Several times a week, Blaine Wetzel sets out, pocket knife in hand, to forage for food along the rocky coastline of Lummi Island in Washington State, USA. For nine months of the year, this is his ritual, as he works in harmony with the local landscape to source the freshest, purest ingredients to serve guests at his restaurant in a tiny forest-clad escape known as The Willows Inn.
When you grow up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, you have a rather different relationship with nature compared to people who grow up in other regions. In Blaine Wetzel’s childhood, hiking in the mountains, hanging wild mushrooms and collecting fresh crabs and oysters were all part of daily life.
While he had no aspirations as a child of becoming a chef, Blaine worked in kitchens as a part-time job during high school. When he was faced with limited career options upon graduation, he figured he may as well take on cooking as a trade and the next few years saw him working in restaurants in Arizona, Las Vegas and California. In 2007, while Blaine was doing a working interview at Manresa in California, René Redzepi of lauded restaurant Noma came to do a guest-chef cooking appearance at the restaurant. “That was the first time I met René and got to see his cooking style,” Blaine explains. “He used a lot of those same ingredients that I had grown up with, like crab, oysters and salmon. At that point Noma had only been open for a year or so, and so I just told him that I’d love the chance to come to Copenhagen and work with him for a month and learn some of his techniques.”
René was all for the idea and soon Blaine was packing his bags for Denmark. After only a couple of weeks at Noma, he was offered a job. “At the time René had a pretty young kitchen going and I fit right in,” Blaine recalls. “It was really special to me because I went expecting only to stay a month, but I ended up staying two years.”
During his sojourn as chef de partie at Noma, Blaine soaked up as much knowledge as he could about the art of foraging and farm-to-table seasonal dining. But he was still paying off a house in the USA, meaning he sent almost all of his pay cheques home to cover the mortgage. Then there was his girlfriend – whom he had told he was just going to Europe for a month – still patiently waiting for him back home. So he started looking for opportunities back in the USA. One day while scrolling through craigslist, he stumbled across a hidden gem. It was an ad posted by the owner of a small 100-year-old inn on Lummi Island looking for a chef for the summer. “It didn’t take long for my imagination to see the place as a real opportunity,” he says. “At the time it was a real kind of ‘mom and pop’ bed and breakfast, but it had a lot of potential. There was a really small dining room and it was in a magnificent location right on the ocean on a tiny island – I grew up in the area and I’d never heard of Lummi Island. And the fact that the restaurant had its own farm and fishing boats was a really rare combination.”
Ever the benevolent mentor – and recognising his protégé’s rare talent – René urged Blaine to seize the opportunity. “He really encouraged me to take this position over several others that were more traditional steps in the progression of a chef,” Blaine says. “I had about six months before I actually started the position, and René was really good at working with me and telling me to work on dishes for my restaurant while I was still at Noma. So I did presentations to the entire staff there, working on dishes for my new restaurant. It was good because it got everyone thinking about food differently.”
While some people may have considered it a risk to leave a job at what was becoming the world’s best restaurant for an obscure post on an unknown island, Blaine saw it as an adventure. “My instinct was just to go for it and it would either be great or I could just find another job. I remember when I first came to the island in a U-Haul truck. It was August and everything was so full and green and uninhabited and the inn was just breathtakingly beautiful. That’s when I knew I was really going to give it a good shot.”
Only 24 at the time, Blaine’s relative youth as a chef earned him the unwanted title of ‘boy genius’. “I don’t think anyone would be flattered with the title ‘boy genius’,” he says. “But I think because I was so young when I took over the kitchen, it’s definitely made me work harder than someone who’s more experienced would have to.”
Having worked alongside many elite chefs, Blaine says it took a while to strip away all the influences to discover his own personal cooking style. He describes the menu at The Willows Inn as subtle and fleeting, one that is at the constant whim of changing seasons and the fickleness of nature. “We have our own farm with four full-time farmers and we’re in one of the best shellfish regions in the world – we have amazing oysters, prawns, clams and crabs. So most of my cooking is vegetable and shellfish oriented, highlighted by wild foraged ingredients from the island. Very simple recipes but executed well with high-quality ingredients sourced specifically and with a very pure, clear flavour. We’re more focused on traditional and ancient cooking techniques.”
The focus on simplicity and local ingredients was an instant success, and soon food writers were travelling from around the continent to sample the young chef’s fare. “Having the immediate media attention was a lot to deal with,” Blaine admits. “In the first six months we were open, we had Frank Bruni from The New York Times and almost every major North American food writer visit. That’s a challenge that many chefs don’t get the opportunity to face – and for a reason. For any chef, especially a 24-year-old one, to be critiqued by some of the leading restaurant writers in the country after four months of being open is kind of a tough position to be in. But it was a unique challenge that really helped to kick-start my restaurant.”
Since he took on the position as chef three years ago, Blaine’s delicate offerings of local, farm-to-table fare have earned the inn a reputation as one of the USA’s best destinations for food lovers. Sit down to one of his 18-course dinners, and you’ll encounter such island-sourced delicacies as geoduck, sea bean and fried moss.
But in addition to the recognition he’s received, Blaine is also proud of the fact that he’s simply living his dream. “I’m so happy – I love coming to work every day and just being here,” he enthuses. “I think I have the best job in the world. And I’m certainly proud that I now own the restaurant and that in a short time I’ve gone from being a relatively uneducated employee, to being self-employed and an industry leader – or at least with ambitions to become one.”
Blaine says that René Redzepi remains one of his strongest inspirations. “He just continues to set a high standard of operation in the kitchen and for recipes, as well as with managing people.”
Reflecting on the experience a tNoma, Blaine says that learning to be critical of himself was one of the most important lessons. “It’s not about saying something doesn’t taste good – it’s knowing what you do think tastes good. And it’s also about having the confidence to know what you like to do – in my case it’s food – and then really examine it with a fine-tooth comb and ask yourself if it’s the best you can do. I think that applies to many industries and is how you end up with more unique ideas and bolder projects. You need to go after things wholeheartedly.”