the earliest tip and profit sharing systems. The team style of service continues at Canlis today, as well as a “secret” valet parking system which uses no claim tickets but always has cars waiting for customers instead of the other way around.

Perhaps the best example of both how Canlis hasn’t changed and how much it values its customers is that many food items, despite no longer being listed on the menu, are still produced without hesitation if asked for. This may seem like an inconvenience, but when you have regular customers who have been dining with you for over 40 years, any inconvenience is easily justified by being able to provide treasured guests with their favorite dishes. Still other items, such as Peter Canlis Prawns, The Canlis Salad, and Steak Tartare, have been on the menu virtually unchanged in 50 years.

The Canlis philosophy on food is to serve the very best products prepared to their very best, with a focus on local, seasonal, and heirloom produce. The menu itself changes seasonally, in order to offer the very best and freshest at any given time of the year. The cuisine would generally be described as New American, though the restaurant is credited with giving birth to Northwest Cuisine, and as a result much of the menu features local and regional seafood such as Alaskan salmon and local oysters. In fact, the vast majority of the food received at Canlis, from produce to beef to seafood, can be described as coming from local producers—Misty Isle Farms (beef), Taylor Family Shellfish, Full Circle Farm, and Olsen Farm Potatoes to name four.

Because Canlis believes they’re utilizing the highest quality ingredients, many dishes appear simpler than you might expect from such an upscale establishment. This is particularly true of the primary proteins—steaks, lamb chops, salmon, and the daily fish special—which receive top billing on their respective plates without being covered in sauces. The plates still contain sauces, of course, along with vegetables and starches, but it’s clear that the protein is the featured item. When you’re paying $70 for a Wagyu beef (Kobe-style) tenderloin you want to taste the steak itself, not an overly rich demi-glace based sauce, so steaks are given a small swipe of Canlis’ steak butter and nothing more.

The restaurant’s chef team, made up of Co-Executive Chefs Jeff Taton and Aaron Wright, is best described as a blend of new and old. Taton, who began at Canlis after high school as a dishwasher and worked his way up through the ranks despite no formal training, will celebrate his 25th anniversary at the restaurant this summer. He brings the experience of having worked under previous chefs Rocky Toguchi and Greg Atkinson, and is considered the kitchen’s stalwart leader.

Wright has only been at Canlis since 2000, and in his current position since 2002, but brings balance to the team as a relative outsider. He is also considered the creative visionary, introducing new dishes, updating existing Canlis classics and writing the chef’s tasting menu. After ten years as an illustrator and graphic designer, Wright changed direction, beginning his new career in California before coming to Seattle and working at local restaurants Andaluca and Earth & Ocean.

Specials—the only true special currently is a daily fish preparation, soon to be a daily mixed grill with the launch of a new menu in late January—and menu changes are a collaborative effort of Wright, Taton, and Sous Chef Norman Owens, with some input from the rest of the kitchen. These changes are driven primarily by seasonality, what’s fresh and what’s on hand.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Week One

Hi there. Having survived the drive back to Seattle (accomplished in a mere three-and-a-half days, I might add), I started at Canlis last Monday, the 9th. As part of our Externships, the CIA requires that we write weekly modules about a variety of topics. For example, the week #1 module asks you to explain the restaurant's orientation process and summarize your first week. I figured I'd just go ahead and paste these essays right into Blogger, so you can see what I've been doing. Some modules might be more interesting to you than others, and I'll probably have additional comments now and then, but for now here's my first essay.


I arrived at Canlis Restaurant on the first day of Externship shortly after one-thirty on a typically rainy Seattle afternoon, having never set foot in the restaurant before. I was early for my two p.m. start time, but since early is good, I walked to the front entrance. Locked. Following the "Office and Deliveries" sign, I made my way around to the side entrance, rang the bell, and was buzzed in.

Nearly four hours before service, the kitchen was cool, calm, and quiet. It was also large—not extraordinarily so, but bigger than anything I was used to or was expecting. I introduced myself to Norm, the sous chef, who told me Chef Aaron Wright, one of two co-executive chefs, was in a meeting but would be out shortly. Chef Jeff Taton, the other co-executive chef, hadn’t yet arrived. Norm led me downstairs, showed me where to find uniforms, aprons, and towels, and left me to change.

Back upstairs, I was taken on a tour of the kitchen. Once you get past its size, the kitchen is like that of a typical restaurant—dish washing station, pot washing station, a line for pantry and prep, a pastry station, and the hot line, made up of sauté, vegetable, and plating stations. One unique feature is the grill station, which sits in a small room open to the dining room and accessible to main part of the kitchen through a small door. There’s also a window between the plating station and the grill room, as all food flows from the hot line, to the grill, and then out to the servers.

We continued on a tour of the restaurant, making our way through the main seating area ("the floor") and the Executive Room (a small, private room for up to 20 guests) on the main floor, then upstairs to the Caché (a very small, very private room for up to four guests) and the Penthouse (the largest private room, for up to 90 guests, featuring a grand piano and full bar). While the kitchen is impressive in its functionality, the rest of the restaurant is immaculate. From the walls and the stunning views down to the tables, chairs, and carpet, every detail at Canlis is just right. I felt out of place walking around in my whites; a tuxedo would have felt more appropriate.

Back in the kitchen, Norm informed me that Steven, who normally worked the vegetable station, had the day off and that I’d be working the station that night. This was a pleasant, if a bit unnerving, surprise as I’d expected to be doing prep work at the beginning. He said it was a good night to get my feet wet, as we would be slow—"only" 155 guests on the books, including a party of 40 in the penthouse. We went about setting up the station, which primarily consists of making sauces and blanching vegetables. When service began I watched him work, then gradually took over more and more responsibilities. About halfway through service, I realized he had left me entirely, that I was running the station myself. "Running" is probably an overstatement—"holding down" is more accurate, as it was far from smooth sailing. Still, at the end of the night I was proud of myself for surviving my first shift at what is, by far, the most upscale establishment I’ve ever worked.

With Steven back on the line after that first day, the rest of my first week was split evenly between setting up and working the vegetable station and doing other prep work. Highlights include preparing staff meal, as well as working with pork cheeks for the first time, on my second day. I worked the vegetable station again on Wednesday and Friday, only to have the station taken over by Chef Aaron when things got really busy. Although I was disappointed to be taken off the line, seeing him work the station was a tremendous learning experience and I improved a great deal just by watching him for an hour. Saturday I helped plate a party for 50, as well as cleaning 30 more pounds of pork cheeks.

The orientation process consisted of my tour of the restaurant, and then going through standard new-hire paperwork with Chef Aaron on my third day at Canlis. The usual topics—uniforms, professionalism, parking, harassment, clocking in and out, and so on—were covered.

Monday, my sixth day at Canlis, was once again Steven’s day off, meaning the vegetable station was all mine. I had the station set for service a full half-hour before we opened, and while I’m still far from having it mastered, service itself went fairly well—I really only felt the pressure during the very busiest push. If I can improve each week just half as much as I did in my first week, Externship will be an incredible success.