Exclusive: How Canlis Surprised Eleven Madison Park on Their World’s 50 Best Win
“You know it’s crazy,” says restaurateur Will Guidara over the phone, with a sniffle and a chuckle. “It’s really fun, but it’s all set up to provide as much anxiety as humanly possible. There, you’re just hoping they don’t call your name.”
He’s in the middle of training his staff for the opening of The NoMad in Los Angeles—and getting over that cold—and he’s talking about that fateful night: April 5, 2017. When Eleven Madison Park, the fine-dining mecca he runs with chef Daniel Humm in New York City, landed at the top of the World’s 50 Best list, the first time an American establishment regained the number one slot in 13 years. He remembers sitting in his chair at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, hoping his restaurant wouldn’t be called just yet. As number three was announced, then number two, he held onto Humm’s knee to the left of him and his wife and Milk Bar pastry whiz Christina Tosi’s knee to the right of him.
Somewhere many time zones behind, Brian Canlis, the co-owner of Canlis in Seattle, woke up to his alarm clock at 4 a.m. and watched the whole thing online. He remembers a conversation years ago when Guidara told him they were going for that number one spot as the two old college friends wandered the streets of the Upper West Side. He remembers how crazy that seemed back then, when El Bulli, Noma and other international titans held those rankings and American restaurants seemed to have little chance to break in. But Canlis also remembers thinking this: “I’ve never seen Will not accomplish what he’s going to do.” So after he freaked out seeing his friend achieve everything he dreamed of, he sent a long message about pride, love and how he couldn’t wait to hug him and went back to bed.
Founded in 1950 by Peter Canlis, Canlis the restaurant continues to be run by the family and bring fine dining to the Pacific Northwest. Canlis and Eleven Madison Park are cut by the same cloth, and the two restaurants have a special relationship. “They’re our sister restaurant,” says Guidara. “Their ideas line up with ours.” Guidara is on Canlis’ board of directors. “It’s amazing to have a restaurant on the other side of the country that feels like home,” says Canlis. “And this was before they were fancy and famous, so it’s like your younger brother gets discovered and becomes a celebrity, but you’re still friends. He’s the same guy with the same heart.”
So what do you do when your restaurant brethren wins the biggest restaurant accolade in the world?
Well, you can’t send them Champagne, Canlis co-owner and Brian’s brother Mark pointed out. So, at a staff meeting a few weeks later, the Canlis team hatched a plan: They were going to bring one of their restaurant’s most beloved traditions to Eleven Madison Park.
Years ago, Food & Wine reported on the Canlis brothers’ search for a barrel of the best whiskey they could find in Scotland. They fell in love with an 18-year-old single malt Springbank but ended up empty-handed. Not too much longer after the story was published, a reader in Florida reached out to the Canlises, asking if they’d like to take his half-full barrel of 20-year-old Springbank. It had become too expensive for him to ship bottles of the whiskey to the States—apparently it is (or was) illegal to get the barrel out of the country. If they agreed to pay for the shipping and taxes, the reader would split what’s left. So, they did just that, finally getting their hands on 50 bottles of the greatest whiskey they’ve ever had. And as a bonus, Matt, the third Canlis brother and a minister in Scotland, managed to convince the powers that be in Scotland to send the barrel over to Seattle.
The Canlis team has only sold one shot of the whiskey—and for $100 an ounce—after a Seattle billionaire came in and requested their most expensive offering. After that, it seemed dirty to the brothers to sell this gift.
“What if the price of drinking from the barrel is having the courage and vulnerability to share how you hope to grow?” Canlis posed. They gave it a go with their staff. At first it was awkward, but they pushed through it and a breakthrough happened. “People would share and cry for an hour, soon guests were asking try it and our staff made it a team ritual every New Year’s Eve,” Canlis says. “It became this mystical, magical thing.”
That experience of sharing aloud intense reflection, vulnerability, hopes and dreams within the restaurant family—nursed with a shot of prized whiskey as a reward—is what the Canlises wanted to haul some 4,300 miles across the country. They just needed to figure out a way to get the whole Eleven Madison Park staff together in one place.
Meanwhile in New York City, a little over a month after World’s 50 Best, Guidara and Humm mapped out their summer 2017 plans for Eleven Madison Park: closing down the restaurant, renovating it and relocating the staff to the Hamptons for a pop-up until it reopened. Then, Canlis called, asking when their next staff meeting was—and if he could borrow an hour of their time for something he couldn’t explain.
“I want to make sure you recognize what’s going on,” Guidara tells me. “That staff meeting is two hours long, and it was the one of the most important ones ever. It was the last day before we shut down the restaurant. This was one of those big exclamation points. The idea that we were going to take an hour and give it to someone else and have no idea what they’re going to do…”
He laughs. “It required zero thought. It was yes right away.”
That is the kind of friendship Guidara and Canlis have cultivated over the years since meeting on the first day of school at Cornell University 21 years ago. They were in all the same classes but not the same social orbits. They enjoyed studying together. However, after graduation, Canlis wasn’t sure if he would see Guidara again. He was going to Alaska to join the Air Force while Guidara was headed back home to New York City. That is, until he got a call from Guidara, saying he bought a ticket to Alaska.
“When a chapter ends and there are people you insist on bringing with you into the next chapter, that’s when a friendship becomes real,” says Guidara. “You need to show initiative that you’re going to fight for this.”
That cemented their friendship. Canlis ended up working for Guidara to help open The NoMad Bar and met his wife there. Guidara served as his best man at the wedding. When Canlis the restaurant earned four stars, the Eleven Madison Park team sent them a signed portrait of Miles Davis. Anytime an employee of either restaurant stepped foot into the other restaurant, all stops were pulled to soigné the hell out of them.
So, a nearly two-week road trip from Seattle to New York City in an old green Volkswagon Vanagon Doka, carrying the Springbank and requiring 14 staff members to drive it in shifts, didn’t seem out of the question. Starting on May 31, 2017, the Canlis team hit the pavement and took detours along the way to invite chef and restaurateur friends to cheers the Eleven Madison Park team. They meandered into Northern California to catch up with Christopher Kostow and David Kinch, headed to the Windy City to sit down with Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas and somehow snuck into New York to chat with Dan Barber under Guidara’s nose.
Jeremy P. Beasley, a friend of the Canlises and cinematographer, sat in the back of the Doka the whole time and filmed the whole thing. Right up until the moment the Canlis brothers hauled the barrel up the steps to the entrance of Eleven Madison Park and set it down.
The film ended right there during the second half of the two-hour staff meeting at Eleven Madison Park. After the first hour, Guidara and Humm said what they needed to say but had no idea what to expect when the Canlis brothers unfolded a huge movie screen and cut the lights. But Guidara had a hunch. He had done the Springbank ritual before but in a different context. It was without the whiskey and at the table with the whole Canlis family, including the restaurateurs before the brothers, their parents Chris and Alice.
“If you don’t know the Canlises, they’re all about being vulnerable and talking about their feelings. I’ve gone through that crazy awkwardness, but now I’m a profound believer of that,” says Guidara. “Once you start doing it, it becomes something to look forward to. And even better later on because you get whiskey with it.”
But knowing that couldn’t prepare him for when the brothers pushed through the doors of Eleven Madison Park with the barrel.
“It was insane, just insane,” says Guidara. “It was insane for the thoughtfulness of the idea, the amount of work and money it took to get it done.”
“But the craziest part is the gift that they gave to the team,” he continues. “The gift of feeling loved and honored but also the hour after where everyone on my team talked about what they had learned.”
During Guidara’s turn, he talked about trust. In the beginning when he and Humm bought the restaurant from Danny Meyer, he looked after every single meal, made every single decision in the dining room. “When you’ve been burned in the past, trust becomes a delicate thing,” he says. But the exceptional people standing right there allowed him to take risks and collaborate. They also let him trust again.
Once everyone had their say and sip, all that was left of the Springbank was four bottles, which the two restaurants split. Before the meeting ended, Canlis remembers what Guidara said to him in tears. Five words: “I love you. Game on.” Not too long after, a truck showed up at Canlis with 400 Zalto wine glasses—coveted among sommeliers—for the restaurant.
“People become jaded when they lose perspective, but friends like Brian restore perspective,” says Guidara. “They remind you we’re so blessed to do this on a daily basis.”
“We’re an industry that gets a giant kick out of serving guests and blowing their minds, but that’s exponentially more enjoyable when you get to do that for other people in the industry,” says Canlis. “It’s like serving your own family.”
And before they made their debut in the fall, the Eleven Madison Park crew gathered together once more for the Canlis tradition, sharing what they learned over the summer, drinking to the future and finishing off those last bottles of the Springbank.