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Though lovely and bucolic in a very Pacific Northwest way, Lummi Island (located less than an hour south of the Canada-US Border) is unlikely spot to unearth a culinary phenomenon. Despite only touching down last August, Chef Blaine Wetzel and his cooking at the Willows Inn have already been heralded by the New York Times. Add a James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year, and you’ve got some serious buzz.
Much of the excitement can be attributed to the time Chef Wetzel spent in the kitchens of the acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen, working as sous chef under the tutelage of Chef Rene Redzepi. Renowned for its focus on hyper-local ingredients and traditional techniques, the cooking at Noma is a 180-degree turn away from the foams and gels of molecular cooking that has so captivated the culinary elite.
Chef Wetzel certainly found a kindred spirit in Riley Starks, the proprietor of the Willows Inn and a champion of local slow food. The restaurant works with a number of nearby farmers, divers, and foragers who harvest exclusively for the Willow Inn. The bread is made from flour milled in Fairhaven, and the butter is churned in Bow-Edison, both just south of Bellingham.
The menu features four courses, but the meal unfolds through a progression of amuse bouches, each astounding in its sophisticated simplicity; while the menu reads rather straight forward, the culinary prowess on the plate is of the highest order. This is no dour exercise in locavore dogma, but an embrace of freshness and culinary sense of place.
A recent meal included Dungeness crab served in chilled broth with leaves of seaweed and sea asparagus, flawlessly evoking the flavours of sea spray. Wispy crisps of toast topped with house-cured wild sea capers and scattered with cherry blossoms gathered from a tree visible from the dining room. Potatoes draped with melted havarti, in a broth of buttermilk whey and dappled with dill oil and baby arugula–lemony tang counteracts earthy sweetness. Dessert was literally the bombe–green apple sorbet enveloped in buttermilk creme, dotted with dill and gingerbread crisps.
The casual yet smartly tailored dining room and service point to a sure hand and a clear vision of hospitality. Though there is only one set seating per evening, service is slightly staggered so that each diner’s experience remains personal. The entire meal feels effortless, and though there are obvious nods to Nordic influences, the cooking techniques are perfectly tuned to Pacific Northwest ingredients.
At only 24, the intense media interest surrounding Chef Wetzel is, not surprisingly, tinged with a touch of skepticism. But for Blaine, his concerns are focused squarely on the diners. “We have people who have come from really far away and I really want to serve the best meal possible and have them feel like it was a worthwhile trip. That’s my only concern.”