Interview with JBF Award Nominee Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn on Lummi IslandElena North-Kelly
April 17, 2014
Tucked away in an archipelago off the coast of Washington lies the elegant Willows Inn on Lummi Island, where chef Blaine Wetzel helms the nationally renowned kitchen. Here, the four-time nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year tell us about his formative culinary experiences, how he draws inspiration from the Pacific Northwest’s terroir, and the ubiquitous food trend he hopes will disappear.
JBF: How would you describe your culinary style?
Blaine Wetzel: My culinary style is determined by geography. The Pacific Northwest offers an abundance of beautiful ingredients that shape the way we cook. Whether it’s wild salmon, our garden's cherry blossoms, or the first nettles of the season, we just try to showcase that particular item.
JBF: The tagline for your restaurant is “fished, foraged, and farmed.” Can you tell us about one particular local ingredient that inspires you?
BW: We have a friend on the other side of the bay who catches spot prawns for us. It's amazing to taste the very first ones of the season. With something of such depth of flavor, we just serve it in a broth made of its own roe. The local bounty just tells us what it wants to be.
JBF: What’s your favorite item on the current Willows Inn on Lummi Island menu?
BW: Right now we’re getting some spring lamb from a friend on the island, which we serve with fresh grasses. The dish was actually inspired by the lambs themselves. They live surrounded by grass in lush fields here on Lummi Island, so we serve the roasted lamb on a bed of grass purée and drizzle it with a bit of savory wild grass broth.
JBF: We read that your team took a two-month sabbatical to work at kitchens around the world, including Vietnam, Mexico, and Italy. Can you talk about that?
BW: My chefs travel and taste in every direction. It’s important that the chefs explore and find inspiration from the rest of the world. When we get back, we all collaborate on new ideas, talk about things we saw, and teach each other what we’ve learned.
JBF: How do you plan to incorporate any newfound global influences and techniques in a menu that's so rooted in a very specific place?
BW: We never stop reaching for something that inspires us. We are lucky that we don't have to look any farther than our own shores to find beautiful flora and fauna. We mix in what we have learned and experienced. Sometimes it’s a new fermenting technique that one of the chefs picked up in Southeast Asia, or a new wild edible that a chef learned about in California that we use to understand our own wild plants. It broadens the horizons of what we can do with our local ingredients.
JBF: You worked with René Redzepi at Noma for two years. What was your biggest takeaway from that experience, or one thing you learned that you’ll never forget?
BW: René and his team at Noma do amazing things—they always have, and always will. It takes a lot of determination and inspiration to build something like that. I think what I would take away most from my experience there was to constantly be critical of the flavors you are developing, and to dig deep in your local surroundings to find out what beautiful things are all around you.
JBF: Since the theme of this year’s Awards gala is music: what’s playing in the Willows Inn on Lummi Island kitchen during prep and service?
BW: Our kitchen opens up to the main dining room and out towards the Salish Sea and other islands. Our crew has a wide range of musical taste but if it fits in with the beautiful natural surroundings, it can be added to the playlist. These days it’s mostly a mix of reggae and folk music.
JBF: What’s one food trend or ingredient that you wish would disappear, and why?
BW: Cupcakes. Don't get me wrong—I love cupcakes. But if something so amazing gets overexposed, it might just lose its charm.
The 2014 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year is presented by
S. Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water. For more videos and stories, visit FineDiningLovers.com.