Chef Blaine Wetzel: Wizard of Lummi Island
a conversation with Blaine Wetzel, chef & co-owner of The Willows Inn, on Lummi Island
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Standing on a dock waiting for the ferry to Lummi Island, I can’t see a thing. The fog is so thick and heavy I can barely make out the edge of the dock itself. But distant voices and an engine murmur can be heard, so the ferry must be coming.
The fog is just beginning to lift by the time I reach the island. Silvery woods, rocky beaches and deep blue Pacific waters start to emerge. Lummi Island feels otherworldly – half dream, half reality. An appropriate setting, since I’ve come to this outer realm of the San Juan Islands – about 100 miles northwest of Seattle – to experience the culinary wizardry of Blaine Wetzel.
Wetzel himself, visited Lummi Island for the first time in 2010 and was immediately in awe of the abundance of plant life and seafood. He made “Fished, Foraged, Farmed” an official part of his Willows Inn restaurant logo and the cornerstone of his cooking philosophy. Prior to the Inn, Wetzel famously worked under René Redzepi at noma in Copenhagen – a significant step in his career – not only because noma was named THE “Best Restaurant in the World” an unprecedented four times by Restaurant magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, but because Redzepi’s approach to foraged food and indigenous product helped shaped Wetzel’s own direction.
Shortly after Wetzel took over, The New York Times named The Willows Inn as (One of ) “10 Restaurants worth a Plane Ride.” Numerous glowing reviews later, Food & Wine named Chef Wetzel one of the “Best New Chefs in America” and Bon Appétit added The Willows Inn to their 2013 list of “The Best Food Lover’s Hotels in America.”
In 2013, Wetzel became a James Beard Award finalist and was awarded the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the year in 2014. In 2015, he went on to be named Best Chef Northwest – quite an accomplishment for a chef barely 30 years old.
As I check in, delicious aromas swirl around the inn. Several chefs in starchy white jackets hustle back and forth between the smokehouse, herb garden and kitchen. The energy and intensity are palpable.
All seems calm a few hours later, as I take my seat in a spacious dining room with wrap-around terrace and expansive views of Lummi Bay and Orcas Island. I sip DeLille Cellars, Washington State Rosé and review the prix fixe menu with 14 plates and 2 desserts. I’m astonished at the breadth of the selection and unique offerings even before the meal begins.
As the service commences, small wooden boxes are delivered to every diner – approximately 20 of us. Under the lid is a perfectly smoked mussel, sitting like a diamond solitaire on steaming hot black pebbles. Exquisite!
Salmon Roe in Parchment is followed by Salmon Skin stuffed with Clams. Each plate is served by one of the chefs, who describes the dish and chats for a few seconds with diners.
Baked Kale with Truffles – all local – is brought on a large slab of stone. Pieces of stone, some covered with tiny barnacles, are also a unique part of the meal and reflective of Wetzel’s focus on connections between food and the land it comes from. Large, juicy Shiitake Mushrooms arrive on a dark stone – white Sea Salt flakes make for an eye catching contrast.
A Carpaccio of ultra thin Beets is served with a splash of San Juan Island Gin, Fennel, Lavender Flowers & Juniper Yogurt – pure genius. And the extraordinary dishes keep coming – a Spot Prawn is ladled out in its own broth; Black Cod with Lovage Herbs that have been reduced to an oil.
Sockeye Salmon smoked over green alder wood for 8 hours (and delivered straight from the smokehouse) is like Salmon candy – instantly addictive. A luscious Geoduck arrives with Crispy Breadcrumbs and Mussel Stock, followed by Lamb with Smashed Rose Hip Jam.
The evening begins to wind down with desserts. Asian Pears (grown locally, of course) have been grilled and are served with Hazelnuts and Sea Salt – luxuriously simple. And the grand finale, an Ice Cream made from Woodruff with Wild Blueberries.
Later, in the kitchen I have a chance to chat with Chef Wetzel.
Press material featuring you always highlights your time at noma with René Redzepi – for obvious reasons. But you’ve worked for a number of outstanding, high-profile chefs, from Michel Richard to Alex Stratta. Now that you’ve owned your restaurant for several years and chefs are begging to cook with you, what do you try to impart to them?
I teach anyone who works with me to be aware of the ingredient. A raspberry is never the same every day, even if it comes from the same plant. The day after a heavy rain the berry becomes more juicy, but less flavorful. After a dry hot summer day, a once tart berry can become syrupy sweet and jammy in texture. I encourage all of my chefs to be mindful of the change in every ingredient and base the cooking around it.
Are you still discovering new ingredients on the island to incorporate into your menus? Or at this point is it more a matter of using the same items (varied as they are) in different ways?
As for the raw wild plants and creatures on the island, we haven’t even cracked the surface. Each season all of the chefs hunt for new plants and “spots” of edibles. As we evolve as a team, our knowledge of different plants grow, and we push each other to find out what else is out there. The island might be small, but the trails are dense, full of bounty, and lead to undiscovered and untraversed territory.
Our farm, up the road from The Willows, is where we grow most of our veggies, and of that, 10% is devoted to R&D heirloom varieties. The idea is to test out new species and varietals for future use, before we commit to a large harvest.
The island dictates what will grow, and what was never meant to be, not us. We never introduce species that cannot be found in the area, or that are invasive. Our farm has to retain the ability to change, and we’d rather pick the weed of the wild chamomile (amazing, by the way) than the invasive cultivated peppermint. A plant that exists on the island, and the natives used is skunk cabbage. Its a smelly large leaf cabbage they used to smoke fish with. We have planted a few hearty, more sweet cabbages that we grill with smoked smelt.
You’ve recently launched a beekeeping program. What other additions/innovations are in the works for your farm?
We are very happy and proud of our swarms at Loganita Farm. The concept of helping to pollinate and further the growth of all the wild berries on the island, while retaining a full flavored and robust honey, is amazing. We will continue to commit to activities that will better our surroundings. As for the future, we are currently working on a grape vine program, as well as a continued push on our seed-saving program.
The fact that you and your chefs serve and interact with diners was another highlight of the meal. How did that evolve?
Our chefs started serving as a part of necessity. We are a small staff that need to be able to fill each other’s roles. We hope to never retain the fourth wall between the dinners and the chefs. Our guests are here to dine with us, and usually want a chance to talk with us. At the same time we want to talk to them, and relish the opportunity to host them. Our chefs are trained in both front and back of the house, and we have meetings everyday before service with the entire staff. There isn’t a divide between front and back in the meetings, everything is on the table for discussion and improvement.
What do you look for in wine pairings?
Our wine comes from Washington and Oregon, not just to keep with our local drive, but because the Pacific Northwest has some really amazing wines. Our wine pairings last over a few courses, and because of that we look for wines that pair well with our food, our dining room, and conversation.
How do you come up with all the imaginative platings – also such a unique part of the dining experience you offer?
We have a few very talented craftswomen and craftsmen that create most of our plates and cookware. We are proud to get to serve everything on a piece of art and finely made work. The rest, we gather from the shores and trails of the island. Pebbles and rocks covered in barnacles are extremely resistant to most kitchen activities, and can be constantly changed and evolved by a walk on the beach.
You use seawater to cook with, correct?
We use seawater to cook all of the time, whether it be to blanch a fresh caught crab or store our shellfish.
What kind of oils do you prefer?
We use many oils from the pressings of seeds, but our standard is grape seed. It handles well under high heat and retains a neutral flavor.
You continue to take time off to cook and explore cuisines around the world – what are your favorite places/cuisines? Where are you headed to next?
We take a break every January and February to let the farm settle and the soil rest. The entire staff then travels and stages, eats, and explores the rest of the world. This provides a fresh new outlook for the next season, with new techniques learned and a wealth of inspiration. I’m headed for Hong Kong.
What’s next? Would you consider a Willows Inn 2, closer to Seattle or a major city?
We’ve just published a cookbook that we’re really excited about: Sea & Smoke: World Class Doishes from an Untamed Island. These are recipes that are for all audiences, because our kitchen is devoted to ingredients which change from day to day. Consequently, every recipe should be looked at in the same way – more a template than the gram to gram truth.
Beyond that, my current plan is to enjoy the island, explore the seas around it, and bring our cuisine to a higher level. Lummi island is my home.