Making a name for yourself as a young, brilliant chef is never easy. Doing it from a tiny and remote island in the far northwest of the country is nearly impossible. And yet, when Blaine Wetzel looked for a way to move back to his home region after spending time in René Redzepi's kitchen at Noma, he landed on Lummi Island.
While Noma imbued Wetzel with its famous foraging-first philosophy and New Nordic aesthetic, Redzepi practiced it from Copenhagen, a city of more than half-a-million people. Wetzel now cooks on an island of about 1,000 people, an environment with its own set of limitations that's perhaps the closest anyone has come to re-creating a NOMA-like experience here in the States. "There are no deliveries," he says, of the unique challenges. "Everywhere else you check the fridge. Here you check the farm." The limitations, he says, force him to be more creative with what people here make, grow, or catch on the island, to keep in close touch with what's in season at any given time.
Willows Inn, where Wetzel started six years ago, at age 24, closes each winter, re-opening with the first flower buds in spring. "This time of year you have a lot of wild foods that you can't get if you're a chef in New York, or even in Seattle. Perennial herbs are coming up quite a bit, different shoots, beach plants. Hundreds of wild foods. Bright green shoots emerging from the ground here. Spring." In his second year, The New York Times named Willows Inn one of ten restaurants "worth a plane ride." By 2014, the James Beard Foundation named him Rising Star Chef (he had been nominated in 2011 as well), and the following year he received the award for Best Chef: Northwest.
Wetzel now cooks on an island of about 1,000 people. "There are no deliveries," he says.
But the restaurant is—physically and philosophically—a world away from those awards. From Seattle, it requires an hour-and-a-half drive followed by a quick ride on a very tiny ferry to get to the island, half of which is Lummi Indian tribal land. The tribe, which has for generations been fishing there and eating the same wild foods Wetzel uses, influences some of the cooking and supplies much of the fish. Other chefs might know their fish vendor; Wetzel meets his at the dock to pick up that day's catch. "They brought in two coolers of rockfish the other day," he says. "And of the 20 to 30 fish, there were only two of any one kind. Seeing all the different types of fish really gets me going."
As this season begins to ramp up, Wetzel is excited about a new fishery in the area featuring dime-sized pink scallops. "We stay in close touch with the garden, wild plants, the fishermen," he says. "We adapt more than a lot of restaurants. It makes us a bit more of who we are."
Here are the ten dishes that shaped Blaine Wetzel's career.