Boy On An Island

15 Nov 2017
4 min read
Dreaming young has seen Washington-born chef, Blaine Wetzel go further West to head up his own kitchen at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, writes Joe Ray…

In the rarified and competitive world of high-endcuisine, chefs approaching stardom tend to have a fewgrey hairs and a fair number of nicks on their fingers. ChefBlaine Wetzel, however, was a mere 24 years old whenhe slid open the kitchen doors at The Willows Inn for thefirst time.That was late 2010 and, thanks to his boy-nextdoorpersonality, it was easy to wonder if he was evenyounger than his years.

Now, three years into his project up in the remote top-left corner ofthe United States, nobody wonders if the kid’s got the chops anymore.Instead, his fans in Washington State and around the world just wonderwhen (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 todo those,” he says. “Ice cream. Business management. That stuff tooktime.”

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 threeyears 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’AubergeCarmel, and Restaurant Alex in Las Vegas. In February 2009, he headedto Copenhagen to work at a restaurant called Noma that was starting toattract international attention.

Chef René Redzepi had begun scaling the 50 Best list at Noma andduring more than a year and a half there, Wetzel worked his way up tochef de partie, running a section of Noma’s kitchen as the restaurantrose from number 10 to number three to the top spot.

When Noma hit number one, Wetzel secured the job at The Willowsbut wisely put off the move to the United States for a few months so hecould learn how to deal with the flood of attention that a sought-afterrestaurant gets. With that sort of pedigree and wisdom under his belt,the return to the Pacific north-west and his home state of Washingtonto start his own restaurant is much easier to understand. Yes, he wasyoung, 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 geteverything down and not refer to what I’d done in the past,” he says. “Myown philosophy started right after that first year. With time, your placebecomes part of your own voice. That process took going through eachof the seasons once.”

Finding an all-star line-up of cooks—most of whom could easily runfantastic restaurants on their own, and convincing them to move to anisland with a population of less than 1,000—happened more quickly.

In the kitchen, Wetzel gives his team room to roam. Chef decuisine Nick Green combines a background as a successful painter withan intrinsic understanding of food to create dishes like the one that’slisted as ‘grilled romano beans’ on the menu. Green cinches the beanstogether withbutcher’s twine dyed black with squid ink and sneaks lardoin among the beans just before serving, giving them an emphatic boostin 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 seaweedand arrives at the table looking like a green disc on a plate. It’s The Inn’sbest sleeper dish, the flavors of the crab heightened by freshly-gratedhorseradish and brown butter. At the end of a meal, Cameron Hauertoasts fresh bay leaves, which radiate a beguiling smell around a dessertthat features roasted sweet pumpkin, fresh cheese, and pine.

With dishes like these, the accolades poured in quickly. The New YorkTimes 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 quarterof his article about the glories of dining in Seattle to Wetzel’s food, as if atwo-hour drive and five minute ferry ride to Lummi Island was akin to aSeattleite driving to one of the city’s neighboring suburbs. In 2012, Wetzelwas named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, and soonafter they wrote a feature about him, a courtesy notbestowed on all of theother winners. Last year, he was nominated for the James Beard RisingStar Chef of The Year Award, following that up this year by winning theaward—making him the best chef in the US under the age of 30.

Quickly after Wetzel arrived, The Willows developed some signaturedishes—the kind that would create a dining-room mutiny if they wereremoved from the menu. A bite of smoked, glazed salmon eaten withbare fingers remains sushi-like in texture: the Pacific Northwest, past andpresent, in one perfect bite. There are also dishes like chicken drippingsserved with fresh-baked bread that simultaneously remind a diner of
their mother’s best-ever roast chicken while amping up the flavor. Sayall you want about the refined dishes that are often the hallmarks ofhigh-end restaurants, this one goes full-throttle at the taste buds, leavingdiners talking about it for months.

While all of chef Wetzel’s food is the fruit of his training, what is nearly asstaggering is the access he has to phenomenal raw ingredients. Up the
street from The Inn, farmer Mary von Krusenstiern puts the entire outputof Loganita Farm at his disposal. Down the street, spawning sockeye
and pink and silver salmon are caught just offshore in a centuries-oldtradition called reef netting. Directly behind the kitchen, former Innowner Riley Starks provides eggs, gooseberries, currants, nettles,and forage from Nettles Farm. Going ‘further afield’ means callingon Pacific northwest mushroom legend Jeremy Faber, someonewhose mycological standards are so high, he gets the lead role inauthor Langdon Cook’s new book, The Mushroom Hunters. Oysterscome from Taylor Shellfish, just a few miles south. Live, local spotprawns and Dungeness crabs are stored just outside the kitchendoor in a great, green aerated tank the likes of which only high-endfishmongers 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 twoof these sources. They dream of having a farm at their disposal, butonly the likes of Alain Passard and Thomas Keller do. When otherchefs come for dinner and slowly realize the depth of what Wetzelhas access to, they go quiet.

Wetzel is the first to admit the value of what he has. “All of youringredients taste better, so you start at a higher level. You have morepotential. And it’s inspiring. It would be really difficult for me to gosomewhere else and be excited about cooking the same way I amhere,” he says. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”


Photography by Charity Burggraaf