A few nights ago, some of the most prestigious chefs in the world pulled off a Freaky Friday of sorts, a massive shuffle wrapped in the utmost secrecy...and conceived by our own Blaine Wetzel, the much-medaled chef of Willows Inn up on Lummi Island.
On July 9, Massimo Bottura, the modernist Italian chef served his take on corn on the cob at David Chang's Momofuku Ko in Manhattan. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen at Bottura's own Osteria Francescana in Modena Italy, Charleston chef Sean Brock topped thin slices of cured culatello with some decidedly southern red eye gravy. Danny Bowien of New York's Mission Chinese popped up in the kitchen at Noma in Copenhagen, while Noma chef Rene Redzepi (Wetzel's former boss) cooked at Nahm in Bangkok.
Diners at each restaurant had booked their seats months ago, with no idea which chef would be feeding them that night.
The 17-nation switcheroo, known as the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle was a crazy piece of performance art, indeed. Gelinaz bills itself as a collective of chefs around the world; members have the restless minds (and means) to layer on their demanding culinary responsibilities with events like last year's gonzo tribute to NYC chef Wylie Dufresne. S. Pellegrino was the presenting sponsor of all this mayhem, and the lineup is thick with chefs from the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, which the mineral water brand also sponsors.
Wetzel, if you're curious, was dispatched to Mirazur on France's Côte d’Azur, ranked no. 11 in the world. Meanwhile, San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson, whose restaurant Coi holds two Michelin stars, popped up in Wetzel's place in the Willows Inn kitchen. His assignment: apply his own vision to Willows' ethos of harvesting its menu right outside the window...rather than simply recreating Coi with a water view.
Organizers say the swap assignments were totally random, though the skeptic in me thinks there's too much at stake at such a carefully orchestrated event like this. Patterson was the only chef of the 37 who ended up at a restaurant in his own country, perhaps a nod to the extra logistics involved in traveling to Lummi Island, which might make the journey untenable for a chef from Australia, Brazil, or Sweden.
"I think they were trying to save on airfare," was Patterson's joke as he presided over an multi-course dinner, shaping Lummi's native bounty of spot prawns, crab, salmon, oysters, greens, berries, and seaweed into a more luxe version of itself: edible nasturtiums, their trumpets filled with crab and mint; deer tartare; a piece of kohlrabi cooked in seawater, more transcendent than any piece of humble kohlrabi ever dreamed it could be. It was unmistakably a more cosmopolitan sort of dinner that played out as the sun set over the Rosario Strait.
The Gelinaz Shuffle was a one-time-only thing, organizers say. After catching the last ferry off Lummi Island and settling in for the drive home, I pondered whether there was any great takeaway—something readers of this magazine could learn, besides just the fact that some people they don't know got to eat a dazzling meal. The amount of secrecy and logistics involved in relocating all these chefs, and not spoiling the surprise via a stray "Wow, it sure is muggy here in Sao Paulo!" Tweet is quite impressive, not to mention chefs laying low all week as they acquainted themselves with an entirely new set of ingredients, staff, and kitchen equipment. Bethany Jean Clement at the Seattle Times spent the whole week with Patterson; I'm looking forward to reading her full account when it publishes on Wednesday.
I amused myself on the drive (and attempted to keep myself awake) by pondering whether the concept of chefs trading places would work within Seattle. It's tricky–swapping one Northwest-leaning chef with another wouldn't exactly produce sizzlingly different results. But on a nationwide level, this could be lots of fun.
Beyond that, the shuffle was a reminder–not that we need one–that Blaine Wetzel has talents and ambition on an international scale. And that his restaurant on little Lummi Island stands big on the broader culinary stage.