How Family and Markets Inspire Chef Aisha Ibrahim
The recently installed executive chef of Canlis in Seattle remembers her roots and cooks with her heart.
When Aisha Ibrahim was young, her mother planted a garden in the yard of their West Virginia home, where they had emigrated to in 1991. (There were few Asian grocery stores less than a two-hour drive away.)
The soil was dotted with verdant long beans and water spinach for the sour tamarind soup sinigang, or slender Asian eggplants destined for mom-made tortang talong, an omelet in which the aubergine is the savory, charred star. Ibrahim was just six years old and born in Iligan City in the Philippine province of Mindanao, a southern stretch of islands with bustling public markets.
“My earliest memories in the Philippines were about the market,” she recalls. “My parents purchased a chicken once and we took care of it for a few weeks and then they slaughtered it—same thing happened with a goat—it was shocking.” But it’s lessons like this one that engrained in Ibrahim early on: This is where food comes from.
As a globe-trotting chef whose culinary journey has taken her to Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain and later Thailand, Ibrahim landed at Canlis a year ago. It’s the first time in the Seattle dining institution’s 70-year history that a woman has helmed the kitchen as the executive chef—a queer, woman of color at that. It’s here, in this corner pocket of the Pacific Northwest at a restaurant that overlooks the western edge of Lake Union, that Ibrahim can explore a new bounty of ingredients for her ever-changing fine dining menu. She admits, however, that she misses the markets she used to frequent.
After finishing culinary school and rising in the fine dining ranks in San Francisco (stints at Commis and Manresa, to namecheck a couple), Ibrahim began to feel pulled to far-flung places beyond the West Coast.
“I’m finding comfort in asserting the nuance of special things that bring me back to my childhood.”
Ibrahim made a pitstop in Japan, then moved to Basque country where she worked under the youngest Michelin-starred chef in Spain at Azurmendi. Ibrahim’s last cooking gig before Canlis was as the chef de cuisine at Aziamendi, Azurmendi’s luxury sister restaurant, just north of Phuket, Thailand. It was there in Southeast Asia where lively markets gripped her imagination.
“Our devotion to product was hardcore,” Ibrahim remembers of those days sourcing ingredients in 2015. Friday mornings were market days. “You wake up before the sun rises. Get your coffee ready. Hop on the motorbike—it’s Thailand, you motorbike to the markets,” she says. Ibrahim and her partner, Samantha Beaird, who also now works at Canlis, would head to Kad Chin Haw, a Chinese Muslim farmers’ market next to the oldest mosque in Chiang Mai.
“It forever ruined my idea of a market. You’ve got California markets—and you’ve got rugged markets and you’re haggling over first-of-the-season plums,” Ibrahim says. It totally shifted the way she plans and builds menus today.
Nowadays at Canlis, Ibrahim doesn’t have just-picked lychee or long neck avocado at her fingertips. But she does get to meld Seattle’s bounty—pristine oysters, wild leeks and Walla Walla onions, dark chocolate sorbet with spruce tips—with her background and heritage. “At first, I was definitely feeling conflicted about the attention around my identity,” she acknowledges. That was until Ibrahim saw the Canlis dining room suddenly filled with the most diverse cast of diners: nonbinary guests, the Filipino community, the queer community. (Even iconic fashion and sports power couple Megan Rapino and Sue Bird, who are Canlis neighbors, had never dined there until she came on board.)
“I’m finding comfort in asserting the nuance of special things that bring me back to my childhood,” Ibrahim says. She’s finding her groove. She’s honoring her roots. From West Virginia gardens to markets in Thailand to Seattle, Ibrahim’s food is the sum of her life—so far. “I was fortunate with two parents who both worked and cooked for us,” she says. “I don’t think my parents realized they were leading me on this path.”
Last year, she invited her parents to dine at Canlis. On the menu was Ibrahim’s favorite Filipino dish: tortang talong, the very same she grew up eating with eggplants from her mom’s garden. But with fine-tuned twists. Charred then peeled eggplants would take a dip in a whipped egg bath. “We’d cook it very slowly in brown butter and we’d smoke that,” she explains. Then they took buckwheat harvested in Skagit Valley, north of Seattle, and made a smoked buckwheat cream seasoned with a 300-year-old tamari soy sauce and served with caviar.
“It’s crispy with lots of texture and it’s almost custardy,” recalls Ibrahim. No, this isn’t mom’s omelet anymore. But it’s without a doubt, a dish that is a special ode to Ibrahim’s mother. “We named it after my mom,” she says. “It was the most emotionally intense moment being able to serve my mom a dish that’s because of her.”