Elite Seattle Restaurant Canlis Transforms into 'Community College,' Offers Wine-and-Doritos Education

With its latest reinvention and an assist from Bill Gates, the Wine Spectator Grand Award winner is rethinking fine dining for these stay-at-home times

Elite Seattle Restaurant Canlis Transforms into 'Community College,' Offers Wine-and-Doritos Education
Mark and Brian Canlis, going back to the drawing board again. (Chona Kasinger)
Oct 28, 2020

It’s no secret that it’s been a challenging-at-best year for restaurants. But with business as usual off the table for many, some have been up for trying new things. We’ve seen historic dining rooms become nationwide meal-shipping operations, sommeliers serve as delivery drivers, Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning cellars offer bottles at online auctions and capacity-restricted restaurants manage to fill their dining rooms with some guests who are less human than others. But few restaurants have consistently reached the levels of creativity that Seattle’s historic fine-dining destination Canlis has been pulling off for months.

In their latest act, brother-owners Mark and Brian Canlis have declared class to be in session at Canlis Community College, a six-week series of diverse online and in-person educational programming that ranges from cooking how-tos and wine tastings to Seattle-specific history lessons and … intramural sports. The project is the latest of Canlis' innovative reinventions since it was forced to halt its longstanding tasting-menu format in March (“No. 10,” specifically, Mark told us). First came a drive-through burger joint, followed by a pop-up bagel shop, then a meal-delivery model and then a drive-in movie theater. Now, it's back-to-school season.

Canlis owners Mark and Brian Canlis
Mark and Brian Canlis went high to brainstorm new ideas for the restaurant. (Chona Kasinger)

As summer wound down and Seattle faced the usual autumn rain, coupled with wildfire smoke that has been omnipresent on the West Coast this year, restaurants got the go-ahead to reopen restricted indoor dining. But Mark said that he and the team weren’t yet comfortable with that, a tough proposition for tasting-menu spots even if they were. So they got to work brainstorming their next big idea, and Canlis Community College was born. “I just think that this is a great time for learning,” Mark told Unfiltered. “And we thought, ‘Well, let’s go back to school, let’s learn and invite the city to come along with us.’”

Even the announcement itself was creative: A two-minute video featuring a cameo from Seattle's most famous proponent of, ah, DIY education, Bill Gates, who jokes about leaving his phone at the restaurant. (Mark told us that was a bit of creative license, as Bill Gates is “not very absent-minded.”)

Some of the courses are taught by staff who are experts in their fields, like wine director Nelson Daquip and his Champagne-and-oysters pairing 101 or chef Brady Williams’ session on how to cook Canlis classics. But many are not, like Mark’s recent how-to on cutting your hair at home. “A lot of the classes that we’re covering are things that we know nothing about," he said. "I don’t know how to cut my own hair, but 1,100 people just watched me do it. We’re all learners here.”

Canlis calls on experts from Seattle businesses to help lead the way, like Rudy’s Barbershop (in that case) or the Wing Luke Museum for a lesson on the local legacy of Asian Pacific Islanders. They also look to in-house talent: Reservation agent Amy Wong and her mother, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, show chef Williams how to make dumplings. “That’s the spirit of the school, to be curious and to just lean into what we don’t know,” Mark said.

There’s plenty of programming for pupils seeking wine education, like a session on boxed and canned wines, a topic Daquip was pleasantly surprised by when preparing his lesson plan. “It was not something I was very familiar with to begin with, but it’s an amazing culture of boxed-wine drinkers out there.”

“I think fine dining should be the best hospitality, and hospitality is an invitation in,” said Mark. Canlis is an elite restaurant with 19,000 bottles in its cellar, sure, but its goal with these laid-back sessions—including tips on pairing wines with sour gummies and Cool Ranch Doritos—is to make wine more accessible during a stressful, and frankly “weird” time, as Daquip explained. (Advanced classes are available as well, such as “Treasures from the Canlis Cellar” which involves tastings of Dominique Lafon’s Clos de la Barons 2014 and Mouton-Rothschild 2003.)

And the team is getting the chance to do what they’ve been missing: connect with guests. "It’s about reaching out and being like, 'You know what? I don’t know what I’m doing right now, but the cameras are rolling, and I know about wine, and I know you’re interested, so let’s pour a glass and do this,'” said Mark.

Canlis Community College merch
CCC merch (Chona Kasinger)

A $25 enrollment fee includes access to all the online classes, with kits of “class materials” for an additional charge. Most sessions are virtual, but there are field trips and a “finals week” scavenger hunt. And it's all for a good cause. After covering the costs of the seminars, all further funds have been donated to Farestart, an area charity that helps employ the homeless and feed the underserved in the Seattle community. Canlis is facing the same financial difficulties as the rest of the restaurant industry. “It’s hard to be a restaurant, but it’s just as hard, if not way harder, to be a nonprofit, or any of the folks that they would be serving right now," Mark explained of the decision to donate the proceeds. And of the broader opportunity to get schooled, “It’s what we need right now."

”I don’t know if we need to be sitting at tables having 32-course meals of precious little bites sipping on fancy juice as much as we need to just send out an encouraging, hopeful word.”

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