Cooking with Jason

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Week Six

Wow, two posts in one day. And yes, I'm now caught up with my modules. This one's another summary. I admit that this sounds pretty sappy, but I'm not embellishing here; Canlis is an amazing place to work for all the reasons I've listed. I'd be thrilled to get a job here in any capacity after graduation.


Things have continued to go well at Canlis Restaurant, and I am amazed almost on a daily basis how great a place it is to work. In many respects, the atmosphere is exactly the opposite of the typical restaurant industry stereotype—ownership and management at Canlis truly care about more than money, and are genuine in their affinity for employees and guests alike. That isn’t just talk, either. Canlis employees have access to health benefits, a 401(k) plan with company matching, and even a profit sharing system which in 2005 gave a full ten percent of the restaurant’s profits back to its employees.

If those three plans weren’t enough, Canlis offers little perks as well. Two of the line cooks told me that for Christmas, each person in the kitchen received a crêpe pan as a gift, including one cook who had only been working at the restaurant for two weeks. At a recent meeting, managing owner Mark Canlis and his wife invited the entire staff on a snowshoeing trip in early March, on a Sunday when the restaurant is closed. Upon returning from the trip in the afternoon, everyone is invited for pizza at the Canlis’ home just up the hill from the restaurant.

For an owner who isn’t a chef-owner, Mark Canlis is incredibly hands-on. He regularly dons a suit and works the floor, greeting guests and connecting with regulars. Last week while chatting with the line cooks near the end of a shift, he took a minute to wrap a few hotel pans with plastic that were on their way to the walk-in at the end of the night, then apologized to Sous Chef Norm that his wrapping skills needed some work. Another time, while dining at the restaurant, he brought back a Brussels Sprouts and Cauliflower Cassolette, one of the newest menu items, to say it wasn’t quite up to standards. He wasn’t upset about it—he instead offered a few ideas and suggested we do some experimentation with the dish.

This is not to say that Canlis isn’t run to make money, because it most certainly is. The difference is that employees are made to feel that it’s their company too, that the restaurant doing well means good things for them, rather than being made to feel as though they’re working hard for someone else without reaping the rewards themselves. The profit sharing system is designed to foster this feeling—Mark Canlis says that through the system, each employee owns shares of the restaurant, but without the actual risk of owning shares of a business.

Another amazing aspect of Canlis is that despite their incredible success over the past fifty-five years, the Canlis family and the restaurant’s management team aren’t content to rest on their laurels. At a recent all-staff meeting, the newly-formed, eight-person executive team detailed the restaurant’s vision for the future and made it very clear that every single person there should try to make the restaurant a better place to work and dine every day they come to work. It’s certainly true that on some level every job is just that—just a job—the positive, supportive, and forward-looking atmosphere put forth from the top down makes working at Canlis feel more like being part of something tangible rather than just going to work to pay the bills.

From a practical standpoint, the kitchen has been making progress as well. Personally, I’ve been challenged by Chef Aaron on a variety of culinary topics. In particular, he has pushed me to learn that butter sauces aren’t nearly as delicate as the conventional wisdom would have you believe and can be made much faster than is often taught. As a result, I’ve been able to cut down on the time it takes me to complete my sauces each day, allowing for more time to work on other aspects of prep.

For the kitchen as a whole, Chefs Aaron and Jeff recently decided that the dynamics of the hotline were, for some reason, not quite right. Specifically, the communication between my station and the plating station was off, leading to struggles during busy points of a shift. To investigate the problem, Chef Aaron worked the plating station one night and Taylor, who generally works the plating station, worked my station. Chef Aaron fished out several inefficiencies caused by last month’s menu change, and as a result, the hotline decided after Saturday night’s shift to change the way calls are made. Rather than call for the specific items he needs from the sauté and vegetable stations, Taylor now calls for the plate as a whole (i.e., “Lobster” instead of “Market Greens and Gratin”). As a result, he’s able to communicate the same information using fewer words and clearer language. This might sound like a little thing, but the last chef I worked for wouldn’t have taken the time to work the line and figure out the problem. Instead, he would have told the cooks involved, “This isn’t working. Fix it.”

In short, nobody is on their own at Canlis. People are more than willing to help you out, because they want you to improve. And when you improve, the restaurant as a whole can improve... and that, ultimately, is the goal of everything Canlis does.

Week Five

Six Recipes! Six Pictures! OK, so I'm not going to be posting the recipes. I will, however, post six pictures and my descriptions of the dishes. I'll also let you in on a little secret -- if you really want them, the recipes for both the Peter Canlis Prawns and the Canlis Salad are available on the Canlis website. Here's a link, even.


Menu Name: Calamari
Menu Description: Spiced semolina crust with roasted pepper aioli
Jason Says: A relatively new item on the Canlis menu, Calamari has become an increasingly popular appetizer, particularly in the bar and lounge areas of the restaurant. The squid is cleaned, trimmed, and cut in a standard manner, but is given a unique flavor thanks to the semolina and Montreal steak seasoning breading. The real key to this dish is in frying the squid for only a short period of time so that it doesn’t become tough and chewy.

Menu Name: Canlis Chowder
Menu Description: Dungeness crab, scallops, and prawns in ginger-scented cream

Jason Says: The Canlis Chowder is a very popular soup, particularly in the winter months. With a base of chicken stock rather than clam juice, and by using scallops, crab, and shrimp instead of clams, it avoids the overly fishy taste which dooms many clam chowders. The addition of ginger lends a subtle flavor which balances nicely with the seafood and also gives a slight nod to the Asian culinary influences present in much of Seattle’s cuisine.

Menu Name: Peter Canlis Prawns
Menu Description: The classic, with jasmine rice and sautéed greens

Jason Says: The Peter Canlis Prawns is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, and along with the Canlis Salad, dates back to the earliest days of the establishment. Prawns are sautéed in oil, then flavored with a combination of vermouth, lime juice, and chili flakes. What really makes the dish, however, is the rich pan sauce made to order using roasted shrimp shell butter. This is also available as an appetizer, with five prawns, no rice, and no sautéed greens.

Menu Name: The Canlis Salad
Menu Description: Romaine, bacon, Romano cheese, fresh mint, oregano and a dressing of lemon, olive oil and coddled egg

Jason Says: Perhaps the most famous preparation at a fifty-five-year old restaurant, the Canlis Salad is Canlis’ top seller on almost any given night—on Valentine’s Day, a night when the restaurant had more than 300 reservations, nearly 100 Canlis Salads were served. Saveur Magazine recently wrote, “The original Canlis Salad... one of the 100 best dishes in America.” Until two years ago the salad was made tableside; now it comes from the pantry station.

Menu Name: Lamb Chops
Menu Description: Israeli couscous, Oregon blue cheese and Swiss chard with pancetta lamb jus

Jason Says: This plate looks great and is also one of the least labor intensive for the hotline to send out, as the vast majority of the work—making the couscous packet (hidden behind the lamb chops) and the pancetta lamb jus—is done ahead of time. At pickup, all it requires is taking the packet out of the oven, inverting it on the plate, adding a ladle of sauce, garnishing with microgreens and sending it out to the broiler.

Menu Name: Forest Mushroom Risotto
Menu Description: Sherry-shallot butter, Pecorino Lucano and white truffle straw potatoes

Jason Says: The lone vegetarian friendly entrée at a restaurant known for its meat and seafood, this risotto receives a nice texture contrast from the straw potatoes (tossed with white truffle oil) which ring the bowl. A deep mushroom flavor (and vegetarian status) is achieved with house-made mushroom stock, as well as the inclusion of additional sautéed mushrooms to garnish.

[Side note: Wow, I'd forgotten how annoying laying out pictures is with Blogger.]

Monday, February 13, 2006

Week Four

Yes, a bit late with this one... Wednesday is normally the day I turn in my essays to Chef Aaron, but this week he let me take part in produce ordering on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, so I wanted that experience before writing the essay about -- you guessed it -- ordering and purchasing. Away we go.


Canlis spends between ten and fourteen thousand dollars per month on produce alone and between five hundred thousand and three-quarters of a million dollars per year on meat and seafood, so to say purchasing and ordering are a big deal at the restaurant would be an understatement. Because there is so much to order from so many vendors—at least 20 are ordered from regularly, in addition to smaller specialty sources—and the restaurant does not employ a purchaser, Chef Aaron has implemented a system in which ordering and purchasing duties are split between different people. Sous Chef Norman inventories and orders produce (from no fewer than three vendors each night), Chef Jeff handles all meat and seafood, lead pastry cook Liz takes care of dry goods, and Chef Aaron is responsible for specialty items such as fois gras, caviar, and escargot.

I had the unique opportunity to take part in the produce ordering for three nights last week, allowing me to get a better handle on how things work. Working with Chef Aaron the first night on the produce order—Norman worked the line that night, so Chef Aaron was doing him a favor by taking care of ordering—I gained the most background information, while the next two nights with Norman were more practical and hands-on.

Three factors drive ordering and purveyor selection at Canlis: price, quality, and loyalty. Price is the ultimate dictator, though quality is certainly important—is this case of lettuce ten dollars cheaper because the company has a good buyer, or because it’s a bad product? Loyalty is least important on the list, though Canlis won’t generally cut off a vendor they’ve been using for years unless the replacement vendor has both superior price and quality. Ultimately, the restaurant is a business and ordering reflects that.

Because of Canlis’ reputation, companies often approach them with statements such as, “We want your fois gras business,” to which Chef Aaron will say, “Make me an offer.” Recently, the restaurant was able to secure a much more favorable price on truffle oil after just such a call. Most items are not ordered from a single source, however. Chef Aaron says, ideally, you should have three purveyors for each item you purchase, in order to force competition and lower the price you’re paying (though it’s worth noting that for some items, such as escargot, Canlis uses a single supplier because that supplier is the only one capable of giving the restaurant the quality of item they’re looking for). The best example of this at Canlis is in produce purchasing, where three main companies are used. Norman updates his prices each week, so he might have ordered carrots from Rosella’s one week but Charlie’s the next if prices change.

A typical night of ordering for Norman begins with checking the next night’s reservation sheet (Canlis does essentially no walk-in business, so reservation numbers can be adhered very strictly). He then checks the parties for the next two days—if there’s a party for 50 tomorrow having the Canlis Salad, that will require a different type of lettuce (romaine) than if the same party is having the Pear and Hazelnut Salad (bibb). Next, he checks in with the pantry and pastry stations on any special needs before completing a visual inventory. After doing this so many nights in a row, he says, he’s developed a very good sense of how much should be on hand, what he calls his “mental par.” While completing his inventory, he marks down on an order sheet how much of each item to order. Finally, he compares these needs to that week’s prices and decides which of the three vendors to order each item from. He doesn’t always decide on price, however, as he’s found certain products which are consistently of higher quality from one purveyor than another, and he’s willing to pay a few extra dollars for quality.

Orders are received and signed for by whoever happens to be in the kitchen, then put away (and cleaned as necessary, as with lettuces) by a prep or pantry cook. Norm has been working with the same three purveyors long enough that quality is generally not an issue, but he also doesn’t hesitate to return an item and request a credit if something is sub-standard. One day while checking in produce I had ordered the night before, I noticed a single eggplant that was mushy at the top; when I placing the next day’s order later that night, Norm had me request a replacement eggplant.

Invoices go in to a single invoice box and are later categorized by the person who placed the order—produce, proteins, dry goods, and so on. This makes it easier for expenditures to later be categorized by accounting, who might not know where to place an item such as ‘kohlrabi.’ After being paid, invoices are filed in the office until the end of the year, when they’re moved to storage.