There’s a hilly piece of heaven that sits among a chain of islands at the most northeasterly section of the San Juan archipelago, an unspoiled spot just a short ferry ride from the mainland and a brief distance’s drive from Bellingham, Washington. It’s the bucolic portrait of the Northwest, dotted with rising mountains, winding trails, and secluded beaches known only to locals, who number around 800 or so.
The place is Lummi Island (pronounced “lummy”), an unexpected location for an emerging world-class restaurant like The Willows Inn to call home. The Inn, originally built in 1910, looks like a cabin you’d stumble upon while hiking in the woods, not a place that’s been named by The New York Times in “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride.” There’s a smokehouse out back, a sloped porch in front, and bicycles scattered about the yard, looking more like a rustic retreat rather than a renowned restaurant.
Walking inside, a different picture emerges: a modest, relaxed atmosphere with a hunt club attitude that’s decided on jeans instead; a newly remodeled kitchen, pin-pointed by drop-down light fixtures and an open cooking area, allowing guests to watch their meals being prepared; and a cozy, fire-front lounge, fit for pre-dinner cocktails like the Spotted Owl (gin, Douglas fir, nettles and citrus). The Inn remained largely off the grid until recently, when chef-wonder Blaine Wetzel entered the scene, took over the kitchen, and righted the epicurean ship with his passion for harvesting local foods and creating new and innovative dishes for the Inn’s restaurant.
A local at heart, Wetzel grew up in Olympia, but has traveled extensively across the country and around the world, building his culinary skills by working in some of the most celebrated restaurants, including Alex of Wynn in Las Vegas, Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician in Arizona, and most notably, Noma, the world-class restaurant in Copenhagen, under the tutelage of renowned chef, René Redzepi.
Wetzel is a young, old soul—just 26—but wise beyond his years, armed with a shy smile, kid-next-door looks, and a humble demeanor, despite all the attention he’s garnered in recent days from such prestigious publications as Food and Wine, where he earned the title of Best New Chef of 2012. His focus is on the food, not the fame, first to credit the locals he works with, the land he forages, and the discipline needed to build and grow a first-class restaurant. The “fish, forage, and farm” philosophy that drives his dishes is an homage to his famed predecessor at Noma in Denmark.
In the kitchen, Chef Wetzel maintains an intense, relaxed focus, like a student who knows the material taking a final exam. There’s no air or “Top Chef” pretense; he works alongside his team in an effortless dance of planning, prepping and plating. The ever-changing menu is a collaborative effort between all staff members who forage the wilderness together on a regular basis to harvest seasonal plants, berries and herbs, ranging from verdant wood sorrel, chive blossom flowers and juicy salmonberries, to name just a few.
Although the prix fixe menu changes seasonally, Wetzel’s locavorism remains constant: always fresh, always foraged, always fished and farmed. Expect dynamic flavor combinations and eclectic, brilliant presentations, from slices of fresh bread served on a bed of hot stones to keep them warm; toasted kale crisps dusted with black truffles and rye served on a layer of rock slate; and the most mystical snack-dish of all, a burnished wooden box filled with knob-knotted baked sunflower roots nestled on a bed of moss, giving off a deep, earthy aroma with a mushroom-like texture, akin to that of portabellas. Salmon, a tired and often overused fish in many upscale restaurants, is redeemed at The Willows: caught by reef-net, perfectly smoked, cut into meaty, bite-sized, perfectly plated portions, and presented on mini cutting boards. Genius.
Friend and mentor Chef Redzepi believes his protégé will continue to ride the winds at The Willows. “He’s found his niche there,” he said. “He’s at home.”