What I Learned Staging at Canlis

I just finished up a two week stint as a stage (intern) at Canlis, Seattle’s landmark fine dining restaurant. Chef Franey was incredibly generous to let me spend time in his kitchen; Patrick, Stacy and Jin showed me the ropes on garde manger, and every single person including third-generation owners Brian and Mark Canlis, the sous chefs, cooks, pastry chefs, captains and servers, food runners and dishwashers were kind, fun, professional and just altogether great to spend time with.

After I worked at Cafe Flora for a few months, I wrote a post summarizing what I learned. I thought I would do the same as I leave Canlis.

Fine dining is an altogether different beast; that is probably the single biggest thing I got through my thick skull. At a normal restaurant, you should reasonably expect a tasty, well prepared meal in a pleasant environment. The food will probably be something that a good home cook could manage, but the cooking and cleaning will be done for you and someone will bring it to you with a smile.

At a fine dining restaurant, the goal is perfection. Nature is taken apart, idealized, and put back together as if there really was a god that micro-managed every leaf and drop of sauce. Very few home cooks have the equipment, ingredients, patience or skill to make this level of food. In the dining room, your every need is anticipated and met. For a few hours, you get to feel like the most important person in the world, with every care lifted away. At Canlis, the valet even makes your car re-appear magically when you get up from the table, without even having to ask for it or present a ticket. They just know which one is yours.

Based on what I saw at Cafe Flora, I’d estimate that there are about 15-20 kitchen-minutes of labor invested in prep and final cooking per diner served. Not so different from home, where one person cooking for an hour can make a nice meal for four people. At Canlis, I’d guess it is about 5 times that much labor. These are just back-of-the envelope guesses, but I bet the ratio is about right. So you can see why a fine dining meal costs as much as it does. One kind of restaurant isn’t fundamentally better than the other. They are just different. One is utilitarian, the other utopian.

Many of the prep jobs at Canlis require a lot of precision. For example, on the Restaurant Week menu is a smoked cauliflower soup. One of the garnishes is three little flat squares of cucumber with the skin on, 1/2″ by 1/2″, and about 1/4″ thick. They all have to be identically sized and precisely square, and lie flat. It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to transform an unruly cylinder into perfect squares. The first time I needed to make 100 orders (300 pieces), it took me 2+ hours and the net result fit in a quart container. By the end of the week I could do it a lot faster and better.

The kitchen at Canlis during prep time is much quieter than Cafe Flora. Not a library, but there is no music playing and people tend to be pretty concentrated on their work. Conversations are in small snippets and about food. During service it becomes even more intense, with tickets coming in fast, orders being called out by the chef, resounding shouts of “Chef!” to acknowledge them, and a crew of very intent cooks working at a high level of speed and precision. The chef or sous chef works at the pass, orchestrating the timing of each course for every table and acting as final quality control, making sure that everything looks and tastes up to his standards.

For the two weeks I was there, I spent most of service making the amuse bouche, a tiny and complimentary course served to every diner. Making them isn’t hard – I could teach you the basic move in five minutes. A pretty white shot glass is filled with one ounce of a bright green pureed gazpacho. A half teaspoon of brunoised bell pepper and cucumber in olive oil is spooned in, and a single sprig of tat soi or micro-mizuna is hung carefully over the edge.

There were some things that added challenge though. The soup needed to be seasoned with salt, white balsamic vinegar and cayenne, quart by quart over the course of the night. If we pre-seasoned it too far in advance, it would lose color. There is a bit of pressure in getting that seasoning just right when tickets are coming in fast and you really want the guests to get their amuse promptly.  And then there is the usual challenge of just making sure you have enough of all the items for service and keeping your area clean. Once I had that stuff under control, I was able to pitch in when we’d get a rush for other items in garde manger, or start on prep for the next day.

It was eye opening for me to see just how much so-called molecular gastronomy is incorporated routinely into the life of a fine-dining kitchen these days. Vacuum compression, sous vide, reverse spherification, xanthan gum and ultra-tex for thickening sauces and so forth. This isn’t even thought of as high tech stuff anymore. It is as basic as knowing how to blanch and shock vegetables, or strain a puree through a tamis. Chef Franey explained to me his philosophy on using these techniques – he wants it to just make the food better without most diners even really being aware of what happened. I think the quote was something like “we should be the cool kid who knows he’s cool and doesn’t have to show off”. That approach is perfect for Canlis, which has this incredible tradition dating back to 1950. He’s been able to update all of that food (retaining a few classics) in a way that keeps the regulars coming back while making big fans among a new generation.

I was a little concerned that at a restaurant famous for meat and seafood, it would be hard to be a vegetarian in the kitchen. I didn’t need to worry about that at all. Naturally, folks had questions about it, but no-one gave me a hard time, and there was more than enough work to be done with vegetarian ingredients.

I really enjoy Chef’s plating style. I think I could recognize one of his plates as distinct from any other chefs whose food I’ve had the pleasure of eating or seeing. He often has a juxtaposition of geometric and more organic forms, with lots of detail but no unneccesary frills, inedible garnishes or contrived service items. As I look through Art Culinaire and everyone’s plates look the same, I like the idea of developing a personal and recognizable style.

This experience has helped me hone my vision and be more realistic about what I want my first place to be like. I want to serve great, thoughtful, delicious, beautiful food. But I don’t want it to take an army of people to execute. I could easily have had the ambition to serve plates with as much work on them as those at Canlis. Seeing firsthand what that really takes, I know that I will need to serve many fewer people, have fewer components on each plate, and have a much shorter menu. On today’s dining scene there are plenty of models outside that traditional spectrum from neighborhood joint to fine dining. We’ve got mobile trucks serving highly original food and white tablecloth joints serving sliders. I just have to precisely define my own vision, execute it, and keep refining it.

I could go on and on about everything I experienced in these two weeks. Heck, I could write a whole post about how we breakdown the kitchen at the end of the night, or the philosophy of what and how much should be prepped in advance vs. made new every day. But I imagine I’ve already gone into more detail than most folks want. So I’ll stop there and just say thanks again to everyone at Canlis! I had a great time and learned so much from all of you.

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 in Cooking Internship, Seattle.

11 Responses to “What I Learned Staging at Canlis”

  1. April 27, 2010 at 8:17 am #

    Great post! Any plans for more stages in the future?

  2. April 27, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    Fabulous blog. I enjoyed every minute of it! And I have the same question as Alice… any new plans on the horizon?

  3. Hsiao-Ching Chou
    April 27, 2010 at 9:00 am #

    Please do write about how the kitchen is broken down! I want to read more!

  4. April 27, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Thanks for this analysis. It read like a well written intro to “Kitchen Confidential: the Vegetarian Intern.” I look forward to hearing more about your lessons learned and how they will ultimately inform the decision making process as you create your own eatery. As always, your blog is a fine blend of insight and inspiring recipes.

  5. April 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Oh no you could keep on going I am loving and eating every word you’ve written…

  6. April 27, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Wow – great post i really enjoyed reading this. I would love to hear more about prep and breakdown of kitchen. Keep writing.

  7. April 27, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    this was a fabulous post–interesting and compelling writing.

  8. Michael Natkin
    April 27, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    @everyone – thanks for all of the thoughtful comments. I don’t have immediate plans for a future stage but look forward to doing it again. We have so many great restaurants in this city, I could never stop learning. One thing I do have coming up is a demo at the Queen Anne Farmer’s Market, 6/10 at 5:30 PM – I’ll keep you all posted about that, it would be fun to meet some of you locals that I haven’t run into before.

  9. July 24, 2012 at 1:07 am #

    Great post. I like the idea of someone cooking like the cool kid, without needing to show off :)

  10. Inanna
    September 10, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    I loved this post and would like to hear every detail of your two weeks..it’s like a glimpse into another world…and I totally think restaurants are missing the boat on their bland veg entrees!!! I’ve started asking for a special plate that includes NO wheat to give them the hint that we eat something other than pasta!!! And most of the plates have been incredible.

  11. January 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    You are a brilliant writer. I am thoroughly enjoying every post, article, photograph and insight. Thank you for this gift of nourishing generosity.

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