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By land or sea: Young chef goes local on Lummi

Mar 11th, 2011 | Category: Features

by John Kinmonth

Blaine Wetzel spent his post-culinary school years under the tutelage of legendary chef Rene Redzepi at the best restaurant in the world in Copehagen, Denmark. That’s right, literally the best—at least, if you believe the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants annual awards. And most people do.

Chef Blaine Wetzel. PHOTO BY JIM HENKENS (www.jimhenkens.com)

So, at the age of 24, Wetzel’s already cut his teeth in the planet’s top kitchen. Where to next?

London? Paris? Guess again.

With the world his oyster, Wetzel decided to make the oyster his world. Along with the vegetable and the salmon.

Attracted by the as-local-as-it-gets ingredients and proximity to his hometown of Olympia, Wetzel left Copenhagen’s Noma to become head chef at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island in August.

“The further I dug into it, the more perfect it seemed,” he said. “There aren’t many restaurants that only seat 28 people right on the water. We have three full-time farmers, commercial fishing boats—it was an unusual opportunity.”

Willows Inn owner and innkeeper Riley Starks has been doing “unusual “food for a long time. He and his wife Judy started the adjacent Nettles Farm in 1992 and were founding members of the Bellingham Farmer’s Market. Taking over the Willows Inn and Restaurant in 2001, they realized their dream of connecting diners to dirt in a special way.

“They’ve been doing this type of food since day one,” he said.

Seasonal dish using local ingredients. PHOTO BY JIM HENKENS (www.jimhenkens.com)

It was the soil that sealed the deal for Wetzel. Six months before his arrival on Lummi, the Nettles farmers were already planting his menu.

“For any chef to work with the best ingredients available, especially on such a small scale, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “In season, we get 100 percent of our vegetables from our own farm. We have a huge variety of vegetables. We have radishes, turnips, onions, a massive asparagus patch, red currants, strawberries, an herb garden, peas and fava beans—all that spring brings in the Northwest.”

Besides the local dirt, Blaine also has an all-access pass to the local waters via Riley, who catches all the salmon for the restaurant.

“We get fresh reef net salmon daily, just the fattest salmon,” he says. “It comes in totally unblemished and fresh. It wasn’t gillnetted or caught with a hook or anything—it was just scooped out by hand. It’s the way people have been doing it this way for ages. It really connects us to the region.”

True to his training, Wetzel is bringing a very Noma-like ethos to his dishes. The Copenhagen restaurant is known for serving hyper-local ingredients where the head chef literally forest forages in the morning. Don’t mess with a good thing—or so the saying goes.

With this in mind, Wetzel refuses to torture his food with the complex preparations and heavy reductions that signified the fine-dining experience for generations past.

“If you have a turnip that was just pulled out of the ground, you’re not covering it with other flavors. It works simply because it tastes like a great turnip,” he said. “The formal restaurant is kind of a dying trend. You won’t see the floor sommelier or the tuxedoed server, along with the food that is changing.”

Farm fresh berries. PHOTO BY JIM HENKENS (www.jimhenkens.com)

The news has definitely left the turnip patch. Recently named to the New York Times “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride,” the locally obsessed restaurant has been inundated with reservations from people who will travel much farther to get to the table than the food itself.
But there are challenges with relying so closely on the land for your menu.

“It fluctuates with the farm production and availability of fish and shellfish,” he says. “For example, if we have a bunch of raspberries and it rains heavily, we might have to do something different until they dry.”

With all the attention, nobody would blame Wetzel for being a bit smug. Instead, the young chef speaks with soft-spoken candor and is genuinely excited about the opportunity to work with Riley. Passing on a restaurant in San Francisco, Wetzel prefers the pace of life on Lummi Island.

“There was a restaurant opening in San Francisco that I was involved with, but Lummi Island really caught my eye and it fits me more,” he said. “I like to live here better than I would in a big city. I love to be outdoors and Lummi Island’s just beautiful.”

In February, Wetzel was nominated by Food and Wine magazine for “People’s Best New Chef.”  The Northwest region honor went to Seattle chef Jason Franey, but Wetzel’s work was noted “because he’s taking René Redzepi’s Nordic philosophy and applying it to the produce and food of the Pacific Northwest.”

Wetzel is currently a semifinalist for the national Rising Star Chef award, given by the James Beard Foundation and awarded to someone 30 years old or younger. He is among 31 chefs nominated for the award. The semifinalists will be narrowed down to five by a panel of 550 judges and announced on March 21.

Blaine’s Asparagus

2 bunches just-picked green asparagus
1 pint milk
1 ounce liquid rennet
1 loaf ciabatta

Grill 1 bunch of asparagus thoroughly, then juice them.
Slice the other bunch thinly on a mandolin and blanch quickly.
Combine the milk and Rennet and bake in an oven at 150 degrees for 45 minutes to make a fresh cheese.
Fry bite size pieces of ciabatta in butter.
Dress spoonful of the fresh cheese with the asparagus slices and caibatta.
Sauce with warm asparagus juice.

John Kinmonth is a Seattle-based freelance writer who enjoys local agriculture and the outdoors.

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One Comment to “By land or sea: Young chef goes local on Lummi”

  1. Tim DeMasters says:

    Great article John!

    “With the world his oyster, Wetzel decided to make the oyster his world. Along with the vegetable and the salmon.”

    I’d like to make all of those ingredients my world, and take a trip to Willows Inn!

    -Tim D.

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