Yummy Lummi: Chef Blaine Wetzel Boy Genius

Photo courtesy of The Willows Inn
What were you doing with your life at age 26?  We recently met one of the most impressive young chefs who has created the most incredible dining experience at a small inn on little known Lummi Island (it rhymes with yummy), WA.  Lummi (to see map click here) is a very serene, quiet island almost untouched by tourists that visit the more famous San Juan islands.  That under the radar status is quickly changing thanks to the boy wonder chef (aka Chef Blaine Wetzel).  Blaine has taken up the Executive Chef helm at the Willows Inn. The New York Times put the Willows Inn on their 10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride list (for article click here).  Just announced, The Willows Inn made Lonely Planet's Top 10 US Travel Destinations for 2013.  And lucky for us, it's only a car and boat ride away.  Besides putting a tiny island on the world culinary map (people travel from all over the globe to check this off their restaurant wish list) he already has Food and Wine's 2012 Best New Chef award under his belt and has been a James Beard semi-finalist twice in his young career.  So what's the back-story to this kid's shot to stardom?

Blaine was born in the Pacific Northwest (Olympia, WA).  While he was still in high school his parents visited and stayed at The Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ.  Blaine's parents made a video of their stay and he was so impressed with the video his parents shared that he called the chef of the hotel's restaurant (Mary Elaine's) and told him he wanted to work there.  The chef told Blaine to call him when he finished school.  Six months later, Blaine showed up in Scottsdale and the chef hired him on the spot and he started his official cooking career the next day.  Chef Wetzel also attended Scottsdale Culinary school.  His next career move took him to glitzy Las Vegas, NV where he cooked at Alex, a restaurant at the luxury Wynn hotel.  He then made it back to the West Coast specifically L'Auberge in Carmel, CA.

Then Blaine got the opportunity of a lifetime, a job as sous chef at the now hugely famous Noma in Copenhagen (ranked best new restaurant in the world for 2010).  He studied under the chef-owner Rene Redzepi, who's résumé includes stints at El Bulli (FloJo so wanted to go here before it closed) and French Laundry (still on the bucket list for us both).

There are noticeable similarities between Noma with its open kitchen in a converted farmhouse into a now restaurant.  Little touches learned from his mentor have followed Chef Wetzel back to the United States.  Cooking magic like smoke coming out of a hand carved boxes, show-stopping entrees and special touches.  Chef Rene serves meat dishes with a leather-sheathed knife handmade in Lapland.  Chef Wetzel similarly served venison with local obsidian bladed knives sourced from nearby Mt. Vernon from a place called Hideout Park.  Noma's environment focuses on Scandinavian design and the dishes are foraged from the woods and beaches and served by the chefs.  Chef Wetzel has transplanted that winning formula to the Northwest, foraging now from the Pacific Ocean and local beaches and farms.  His artistic dishes using natural elements such as smooth stones to capture the beauty of local oysters are delivered by his sous chefs.

Pickled oysters
Another mentor for Blaine is Langdon Cook author of "Fat of the Land."  Langdon is a fellow blogger that writes about his foraging adventures.  Blaine has a similar hunt and gather mentality going to the shores of the island to find interesting ingredients.  
Many chefs have helped influence and inspire Blaine Wetzel's Farm to Table philosophy.  Chefs such as René Redzepi, Daniel Patterson, Langdon Cook have all made their imprints on his cooking philosophy to use what is edible around you.  Keep the tastes clean and simple yet have some fun with presentation.  Some of Chef Wetzel's foraging is done at the Inn's own Nettle's Farm located a hop, skip and jump from the inn.  We requested to visit it on Sunday morning before departing, but it was closed to visitors that day.  Normally guests are able to take a tour of the farm with a pre-arranged appointment.  Guest also have the opportunity  to join in on the  fun when booking the Inn's fish-forage-and-farm package offered on Tuesday and Wednesday night stays. 

The story continues that Blaine started itching to return to Washington to be closer to his family and a girlfriend he left behind.  He saw an ad on Craigslist for the open executive chef at the Willows Inn.  He applied and was hired without leaving Copenhagen and we are so glad he chose to come home to Washington.

Blaine's excellent training was apparent right at the beginning of our dinner service.  The Willows reasturant has several different rooms, but we considered ourselves at the best seat in the house in the bar with a perfect view of Chef Blaine. The best words we have to describe the experience are crisp, precise, orchestrated, harmonious, magical and entertaining.  Blaine seemed liked the maestro of a skilled orchestra.  We could see him marking up a chart throughout dinner service, which he later showed and explained his system to us.  There are dots and symbols for almost everything indicating anything from a table receiving silverware to a guest leaving the table to visit the restroom.  This orchestrated dinner did not miss a beat.

Our tasting menu began with a series of what Blaine called snacks on the menu or amuse-bouches.  It was a great opening act to the amazing symphony of flavors perfectly harmonized and presented in beautiful packaging.

"Snacks" for the evening included:

Crispy crepe with salmon roe
Toasted kale
Beet Root (Ro is now a beet fan)
Hearth bread with pan drippings and A-MAZING butter
  • Baked sunflower root
  • Crispy crepe with salmon roe
  • Pickled oyster with sorrel
  • Toasted kale with truffles and rye
  • Salt baked beet root
  • Shiitake over fire
  • Hearth bread with pan drippings
  • Shiitakes
  • Crispy halibut skin with razor clams 

Whole roasted celery  
Grilled onions
For our dinner we started with whole roasted celery root with horseradish and chestnuts paired with 2011 local Mt. Baker Vineyards Madeleine.  Next we had smoked sockeye salmon caught off the shores of the island and smoked in the inn's smokehouse located on the property.  Possibly the best salmon either of us have ever eaten.  It was candied with a sweet glaze and just about as addicting as candy.

We were also served grilled onions with grapes and thyme, probably our least favorite dish, but we still had to admire that the chef would choose to highlight the unsung onion.  Dungeness crab with kelp and brown butter came next paired with 2010 Ross Andrew 'Meadow' Pinot Blanc from the Columbia Gorge region.

Amazing Smoked Salmon

Dungeness Crab

The main star of the show was aged venison with wild chanterelles and seeds which we ate with obsidian knives tied to an antler.  We felt suddenly like cavewomen.  We were surprised with the Pinot Noir pairing, which we would have thought to be too light to hold up to the venison.  However, the notes of cherry paired perfectly and it was a nice surprise twist to the meal.  The pairing was with a 2007 Boedecker 'Athena' from the Willamette Valley, Or.

Aged venison with wild chanterelle mushrooms and seeds

Pears in embers
The closing act featured nasturtiums (edible flowers) with buttermilk ice-cream.  Paired with a 2007 Domaine Huet Vouuvray Pétíllant Brut from the Loire Valley France (seemingly the only item of the evening not sourced locally).  Second dessert was pears cooked in embers with hazelnuts. Then, just to put the final knife in us, one last snack, a house-made caramel with flax seed.

After our meal, we were able to wander into the kitchen and talk with chef Blaine.  We asked Blaine what was next and he shared that he's focused on finishing the year at the inn (it closes down for a few months during the winter) and then enjoying his time-off. He plans to travel to Europe and do some snowboarding locally.

Luckily, we were guests at the Willows Inn that night and all we had to do was climb the stairs.  Even better, in the morning all we had to do was come back down those stairs for breakfast in the dining room.

Salmon quiche, home-made granola, celery root hash brown and bread all served with fresh apple cider

Bald Eagle & San Juan Islands
Obviously, it was hard to say good-bye to this food wonderland.  We spent some time in the hotel lobby delaying our departure a bit by reading, but check-out time came and we realized it was time to go.  As we reluctantly left the inn, we glanced out at the beautiful ocean view in front of us where we could see several of the San Juan Islands off in the distance and then suddenly saw a majestic bald eagle circling the water prowling for its own breakfast.  On our walk to the parking lot we saw the smokehouse that chef Wetzel described the night before where chefs smoke anything from salmon to venison to bacon.  
The Inn's smokehouse

Ro visiting one of the artist studios
It just happened to be the Lummi Island Artist's Studio Tour the weekend we visited the island.  Come to find out the island is home to many talented artisans.  Prepared with our handy reference map, we stopped first at the studio (#8 on the map) of Ria Harboe (check out her work by clicking her name).  As it turns out, Ria used to be an employee of the Willows Inn so we were able to talk story (Hawaiian term) with her about how things have changed with the recent success of the restaurant and how islanders feel about it.  It's definitely a mixed review with both positive and negative aspects.  Ria's work was beautiful, and how could she not be inspired with the view of the Pacific ocean from her studio window.  

One of the studios we stopped at was upstairs in a big red barn.  We passed a rooster and a horse on our way to see Ingrid McGarry's work.  The painting she was working on at the time was from a photo she took of Lummi's "unofficial mayor."  Apparently this man meets all the island children everyday at the ferry as they return from the mainland.

We made it to a majority of the stops on the artist's tour, but by then our breakfast had worn off and we needed to refuel.  For our final meal on the island we stopped at the Beach Store Café, which we quickly realized is the hangout for the Willow's Inn staff as we saw two tables full of chefs and servers from our meal the night before.  We split an Italian meatball sandwich and a crab sandwich-- sort of a sandwich contest.  The fresh crab sandwich won by a landslide.  We sat by the window of the café which had a view of the Lummi ferry dock where we would soon be catching a ride back to the mainland. The Whatcom Chief (name of the ferry) holds maybe two dozen cars on its open-air deck (probably the smallest ferry known to man).

The non-food highlight of our trip to Lummi was a pre-island stop to meet Miss Ellie for the first time.  Her parents Steph & Julie and brother Jake live in nearby Ferndale so we don't get to see and spend time with them as much as we would like.  We took the opportunity to stop for a quick visit.  Ellie is beautiful and was such a good baby during our visit.  She did start to get tired and fussy (much like FloJo) so Steph showed us how they use a white noise app on her iPhone to simulate the sound of a vacuum, which is apparently what works for Ellie to relax.  Our money's on this little one becoming a girl wonder in her own right--just wait for that blog in about twenty years.

Our trip to Willows Inn and the incredible meal will remain special not just because of the event we were celebrating (one year together), but because of the care, attention and layering of generations of chefs coming together in this harmonious, enchanting and divinely orchestrated night.  Perfection on a plate and for us Northwesterns even better that it's right in our own backyard!
Live life with flavor and fun!
Willows Inn
2579 West Shore Dr. 
Lummi Island, WA
(360) 758-2620
Dinner 10/2012 was $150/pp excluding tax/tip

Beach Store Café

A more casual affair with great views of the Lummi Island ferry.  The Willows Inn sous-chef is in charge here and expect to see many of the staff from the inn hanging out.
Lunch on 10/2012 was $40 excluding tax/tip
2200 N. Nugent Rd.; 360-758-2233

To follow the adventures of Chef Blaine check out the Farm to Table blog

Blaine Wetzel Recipes:


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