If Bellingham, Washington is all you would expect of a small, blue-collar city, busy, chaotic, dense, nearby Lummi Island is everything the opposite, sleepy, calm, sparse. After a 15-minute ferry crossing, stepping off into another world rehydrated the senses. The simplicity of the island stripped away the city coating, a rural palette cleanser, in preparation for an interview with Chef Blaine Wetzel, 2014 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year and owner of The Willows Inn.
“When I came to the Willows in 2010, I had never even heard of Lummi Island, Blaine explains. “But I was looking for a job back in the U.S., which is a hard thing to do from, overseas. I found The Willows on an ad on Craig’s List, sent in a letter and was hired.”
Blaine had been apprenticing at Noma of Copenhagen...the visionary restaurant’s motto: “...we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.”
“At 18, I started working at great restaurants, including Alex at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, a very personalized, chef-driven place.”
The beginnings of his connection to local, wild ingredients came from an event at La Berge Carmel, a California restaurant that worked with one small farm.
“A surfer dude came in one day with a crate of mushrooms that he had foraged from the wilderness. For the first time, I made the connection between myself as a chef as the link between dining and the source.....which in this case was the forager. I cooked and I was interested in foraging, but I hadn’t put the two together.”
From La Berge Carmel, Blaine went to Manresa, a restaurant with its own farm. After Manresa, came Noma. Initially goingto Copenhagen as a volunteer to experience their unusual approach to ingredients, Blaine naturally fit in and stayed for three years as the restaurant grew from eight to 40 staff. Noma was the last in a series of experiences that ultimately shaped his ultra-locavore approach for The Willows.
The Willows on Lummi was the chance to bring these experiences together. The concept was simple but extreme: virtually everything served at The Willows was to come from the island itself or the surrounding waters. At the time, The Willows had its own farm and the island was known for its fresh seafood and wild mushrooms...a good start.
“This was a chance to localize the Noma philosophy, but take it further,” he explains.
This extreme locavore approach is what diners enjoy from the inception of their visit. They slowly assembled on the restaurant’s west-facing porch, watching the sun paint sorbet colors over Orcas, Sucia, Sinclair & Cypress Islands. The view and the scent of the pine trees was in-sync with the Spotted Owl, The Willows take on a gin fizz with nettles, egg whites and Douglas Fir. As the sun continued its slow descent, the guests were escorted, family-like, into the intimate dining room...just one gathering at 6:30 sharp for a fixed ten-course meal with bits of delectables in between.
As part of its local dynamic, The Willows has two full time farmers, growing only for the restaurant using all bio-dynamic practices: “We are constantly learning from the previous year about planting and growing,” according to Blaine. “We don’t plant common varieties, only heirloom and natives.”
Ten percent of the plots are devoted to experimental R&D to understand taste and growth characteristics: “We’re getting to know the plant for next year, before we consider putting it into our menu.” Seeds are sourced from Uprising Organics and the farms have an active seed saving program of their own.
This sensitive connectivity to sources and food reveals an intricate web of unexpected relationships. On this day’s menu was a braised seaweed dish using Ulva, or Sea Lettuce. “Too much sun on the shallows burns the plant, so we have to be careful harvesting in summer. Spring is the best time,” explains Blaine. “Storms will also blow off the tender tips.”
The Willows menu develops over the course of the day: “If we get rain today, it effects the menu. We need a fully supported kitchen to react to those dynamic conditions.”
Dinner at The Willows is a casual ceremony. Blaine, chefs and staff glide in and out of the kitchen in a continuous dance, arranging, serving, clearing. From kitchen to table to kitchen, to table, each dish is served in its own creative guise with a sense of place. Steam escaped from the first dish, served in a closed cedar box containing a single smoked Samish Bay Mussel atop a bed of hot beach rock...perfectly cooked, the steam enhancing the silky smokiness...provocative, simple.
The glow of the setting sun seemed to activate the ingredients in the progression of appetizers. Next was Wild Plum Skins in Young Grape Juice. Tying the senses together, a school of skins floated in a pool of wild grape juice, thyme flavored oil and baby geranium flowers...each a spoonful of juicy freshness...mouthwatering, bright in flavors.
The rest of the meal was equally provocative. Guests were swept away by Local Albacore In a Broth of Smoked Bones, Crispy Crepe with Steelhead Roe, Salt-Roasted Beets, Halibut Skin, Aged Leg of Venison with Purslane Leaves, Kale with Black Truffles, Smoked Sockeye Salmon, Grilled Shitake Mushrooms, Lummi Island Rockfish steamed with Cherry Tomatoes and Lovage, Bread from Local Grains with Pan Drippings, Slices of Fresh Geoduck Clam, Flax Seeds, Slow-Roasted Lamb, Wild Chamomile and Blackberries, Black Huckleberries with Woodruff and Malt.
By dinner’s end each of the staff had touched each of the tables, met each of the guests and enriched the experience with communal grace and engaging explanations.
At The Willows Inn, Blaine is tapping into nature, Avatar style, with intuitive connection. Invoking the bounty of his surroundings, he nuances nature for the taste buds.