Filipina chef now leading kitchen at Canlis restaurant

There’s a new executive chef at Canlis.

The esteemed restaurant is banking its future on its first chef who isn’t white or male. That chef is breaking barriers and finding a home as Western Washington Gets Real.

It is just an ordinary Friday in the kitchen of this 70-year-old dining destination, but there is nothing ordinary about Aisha Ibrahim.

Ibrahim, a Filipina, is the new head chef at Canlis.

She was asked if that fact is important.

“It is important,” said Ibrahim, “Yeah, I think owning who you are on so many levels. Everyone was like ‘Oh, you’re Filipino. You’re queer. You’re brown. You’re a woman.’ I’m like, ‘yeah.’ ‘You’re an immigrant.’ I’m like, ‘yes.’ All of these things. All these things are important. Because it is something I have really learned to be proud of.”

Ibrahim was cooking in Bangkok, Thailand, getting and regularly turning down job offers, and even planning to open her own restaurant.

Then the pandemic hit and Canlis came calling.

“I tried to do my due diligence on them, and I asked around,” said Ibrahim. “And I couldn’t find anything negative about the program, which is so rare in fine dining.”

They did their due diligence, too, all while interviewing other mostly male, mostly white chefs.

Mark Canlis says the choice essentially came down to a seven-course meal Ibrahim prepared for his team, and trusting his gut.

“So you’re sort of like wrestling with it, a little bit,” said Canlis. “And pretty quickly you just kind of fall in love. You’re like, ‘This is just good. I don’t need to pick it apart. Just love it.’”

It was, he says, like a months-long courtship.

Ibrahim was the only chef they offered the job.

“And we were really hoping she’d say yes,” he said, laughing.

There is plenty of evidence that Canlis is not the restaurant it once was, the pandemic having tested its owners just like the rest of us. So perhaps it is fitting that they are entrusting their future to something, to someone, brand new.

“The restaurant that we’re opening, I think of as a completely new restaurant than the one we closed,” said Canlis.

A restaurant now that is in the hands of a 35-year-old chef who has earned her chops in the cooking world, who just happens to be an immigrant from the Philippines.

“Will it be seen in the food, necessarily?” Ibrahim asked. “I don’t know. I want to express the products first of this region and some cultural influences to reflect that this is a gateway city to Asia.

“To be able to live in an American city with a long history of that. I grew up in West Virginia. I had no access to that. This is pretty astounding to me that there was Filipino owned businesses back in the 1950s here. That’s exciting for me.”

An excitement soon to be on full display at her new restaurant home.

Canlis never fully shut down during the pandemic. The owners turned to takeout, dishing up burgers, offering meals outdoors, all to stay afloat.

Now they are planning to reopen their traditional dining room July 1.