Linda Milagros Violago is a sommelier of the world. Born and raised in Winnipeg and of Filipino descent, Violago has worked in hospitality, food and wine in 13 countries. The self-described “Itinerant Sommelier” will be calling Canlis, the third-generation restaurant with the world class wine program, home. She started her new job leading the storied wine program in September.
Violago replaces Nelson Daquip who completed a near 20-year career at Canlis in May, rising from server assistant in 2002 to wine director. Daquip is now a sommelier at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles.
Violago becomes the first woman in the 70-year history of Canlis to lead its celebrated wine program comprised of nearly 10 sommeliers and a 22,000-bottle cellar made up of approximately 2,400 unique labels. Mark Canlis refuses to put a label or a title to Violago’s new job, however.
“She will be leading our team,” Canlis says emphatically.
After her wine travels, Violago settled in her native Winnipeg during the 18 months or so of the pandemic. She was serving ice cream and donuts, a contrast to her fine dining, white linens experience at renowned restaurants such as Trotter’s in Chicago and Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, rated No. 7 on the latest “The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants” list.
Away from fine dining, she trained in diversity, equity and inclusion, values she is bringing to the traditional special occasion destination restaurant that has been led by three generations of Canlis patriarchs, founder Peter Canlis, followed by Chris Canlis and now brothers Brian and Mark Canlis.
Much as leadership and ownership had been passed down from one generation to another, leadership of its wine program had been handed down to internal candidates through a succession of promotions over the last 20-plus years. Former Canlis Wine Director Rob Bigelow rose to that position in the late 1990s, eventually hiring Shayn Bjornholm as assistant wine director, who would succeed him as director. Likewise, Bjornholm promoted Daquip who would replace him as wine director. Canlis has trained five master sommeliers in the last 20 years: Bigelow, Bjornholm, Jackson Rohrbaugh, Chris Miller and Chris Tanghe.
“In this case, what we needed, in particular, was an outside perspective,” Canlis says. “It was to bring that fresh voice, that energy, that experience because right now both the wine industry and the restaurant industry are going through so much change.”
At first reluctant to apply, Violago was cajoled first by wine importer Trinie Thai-Parker of Walden Selections and then by former Canlis sommelier Erica Catubig to throw her name in the hat.
“I knew the position was available but at the time I didn’t apply at first,” Violago recalls. “We were deep in the throes of the pandemic. We couldn’t travel. I wasn’t in a good place. I was one of the many people who was out of work for the last 18 months. I had a chance to really think deeply. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I thought of myself as a woman and as a woman of color in Canada and I felt more irrelevant. That is why I keep coming back to the United States because it feels that is where I can be relevant.”
According to a survey by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 66% of women working in restaurants were harassed by managers, and close to 80% faced sexual misconduct from co-workers.
Mark Canlis acknowledged the value of diversifying the restaurant’s leadership. Canlis recently hired its first female head chef, Philippines-born and US-trained Aisha Ibrahim, who arrived at Canlis in late April having cooked at three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Northern California, three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi in Spain and its sister restaurant in Thailand, Aziamendi.
“We are a restaurant run by two dudes,” says Canlis about the third-generation leadership between himself and his brother Brian. “That is the reality that Brian and I have to face. We need to ask questions. Where are we weak? Which female voices should we be listening to? Who can improve what we are doing? When we are talking about hospitality, it is about embracing people who are not like us.”
Now, Violago and Ibrahim will be collaborating in setting the menu and wine list.
“We need to have a meeting of the minds,” says Violago of teaming up with Ibrahim. “I like to call it a jam session.”
Canlis has received the Wine Spectator Grand Award, the magazine’s highest honor, since 1997. In 2017 Canlis earned “Outstanding Wine Program” honors from the James Beard Awards, perhaps, the highest recognition for restaurant wine programs and sommeliers. The James Beard Awards also recognized Canlis as a “Design Icon” and Brady Williams as “Best Chef Northwest,” both in 2019. Williams recently opened his own restaurant, Tomo, in White Center, south of Seattle.
Canlis, in the meantime, insists the hospitality business is not about the awards but the guest.
“Thank you for the recognition but I don’t build a wine list to hang a medal,” Canlis says. “You dine here because it is an occasion. It’s your partner’s birthday. It is your mother’s birthday. We have a bottle for that. The wine honors the guest. The wine honors the occasion. My job and now Linda’s job is to magically find a bottle that honors you. We have over 40,000 guests to honor every year.”