ONE MONDAY night last April when the current economic crisis was still in its infancy, seven of Seattle's top chefs gathered around a table in Canlis restaurant's private dining room for an eight-course dinner to compare notes on the Seattle dining scene and meet the restaurant's new executive chef, Jason Franey. Franey came on board last January, and is only the fourth chef in Canlis' 60-year history.
As one of Canlis' former executive chefs, I was humbled to be in the group along with Maria Hines of Tilth, Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez, formerly of Harvest Vine, Ethan Stowell of Union (and three other restaurants), Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy, and Jason Wilson of Crush.
The dinner was hosted by Mark and Brian Canlis, third-generation family members who assumed the role of managing owners from their father, Chris Canlis, five years ago. Over hors d'oeuvres, our hosts explained their dilemma. The Brothers C had recently taken the bold step of hiring Franey, and Canlis père was concerned that Franey's cutting-edge style and technique-driven cuisine might alienate some of the restaurant's longtime diners.
Traunfeld said it reminded him of when he was at Ernie's in San Francisco. "They had just hired a new chef who was eager to promote the nouvelle cuisine, and there were old Ernie's regulars who were reluctant to accept the change." Ernie's, which was the place to dine in San Francisco for the better part of the 20th century, did not survive the transition.
"It inspired me," said Maria Hines by way of reassurance. "I was excited because he's going to bring up the level of the food."
I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with Ruth Reichl, editor of the late, great Gourmet magazine, who said that restaurants today have to be more technique-driven than they were just 10 or 15 years ago. Home cooks can get great ingredients for themselves now, she said, so when they go out to eat "they want to see something extraordinary in terms of how those ingredients are prepared."
Mark Canlis said his father was worried because the new emphasis on technique was a radical shift from the formula that had worked so well for two generations.
"I feel like we're trying to be a 'little' restaurant with 200 seats," Chris Canlis explained. "We struggle with being a 'foodie' restaurant because of our size." It's relatively easier, he said, to focus on technique when you have a smaller restaurant.
But an even bigger concern was managing this change in light of the new economic climate. So as the hors d'oeuvres gave way to a stunning first course of fresh peas suspended in a sparkling gel with morel mushrooms and fresh mint, the conversation shifted to coping with the financial crisis.
"We're all experiencing this downturn right now," said Jason Wilson. And because common wisdom is that "Seattle's the last in, last out of any recession or downturn," the months ahead are bound to be even more challenging.
People in Seattle, Jimenez de Jimenez said, "never want to spend the money in restaurants, no matter what is happening with the economy. They will pay $25 for an organic chicken at the farmers market, but they don't want to pay $20 to have that chicken cooked for them in a nice restaurant."
The dining scene in Seattle is not typical of the rest of the country, or other countries, Stowell said, noting that in France especially, "gastronomic restaurants have focused more on technique than on ingredients for decades. But the 'new American cooking' that dominated American fine dining for the last quarter of the 20th century was almost entirely focused on ingredients and their source."
"When I was first in New York," said Mark Canlis, "people thought, 'Oh, Seattle . . . covered wagons and power plants run by hamsters or something. But we have a unique opportunity here . . . The rest of the nation sort of views us as those enlightened Northwest hippie/free-thinking types, and they're looking to us to see how the new cooking is going to be done."
Traunfeld, who built his reputation at The Herbfarm preparing elaborate prix-fixe menus, opened Poppy with a "totally new concept, serving a lot of little things at once. And I'm trying to offer the guests greater value."
"Here's a toast to Jerry for doing something different," said Stowell, raising his glass as we mused over Muscovy duck, honey-glazed with black pepper jam.
And just when the conversation threatened to become mired in the blogosphere — "Don't even get me started on Yelp!" someone begged — all focus shifted to a plate of lamb prepared two ways.
They say that if you put even two chefs around a table, you get three or four opinions about what should have been prepared differently. But with this group, a certain consensus was achieved. Economy aside, the food cognoscenti want to see high-end cooking that demands mastery of innovative technique, and they're willing to bet their best customers want the same thing.
Restaurateur "Fernand Point once said your philosophy should sweat from the walls of your restaurant," Wilson said. "That philosophy, sharing it with your guests, is what it's all about."
"At the end of the day," said Chris Canlis, "you win long-term guests one dinner at a time."
By: Greg Atkinson
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