In college at UC Davis, wanting to sustain his performance as a student wrestler, Niels Brisbane thought about food mostly in terms of nutritional optimization. Energy in, energy out. It was only when he met and began cooking with a Japanese-American teammate that he began to see there was so much more to it than that. “I was just blown away when he explained the five different types of soy sauce to me,” Brisbane said.
This revelation — and the opportunity his friend gave him to “interface [his cuisine] with some of the food science I was learning at school” — kickstarted what has now become an obsessive approach to exploring the wealth of options and experiments one can do with any ingredient. Brisbane graduated with a degree in biology but soon after went to study at the Seattle Culinary Institute, aiming to put his interest in both food science and the diversity of food to good use. He was dedicated to getting it right, too: “I ended up asking for an internship at Canlis while I was still in school,” he said. “I worked there 35 hours a week and was at school about another 35 to 40 hours a week.”
While establishing himself at the well-known fine dining establishment in Seattle, Brisbane found himself clicking really well with Brady Williams, who had just become the new head chef there. “He had this Japanese style, which I was really passionate about, a style that lends itself to more of a focus on sourcing.” Williams eventually promoted Brisbane to sous chef, often giving him the responsibilities of menu research and sourcing ingredients, like misos and soy sauces. His background in biology and nutrition came in handy.
Researching often brought him to the Bread Lab at Washington State University in Mount Vernon, where he would ask questions, collaborate with staff, and get help with some of his baking woes. In time, Brisbane realized that what he was doing at Canlis — developing menus that were sustainable, experimental, and sourced from the Northwest region — he could do on a larger scale, if only there was an opportunity available for him. So he pitched the idea of a culinary director position to Bread Lab founder Steve Jones.
“Canlis wanted to take my position at the restaurant — coming up with new ideas and new dishes — and create that for the whole region,” Brisbane explained, adding that owner Brian Canlis made a donation to the lab that made his position possible. After collaborating with the Lab for over a year, Brisbane began his job officially on June 1, 2018. “A big part of [my job] is meeting with farmers and figuring out what they are growing, what they’re going to be growing, and helping them develop a market for it. I basically am the liaison between two really big workaholic groups of people: farmers and chefs.”
So what will that mean in his day-to-day? Helping to launch a Northwestern maraschino cherry company, for one. “We’re using a byproduct of one of the local salt making producers and we’re using a byproduct cherry that is only used for pollination historically,” Brisbane said of one of the projects under his belt already. “We’re creating two new sources of income for two industries, and we’re going to be producing a Northwest-centric product that is going to help brand the area better.”
In his new role, Brisbane hopes to assist in building a better, more sustainable, better-sourced Northwest foodshed. “Most agricultural areas have between three and five economically viable plants that they grow — Skagit County has eighty. The soil is in the top 3% in the world. The climate is phenomenal. You can’t help but have things grow, and they grow really beautifully and with really high nutritional content,” he said. “I’m going to help put the focus on the products that farmers grow, and the whole region and all it can produce.”