Chef Blaine Wetzel’s Quest to Become the Ultimate Locavore
Chef Blaine Wetzel has one rule for his 18-course dinners at Washington's remote Willows Inn. Whether it's geoduck or fried moss, everything is foraged, fished, or farmed on a nine-square-mile patch of rocky coast.
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In the winter of 2010, Riley Starks was in trouble. A fisherman and organic farmer, the 59-year-old owned a small inn on Washington State’s Lummi Island, a nine-mile ridge of fir and hemlock rising out of the sea near the Canadian border, with a year-round population of 964 weathered souls. Starks and his wife had bought the eight-room Willows Inn in 2001, and for a while they lived out their fantasy. Starks supplied fish and veggies to the restaurant, while his wife handled the inn and the cooking. But the economic downturn had clobbered both the inn and their marriage. His wife left in 2009, and Starks was forced to place an ad for a chef on Craigslist. He wasn’t looking for anything special, just a warm body to keep the place alive, and that was largely what he got among the 25 responses. Most were from restaurant-crazed Seattle, as he’d expected, but one reply jumped out at him. It was from Copenhagen, Denmark.
“To whom it may concern,” the email began. “Please consider my application for the chef position posted. I am originally from Washington State and, although for the last eight years I have been working around the country and in Europe, I would love the opportunity to return to the Northwest again. I am particularly interested as timing and the description of the restaurant seem like a possible perfect fit, a small chef-driven kitchen with the emphasis on the garden.”
In a sweetly passionate 1,000-word cover letter, the applicant explained that he was a chef at Noma, which he described as “a small restaurant with a biodynamic farm where the focus is exclusively on seasonal, farm-to-table dining. If radishes are on your section, you are the one harvesting them almost daily, and chefs are responsible to forage for various wild plants, herbs, mushrooms and berries that make up a huge part of the cuisine. I have totally refined my palette, to a more fresh, natural, juicy type of food full of texture.” The cover letter was signed, “Kind regards, Blaine Wetzel.” He was 24 years old.
Starks had never heard of Noma, but he checked it out online. What he found was a restaurant that had blown up the culinary world by going local with a vengeance. “They wanted foie gras. He gave them cloudberries,” said one Swedish restaurateur about René Redzepi, Noma’s chef. In 2009, after three years of steady climbing, Noma had claimed the number-three spot among the world’s top restaurants, as chosen by the food critics and restaurateurs at the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants Academy, and its complete reimagining of Scandinavian food would soon send it to first place, a position it still holds.
Starks scanned the Noma menu, the sea urchin powder and hay ash and Icelandic puffin eggs, and realized that Denmark had nothing on Lummi Island. He spoke with Wetzel, whose greenness did not give him pause. (“I wanted youth. Think about it: Alexander the Great was 24 when he conquered the world.”) Then he wrote to offer Wetzel the job. “Blaine, I would like to do all we can to encourage you to become our chef. If you have the same sensibilities of René Redzepi, we could thrill you with ingredients that very few restaurants can get. We keep live spot prawns, large and from right here, and I can say that there is likely no other restaurant that does this on the West Coast. Since I have been a commercial fisherman all of my life, I can source the best of the best from friends. I am not a chef or even a cook, but my job is to source ingredients, which I do well. Reading reviews of Noma, I have become inspired to reach higher, keep going, try harder. Though our location is pretty amazing, with west-facing marine views, the element that brings people here is our food. It would be so much fun to take that to a new level! It gives me energy just thinking about it.”
Blaine proposed that they revamp the kitchen and dining room and give America something it had never seen before. Starks agreed to go for broke; he borrowed and bartered $100,000 from his Lummi Island neighbors. “It was a Hail Mary pass for me,” he says. “I was going to lose this place anyway. I promised him all this stuff. But I really saw this as the salvation of the restaurant. I said, ‘You come, I’ll make this work somehow.’”
Blaine Wetzel saw Lummi Island for the first time in August 2010. For centuries, the Lummi Indians had visited for the good eats; little had changed here. One of the greatest salmon runs on earth slid past the western beaches every summer. The place was lousy with berries. Raspberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, Saskatoon berries. Rubenesque blackberries spilled along the roadsides, shining like purple Christmas lights. Wetzel recognized seaweeds and beach plants from Noma, and he knew that a lot of the ones he didn’t recognize would be edible, too. A few might even be delicious. The waters brimmed with oysters, mussels, and clams. Starks’ organic vegetable farm was a five-minute hike up the trail from the 100-year-old inn, the only public business on the island besides the Beach Store Cafe, also owned by the inn, and a small grocery store. The simple wooden building perched above a beach looking due west across the Rosario Strait, the arched backs of the San Juan Islands breaching the horizon like a pod of orcas.
“It was such a rare scenario,” Wetzel told me. “This little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, right on the ocean, only 25 seats, with its own farm and its own fishing boats. You don’t hear that very often. It caught my attention right away, and then it sparked my imagination.” Still, the inn was two hours from Seattle, reachable only by ferry, and the kitchen was a wreck. Noma it was not.
“The first thing Blaine did was start clearing counters and drawers,” Starks says. “We’d had an accumulation of 10 years of different people’s ideas of what a kitchen should be. He put everything in boxes and put it all down in the basement. Pretty soon there was nothing. The breakfast cook would come in and couldn’t find anything. And Blaine said, ‘Look, if you need something, bring it back up. But if it stays in the basement, it’s gone.’”
Working alone, relying on the farm, Starks’ fishing, and what he could forage himself, Wetzel began offering five-course meals, one seating per night. Word spread that a Noma disciple was experimenting on Lummi Island. “We had the best fall we’d ever had,” says Starks. “The Noma connection was everything.”
In January, they closed to renovate. Wetzel lured another young American chef named Aaron Abramson from Noma. “We renovated the kitchen on no budget,” Abramson says. “It was Blaine, me, Riley, a carpenter, and his nephew. It was comical, but it was a fun time. I did not see the restaurant getting so big so fast.” During the renovation, The New York Times featured the Willows Inn in an article titled “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride.”
“It went crazy after that,” says Starks. “Everybody wanted a reservation, and we were closed. We realized we needed to staff up, all the things you don’t want to do when you’re closed and you have no money coming in. But we had to. It was either that or fall flat on your face.”
When they re-opened in March, Wetzel began offering 18-course tasting menus. Sometimes that meant 10 courses of seafood. Sometimes it was tartare made from the heart of an island deer. (“Heart of the hart,” as the menu put it.) Sometimes you were stuck with fried moss. That was just fine with the foodies who beat a path to the Willows Inn door, dropping $85 apiece for dinner, plus wine. (It’s now $150.) “Nowhere else could this food exist,” enthused the Chicago Tribune. “Like wine that decants, Wetzel’s cooking improves with time, when the floral aromas outside your room trigger memories of the wild cherry blossom ice cream and lemon verbena granita, adorned with velvety edible quince blossoms, wood violets and wild rose petals.”
EARLY ON A CRISP October morning, I found Wetzel in the Willows Inn kitchen, disemboweling wild plums with tweezers. “I just want the skins,” he explained. “They get a nice leathery texture when you bake them.” He brushed juice from the inner flesh over the skins. “The pectin protects them from blistering.” The skins would be served that night alongside a frozen granita of wheatgrass and wild herbs.
Pale and fit in that Pacific Northwest way, with dark hair and the soulful black eyes of a harbor seal, Wetzel could have been a college kid, but he had an inner stillness, a Zen confidence, and he told me that he never questioned his decision to leave Noma. “After two years, I felt like I’d got the rhythm, the style. I’m not saying I learned everything, just the bulk of what I had to learn from another person. If you see the seasons twice, especially spring and summer, you get the gist of it.” He was also homesick. “It’s definitely isolating being a foreigner on your own. I felt out of place at all times.”
His place, he knew, was the Pacific Northwest. He was still not so many years removed from being a skate punk in Olympia, Washington, fishing and foraging around Puget Sound. “Growing up, I was exposed to ingredients that a lot of other kids probably aren’t. It was normal to have oysters or salmon or steamed clams for dinner.”
The six other chefs who work under Wetzel were all busy prepping—simmering seaweed, dissecting chickweed into elfin pieces, and transforming smoked smelt, kelp, and smelt roe into a sort of Lummi Island dashi. The order of the courses for that night was posted on the wall in shortened form: “1 Roots. 2 Roe. 3 Oyster. 4 Kale/Porcini. 5 Beet. 6 Crab. 7 Shit. 8 Grains. 9 Salmon. 10 Onion. 11 Bread.” (Mysteriously, there was no 12.) “13 Squash. 14 Skin. 15 Frisée. 16 Plum. 17 Huck. 18 Flax.” I was a bit concerned that with number seven they were taking the foraging concept too far, but I kept my mouth shut.
Food & Wine had recently named Wetzel, who turns 27 in March, one of its Best New Chefs in America, and the Willows was slammed for the foreseeable future. But there was no sense of urgency in the spotless kitchen, just focus and determination. The baby-faced chefs could have been an order of culinary monks. Most restaurant kitchens seem to be staffed by a toxic gumbo of ex-cons, merchant marines, and Tourette’s cases, but there wasn’t a can of Red Bull in sight, and the place was quiet as a church. Anthony Bourdain would have broken into a clammy sweat.
Everyone at the Willows calls Wetzel Blaine, not Chef. When I asked him to explain the hierarchy of the kitchen, he had to stop and think, as if considering the question for the first time. “Basically none,” he said. “We work collaboratively. I trust these guys.”
Living in various rented houses on the small island, the chefs spend a lot of their free time together. Most of them are single, though Wetzel’s Paraguayan girlfriend of seven years, Raquel Ruiz Diaz, manages the restaurant. They have fires on the beach. Crab boils. Basketball games. Wetzel snorkels, kayaks, bikes, and skateboards—the latter with difficulty. (“The cement’s atrocious.”) Many of the chefs forage on their way to work, and the menu evolves from what they find.
“We’re always keeping our eyes open for what’s growing here,” Abramson told me as we slipped out of the kitchen to gather some sea beans he’d spotted near his old house. “The island pretty much tells you what to do.” Sea bean, also known as Salicornia, is an intensely salty, crunchy succulent that grows in salt marshes. It turns up pickled, deep-fried in tempura batter, and as a garnish on a variety of the restaurant’s dishes.
Back at the Willows, I caught Wetzel walking down to the beach with a bucket to collect seawater. “We use a lot of seawater in our cooking,” he explained. “They say 3 percent salt water is the same as seawater, but you can’t match the flavor—the brininess.” Sniffing the air, I realized that oceans smell surprisingly different from one another. The North Atlantic smells like oysters; the North Pacific smells like miso soup.
Wetzel returned to the kitchen, set some Dungeness crabs simmering, and then showed an apprentice how to hang a geoduck’s feeding tube upside down to make it relax. “If it’s long, we get 30 portions out of it; if it’s contracted, we get 15.” Geoducks, which are found only in the Pacific Northwest, are the world’s largest burrowing clams. They resemble, as many new observers point out, horse weenies, which may or may not explain why they reportedly sell for more than $100 per pound in China. The siphon, sliced thin and eaten raw, is the sweetest, crunchiest sashimi you will ever taste.
“I used to eat geoduck when I lived here,” Wetzel said, “but I’d been away for 10 years. When I came back, I met it with new eyes. It was shockingly good. It’s everything I like about food. This amazing texture—a mixture of creaminess and crunchiness—with a superclean marine flavor. They grow right across the water in Samish Bay. As far as geoduck, there’s not a better specimen than what we get here. These are the kind of things I try to put on the menu.”
The island has also renewed his appreciation for salmon. “Working with your own fishing boats opens your eyes to the potential for what salmon can be,” he says. “Pink salmon is a good example. It’s such an oily fish that it’s good for only about 24 hours after it’s caught, but when you work with the fishing boats, and they take such good care of the fish, then all of a sudden something that usually gets thrown away becomes your favorite ingredient.”
Not everything works out, however. “Like sea cucumber. Really unique item that the Lummi tribe dives for right around the island. They’re known for it. Man, I couldn’t find any way to make those things taste good. They’re so gross. The texture is very challenging.”
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE WHAT a pain in the ass it is to serve food from “only here, only now,” as the Willows advertises. When we realized that we needed some beach mustard for dinner, Wetzel grabbed a colander and we set off for a beach where he knew the peppery succulent grew amid bleached driftwood. He worked quickly, plucking the tips and the flowers like a tea picker, and then we followed the beach to where it turned into a continuous slope of rock in the crashing waves. He was hoping for sea lettuce, his favorite seaweed. Wetzel took the contours like a skateboarder, running over the slick rock with the colander tucked under his arm, using his momentum to keep him pressed against the curved slope. There were sea anemones (not tasty) but no sea lettuce. They were done for the season.
Although the Willows Inn is not above using ingredients from outside producers (coffee, flour, and sugar are pretty much deal breakers), the menus can still be punishingly seasonal. Sure, summer is a cakewalk, but by December the edible moss has reared its head. (“I usually hold off on that until there’s not much left to cook with. If you simmer it and then deep-fry it, the moss gets crispy, with a nice forest flavor.”) The inn closes for January and February, and Wetzel guest-chefs at other restaurants, looking for new ideas. He had plans to head to São Paulo to chef at D.O.M. (the number-four restaurant in the world) and work with wild Amazonian ingredients. In March, when the Willows reopens, he says, sourcing is “quite difficult. Every plate is green things that just poked out of the ground. All shoots and leaves and tiny herbs.” So he’s taking a page from the Lummi Indians, smoking, curing, and pickling half the island’s foodshed.
Slowly the stockpile of pickled fiddleheads, bladderwort capers, and smoked salmon is dispelling seasonal deprivation. Wetzel and a group of investors recently bought the inn and farm from Starks, who will be devoting himself to raising heirloom chickens and fishing, and Wetzel will soon have the kitchen of his dreams. First up: converting the basement into a root cellar and filling it with venison prosciutto.
Why bother? I asked. What’s wrong with beef off the Sysco truck? “Using things from right here on the island helps give context to the meal,” Wetzel said, “makes it something that you couldn’t replicate. I’m not the best chef in the world, and this is not the Ritz-Carlton, but maybe we’re a little more thought provoking.”
Provocative enough to catch the attention of the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants Academy. Mitchell Davis, one of the three academy chairs for the U.S., visited the Willows Inn a few days before I did. “He’s cooking with a level of sophistication you only expect to find in the global capitals—and even there it might be difficult to make such a project a success,” Davis told me. “It’s brave of him to do—not many chefs in America would be confident or activist enough to serve a lettuce ‘steak’ as a main course.”
By the time we returned to the Willows, two fishermen were waiting outside with 14 salmon. Wetzel had requested all females, so he could extract the roe. “We don’t normally sex our fish,” one said. “You’ll have to tell us how successful we were.”
Wetzel paid the full beach price of $3 per pound for all 76 pounds of salmon. “That enough?” he asked. “I want to make sure you’re getting enough.”
“Can we keep this going the rest of the season?”
It was late afternoon, and dinner suddenly loomed large. Most of the season, the chefs try to finish prepping in time to slip away to the beach for a plunge in the icy Pacific, to, as one put it, “focus themselves before service.” But it was October, and the water seemed more likely to paralyze, so they skipped the swim.
Wetzel drew his trusty tweezers again, ribboning strands of bull kelp into individual bowls as if they were lasagna noodles, tucking lumps of crabmeat into the folds, then sticking flowers and leaves of St. John’s wort to the sides of the gummy kelp. I kept pressing him to justify the wild ingredients. Wouldn’t parsley do just fine? “All I’m trying to do is reflect a moment in nature,” he said. “These little herbs and plants don’t necessarily define the dish, but they can give you a better sense of Dungeness crab.” Then he smiled sheepishly. “Also, it’s for me. I’ve been mushrooming and fishing and being outside my whole life. I’d rather have part of my day be going to the beach or chopping wood instead of standing at a stove in a basement in New York.”
DID I MENTION DINNER? For me, it began on the Willows deck with a Pacific gin fizz (gin, wild pineapple weed, egg white). It looked like green-tinged skim milk and tasted like medicine and made me very happy. The sun was dripping into the sea, bouncing a wall of light into the dining room, and a dozen couples, young Seattle hipsters and well-appointed white-hairs, gradually filled the tables. Then the food started coming out, delivered by the chefs themselves.
The meal commenced with a lidded cedar box placed on the table. When I lifted the cover, a puff of smoke escaped, as if there were some miniature Lummi Indians inside trying to send a signal. Nestled in a bed of smoldering moss was a single fire-roasted sunflower root, sweet and creamy and smoky. Down the hatch, and instantly a little cylinder appeared, rolled from a wafer of a crêpe and capped with chives. I popped it in my mouth, bit, and salmon roe exploded out of it. No sooner had that plate been whisked away than a bowl piled with rocks and frozen seawater was plunked down before me. It was a bonsai Lummi Island coastline, and clinging to the top rock was a pickled oyster on the half shell. Each course was a little diorama, a meditation on some piece of the island, stripped to its essence. An ultracrispy kale chip came dotted with spiky caterpillars—actually porcini concentrate bristling with tiny shards of rye toast—and then came the intertidal community of crabmeat hiding in kelp. After that, I nervously awaited the dreaded course number seven. It arrived on a slab of slate—one innocent, and delicious, grilled shiitake mushroom.
From there the evening was a blur. The geoduck arrived, sitting in an emerald pool of seaweed oil, like sushi from an alternate universe. There was smoked sockeye on a cedar plank, and a farm scene of delicata squash sitting in a muddy smear of pureed truffles from the Cascade Mountains. At some point a silvery blue halibut skin appeared, crisped like a tortilla chip, studded with pickled razor clams and dusted with seaweed powder. The plum skins made an appearance late in the evening, paired with the grassy granita, and then the huckleberries, cuddling up to a scoop of woodruff ice cream.
This was not an approximation of how the Lummi or any other hunter-gatherers had ever eaten. It was more of a fever dream of the possible, shot through with bright revelations. For me, those revelations came after I floated from the dining room, feeling strangely invigorated, and glided down the path onto the beach. I gazed out at the black Pacific, the briny wind scudding across the waves, and realized that I would never again question whether or not some ingredient was good, not even the lowly sea cucumber. I let my eyes adjust until I could make out the white edge of the waves curling in the moonlight. The place swirled around me. I could smell the rose hips and beach mustard. And in my mind’s eye, I gazed upon the waving kelp and the scuttling crabs, the green herbs and the creeping things and the little fishes, and I saw that it was all good.
Contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen is the author of American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields.