When Blaine Wetzel first contemplated a move back to his Pacific Northwest home, he was looking for an easy job. He was fresh off a stint as chef de partie at the much-lauded Noma, after all, and he was only 24 years old. It was time for a break.
After some searching he found himself at The Willows Inn, a small hotel on the northwest coast of remote Lummi Island. It probably could have been an easy job, but talent like Wetzel’s can’t rest for long.
Five years later, the Willows Inn has become an unlikely destination restaurant. It’s a choppy ferry ride and a winding drive away from civilization, but if Wetzel’s two James Beard awards are any indication, its hyperlocal prix-fixe tasting menu is eminently worth the trouble.
Now fans of Wetzel's work can experience a bit of the Willows Inn's magic, no ferry ticket required. His first cookbook, Sea and Smoke, is coming in November from Running Press.
Turning a year’s worth of world-class cooking into something home cooks can reasonably attempt is no mean feat. That’s where collaborator Joe Ray comes in. He was visiting the island for a wedding in 2010 when he first learned that a Noma alum would be taking over at the Willows Inn. He’d made a career covering restaurants of that caliber, and after trying Wetzel’s food, Ray knew he was the real deal.
I've been to Noma, I've been to ElBulli," Ray says. "The more I went [to the Willows Inn], the clearer it was to me where Blaine was heading."
Unsurprisingly, Wetzel’s intensive, ingredient-centric cooking style doesn’t always translate seamlessly to a cookbook format. Here are ingredient lists that start with homemade rhubarb wine and end with eggs specifically sourced from Nettles Farm. A stinging nettle stew calls for both tender and hardy leaves, and at least one recipe starts with the preparation of a smoker (cold smoker preferable, Wetzel helpfully advises).
The recipes “are big projects to take on,” Ray admits. “But it’s gorgeous, inspirational, beautiful cooking.”
Indeed. Unless spontaneous geoduck harvests happen to be part of your lifestyle, Sea and Smoke is really more aspirational tome than actual kitchen resource. But what it lacks in utility it more than makes up in inspiration. In fact, the first 85 pages are more Lummi Island travelogue than cookbook: Ray lived on the island for a year to shadow Blaine and help out at the restaurant.
For seven chapters Ray goes fishing with Willows proprietor Riley Starks, forages with big-name chefs, and takes lingering drives through the island’s emerald backwoods. If you’re not looking into Lummi real estate by the end of it, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.
Sure, the recipes are difficult to actually pull off. But just like the inn itself, Sea and Smoke is really more about the experience of it all—the confluence of extraordinary land, seas, and people that have created an unlikely gem in one of the state's most remote spots.
And for what it's worth, it's to all of our benefit that Wetzel's job isn't easy.