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When servers change tablecloths, they fold the old one and unfold the new one so that the top of the table is never exposed. When a particularly short guest arrives, hosts and hostesses are trained to place pillows behind their backs so their feet comfortably touch the floor.
Recently, the Canlises brought in dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet to teach servers how to walk gracefully through the dining room. Servers are taught not to appear rushed or in a hurry. They are not allowed to wear jewelry or perfume. If they have tattoos, those must be covered.
“This,” Mark said pointing to the dining room, “is the stage. Everything you do is part of the performance. If I’m rushed, you (the customer) feel stressed. If I’m chewing gum, smacking my lips, it’s the same thing. If I’m wearing some big, shiny piece of jewelry, the attention is on me. We want all the attention to be on you.
“Out here it all has to be magic; we don’t want you to feel the craziness going on 20 feet away (in the kitchen),” he said. “When you’re eating here, time stands still.”
For all of its self-assuredness, Canlis is also an institution that dearly wants to be loved. While famous for its food, its service, and consequently its prices, the restaurant has not always been embraced by the city, Mark Canlis said. Just as some of the most confident, self-possessed people are secretly insecure, Canlis too is still in search of itself.
“We are known of,” he said of his family’s restaurant, “but I do not know if people understand us. Generally people fear the restaurant. I understand the price point is an issue … We want to serve people who can afford to eat here and those who can’t afford to eat here. Obviously not everyone can afford to eat here, or afford to eat period. We’d like to make the ones who can’t feel like they can. If you have to wait 10 years to have dinner here, we’ll wait for you.”
Serving people who can’t afford Canlis was a big part of its 60th birthday celebration, which ended last weekend with a party that honored dozens of local charities. The brothers used Twitter to distribute clues during a two-month-long scavenger hunt for 50 copies of the restaurant’s 1950 menu; those who found the menus were treated to dinner at 1950 prices. The 50 winners will compete later to win a free dinner every year for life. The catch is they have to give those free dinners away to someone else. One of the most expensive restaurants in Seattle also wants to be known as the most generous.
Last summer, Canlis hosted an impromptu, neighborhood cookout in Little Howe Park near Mark’s home on Queen Anne. He and his family and 80 or so employees blew up balloons, put up signs, and grilled flank steak for, it turned out, 1,500 people.
“We were just trying to be real,” Mark said. “It dawned on us that Seattle did not treat us like we were their own.”
Canlis serves some of the most refined, fanciful, artfully constructed food found anywhere, but the food that is served at the staff meal (also called the family meal or crew chow) is typically simple, familiar food derived from the basic ingredients of the kitchen. Surplus and leftovers sometimes make their way to the staff table; that does not mean the food has to be bad.
“If you make a bad staff meal,” said chef Franey, “it’s not cool.”
The staff meal is a collaborative effort by the various line cooks. The pastry chef bakes the bread; the grill cook prepares the meat; the salad chef mixes the greens, and so on. Last Friday, the staff dined on brisket, fresh baked bread, brownies, grilled broccoli, and Canlis salad, the only item that also appears on the menu.
The house salad (the recipe is here) is made of romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, bacon, green onions, Romano cheese, fresh mint, and oregano; the dressing is made with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and a coddled egg. The Canlis salad is one of the few dishes served continuously without alterations since the restaurant opened in 1950.
The brisket came from one of the eight heads of cattle the restaurant commits to purchasing twice a year. Canlis procures its grass-fed beef from a small farm in the town of Brady, in Grays Harbor County. Unlike many restaurants, Canlis does not overtly broadcast this fact.
The current fashion in fine dining is to display the names of suppliers on the menu, sometimes the farm, sometimes the farmer. Menus include terms like troll-caught, grass-fed, free-range. An ingredient’s provenance is like its pedigree. The food, rather than the diner, is front and center. Canlis, as a rule, does not do that. If asked, they will happily report their methods of sourcing, but to report it on the menu would be impolite somehow, a burden to the diner, a breach of faith.
“We source things well,” Mark said. “We want you to expect it.”
The challenge of buying and eating local when it comes to beef is using all of the animal when most diners typically want just tenderloin and other choice cuts.
“Everyone wants to eat local but people don’t know what it takes to get local,” Franey said.
For every 70 pounds of filet mignon and New York strip, there are about 500 pounds of lesser cuts, the shoulder, the rump, the tail, the tongue, the offal, the brisket. Canlis shares its beef with other restaurants. It also counts on its staff.
Friday’s staff brisket was braised until fork tender. It was sliced thick and served with carmelized onions. Most made the brisket into sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and onion. Some ate it with steamed rice from a well-used, automatic rice cooker.
Asian DNA is large in the Canlis legacy, which began in Honolulu, which is to Asian-Americans what Atlanta is to African-Americans, a metropolis in which the minority is the majority. In Honolulu, your barber, your mailman, your dentist, your Congressman, is probably Asian. The waitresses in Peter Canlis’ first restaurant in Honolulu, called the Broiler, were Japanese. The first two chefs to run Canlis were Asian-American, an unusual circumstance for a high-end restaurant in those days. Among its senior staff, manager David Kim and sommelier Nelson Daquip, are of Asian heritage, as are several servers.
One of them, a Vietnamese immigrant named John Wei, was discovered by Brian Canlis several years ago managing a Quiznos sandwich shop in downtown Seattle. Brian, who loves Quiznos and frequently eats there, was a customer one day when Wei served him. Wei brought Brian’s sandwich to his table. Brian watched as Wei walked back to his station, picked up a napkin off the floor, folded a newspaper, and pushed in a chair, all in time to get behind the counter and greet the next customer with a smile.
“It’s rare we hire people with a lot of fine dining experience,” Brian said. The Canlises prefer employees who come without bad habits, whom they can teach.
Brian gave Wei his card and asked him to call and come by the restaurant for an interview. Not everyone at the restaurant took him seriously when he told them he had discovered someone at Quiznos. Wei “had the heart,” said Brian, who hired Wei shortly after their meeting. Sure enough, Wei, nicknamed Johnny Tsunami by his co-workers, became one of the restaurant’s most decorated employees, thereby cementing himself in Canlis legend.
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