Every intrepid chef who strikes out to Washington’s distant pockets and expresses those immediate surroundings in the form of ambitious food furthers a movement that began with a Craigslist ad. Or, more specifically, with a 24-year-old kid from Olympia on a plane back from Copenhagen in 2010, headed to a nine-square-mile island he’d never before heard of, and a new job at a century-old inn he accepted sight unseen.
Blaine Wetzel spent three years at the famed restaurant Noma in Copenhagen before taking this leap in an effort to be closer to where he grew up. But for an ambitious chef steeped in that rigorously locavore ethos, there aren’t many better places to land than this lush isle a five-minute ferry from Bellingham, just a slender strait away from the San Juans.
On day one, Wetzel was the only person working in the antiquated kitchen at Willows Inn. He couldn’t even write menus; dinner was dependent on whatever island farmers and fishermen still in their orange foul-weather gear happened to drop off at the backdoor in the course of the day. “It wasn’t even a restaurant,” he remembers. “It was just dinner for whoever was staying at this bed and breakfast.”
Eight years later, Wetzel possesses a staff of 40, two James Beard awards, and the respect of an international fine dining community. A renovated Willows Inn added more rooms (and you can bet the kitchen got an upgrade).
His $225 menus unfold in around two dozen tiny courses, built on intensive labor, yet amplifying the essence of all his incredible ingredients. But if you sit on the porch in the afternoon to gaze out at the Strait of Juan de Fuca—where U.S. waters eventually turn Canadian—you’re still likely to see cooks crossing the road in front of the inn with a bucket of seaweed or climbing a plum tree to pluck some blossoms. Others tend the smokehouse responsible for one of the most memorable bites of a start-to-finish spectacular meal: Salmon, smoked for upwards of seven hours at very low temperature, which allows the meat to flake, but still retain a creamy, almost sashimi-like texture.
As Willows evolved to embrace its new destination status, it added its own Loganita Farm, run entirely by women, including four full-time farmers. They work with Wetzel to grow uncommon heirloom seeds and make daily deliveries, like the immense harvest required for Wetzel’s version of a tostada—mustard leaves in a light tempura made with sauerkraut brine, each layer spread with a cream made from oysters and a different combination of herbs and flowers. Subsequent bites yield distinct combinations of flavors. Chefs like Nick Coffey of Lopez Island’s Ursa Minor (see "Locavore Goes Hardcore at Ursa Minor") credit Wetzel for proving that world-class food ambitions can thrive in far-flung places. And while Willows Inn has surely paved the way for others to express their own edible vision of Washington’s farthest reaches, there’s still no place like it.