In the rarified and competitive world of high-end cuisine, chefs approaching stardom tend to have a few grey hairs and a fair number of nicks on their fingers. Chef Blaine Wetzel, however, was a mere 24 years old when he slid open the kitchen doors at The Willows Inn for the first time. That was late 2010 and, thanks to his boy-nextdoor personality, it was easy to wonder if he was even younger than his years.
Now, three years into his project up in the remote top-left corner of the United States, nobody wonders if the kid’s got the chops anymore. Instead, his fans in Washington State and around the world just wonder when (not if) The Willows will make the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and how soon it will rise to its upper ranks.
“When I started at The Willows, it became very clear, very quickly, what I knew and what I didn’t. Butchering. Fish. Pastry. I knew how to do those,” he says. “Ice cream. Business management. That stuff took time.”
Wetzel’s own ascent started long before he arrived at The Willows Inn. He got his start as a fry cook in a steak house when he was only 14. “In Iowa you can start working at 14 and a half. I worked there for three years and worked all of the stations in the kitchen,” he says, almost as if it were normal for a teenager to thoroughly master their first job. Later, he built his culinary skill set in higher end spots around the United States: Michel Richard’s Citronelle in Washington, DC, California’s L’Auberge Carmel, and Restaurant Alex in Las Vegas. In February 2009, he headed to Copenhagen to work at a restaurant called Noma that was starting to attract international attention.
Chef René Redzepi had begun scaling the 50 Best list at Noma and during more than a year and a half there, Wetzel worked his way up to chef de partie, running a section of Noma’s kitchen as the restaurant rose from number 10 to number three to the top spot.
When Noma hit number one, Wetzel secured the job at The Willows but wisely put off the move to the United States for a few months so he could learn how to deal with the flood of attention that a sought-after restaurant gets. With that sort of pedigree and wisdom under his belt, the return to the Pacific north-west and his home state of Washington to start his own restaurant is much easier to understand. Yes, he was young, but where else would someone with that sort of pedigree go?
Once on Lummi Island, developing his own, true style took time. “Of course [my style] was similar to Noma at first. It took a year to get everything down and not refer to what I’d done in the past,” he says. “My own philosophy started right after that first year. With time, your place becomes part of your own voice. That process took going through each of the seasons once.”
Finding an all-star line-up of cooks—most of whom could easily run fantastic restaurants on their own, and convincing them to move to an island with a population of less than 1,000—happened more quickly.
In the kitchen, Wetzel gives his team room to roam. Chef de cuisine Nick Green combines a background as a successful painter with an intrinsic understanding of food to create dishes like the one that’s listed as ‘grilled romano beans’ on the menu. Green cinches the beans together with butcher’s twine dyed black with squid ink and sneaks lardo in among the beans just before serving, giving them an emphatic boost in flavor. Larkin Young, an alumni of Seattle’s famous Canlis restaurant, cooks Dungeness crab in boiling sea water, which has just been removed from the heat. The crabmeat rests under a thin layer of braised seaweed and arrives at the table looking like a green disc on a plate. It’s The Inn’s best sleeper dish, the flavors of the crab heightened by freshly-grated horseradish and brown butter. At the end of a meal, Cameron Hauer toasts fresh bay leaves, which radiate a beguiling smell around a dessert that features roasted sweet pumpkin, fresh cheese, and pine.
With dishes like these, the accolades poured in quickly. The New York Times called The Willows one of its “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride” in 2011, and later that year, Times writer Frank Bruni devoted a full quarter of his article about the glories of dining in Seattle to Wetzel’s food, as if a two-hour drive and five minute ferry ride to Lummi Island was akin to a Seattleite driving to one of the city’s neighboring suburbs. In 2012, Wetzel was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, and soon after they wrote a feature about him, a courtesy not bestowed on all of the other winners. Last year, he was nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of The Year Award, following that up this year by winning the award—making him the best chef in the US under the age of 30.
Quickly after Wetzel arrived, The Willows developed some signature dishes—the kind that would create a dining-room mutiny if they were removed from the menu. A bite of smoked, glazed salmon eaten with bare fingers remains sushi-like in texture: the Pacific Northwest, past and present, in one perfect bite. There are also dishes like chicken drippings served with fresh-baked bread that simultaneously remind a diner of
their mother’s best-ever roast chicken while amping up the flavor. Say all you want about the refined dishes that are often the hallmarks of high-end restaurants, this one goes full-throttle at the taste buds, leaving diners talking about it for months.
While all of chef Wetzel’s food is the fruit of his training, what is nearly as staggering is the access he has to phenomenal raw ingredients. Up the
street from The Inn, farmer Mary von Krusenstiern puts the entire output of Loganita Farm at his disposal. Down the street, spawning sockeye
and pink and silver salmon are caught just offshore in a centuries-old tradition called reef netting. Directly behind the kitchen, former Inn owner Riley Starks provides eggs, gooseberries, currants, nettles, and forage from Nettles Farm. Going ‘further afield’ means calling on Pacific northwest mushroom legend Jeremy Faber, someone whose mycological standards are so high, he gets the lead role in author Langdon Cook’s new book, The Mushroom Hunters. Oysters come from Taylor Shellfish, just a few miles south. Live, local spot prawns and Dungeness crabs are stored just outside the kitchen door in a great, green aerated tank the likes of which only high-end fishmongers tend to own.
This list is long, but more importantly, it’s almost inconceivable. Every chef worth their salt would sell their souls for just one or two of these sources. They dream of having a farm at their disposal, but only the likes of Alain Passard and Thomas Keller do. When other chefs come for dinner and slowly realize the depth of what Wetzel has access to, they go quiet.
Wetzel is the first to admit the value of what he has. “All of your ingredients taste better, so you start at a higher level. You have more potential. And it’s inspiring. It would be really difficult for me to go somewhere else and be excited about cooking the same way I am here,” he says. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”
Watch that 50 Best list. Blaine Wetzel and The Willows Inn will be on it soon.
Photography by Charity Burggraaf