The twenty-five-year-old Blaine Wetzel has been the chef of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, WA, for fourteen months. In that time, he has taken a historic bed and breakfast and turned it into one of the newest destination restaurants in the world — a place that might get mentioned in the same breath as Momofuku Sydney, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and Tickets. Yesterday, Wetzel got on the phone to talk about his story, his mentors, and what it is he does at his restaurant.
Is the restaurant open today?
Yeah. We're just getting everything ready for service right now.
What's a typical Sunday look like for you?
Well, we're closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and so, come Wednesday we use the time to get ahead for the week — everything from butchering a fish to doing some foraging — so that we can use Sunday for big projects. We usually do preparations that take half a day.
What's an example of one of those projects?
We have a lot of green tomatoes on our farm that are still on the vine and won't ripen ever. So we're pickling about a hundred pounds of them today.
Let's talk about your story. How does a kid in his early twenties leave the northwest, go work at Noma, and then come back to the area to run his own restaurant?
I'm from Olympia, which isn't too far away from here. I was living and working in Europe and wanted to come back to the Puget Sound area. During that time I was looking for a job and found this on Craigslist. The more I looked into it, the more special it looked. It's a small restaurant — 25 seats — and they have four full-time farmers, two commercial fishing boats that supply the restaurant. It was a rustic lodge for a hundred years, and in many ways, it still is that. So it caught my imagination.
They basically held the job for me for a year, since there were some timing issues. The real indicator for me, since I couldn't really visit the place, is that the innkeeper sent me pictures of the salmon, halibut, and the live spot prawn tank. That was really cool, instead of sending a photo of a marble bathroom or a guest suite or even a kitchen stove.
What are some of the places you worked before Noma?
I worked at Citronelle for Michel Richard as a sous chef. Before that, at a place called L'Auberge Carmel. I worked at the Phoenician and I also worked at Alex for a bit, in Vegas.
How was the experience with Michel Richard?
It was a little different, really. A strange experience. It was about fundamentals. I was opening sous chef at this new restaurant, so I got to like design the kitchen, install the stove and pots and pans, and then just open a restaurant, which is an experience. Then four months in, the head chef leaves, and I get to be in charge of the kitchen. I just got thrown into it, which was really cool.
And was Alex a big deal for you?
Stratta was huge. I learned so much cooking from him. He's an icon for French cooking. I learned a lot about quality there. I got to work with ingredients at that restaurant that I still haven't seen again. To really get a taste for the nuances of Iranian caviar every day — different batches, different qualities. Or the best olive oils and balsamic vinegars in the world.
Now let's talk Noma.
I ended up being at Noma for about two years. I had met Rene when he came to Manresa in California to be a guest chef. I kind of got to see the food, and it was cool and quite different. Being from the northwest, a lot of the ingredients and flavors resonated with me a little bit, because they use a lot of the same ingredients. They have tons of oysters and salmon and crab, which we have here. Even dishes that in some way have nothing to do with each other have a similar feel. I picked that up right away. This was in 2008.
I arranged to go there a month to work, and I thought the place was really cool. At the time it had only been open for a few years and there were only six chefs in the kitchen.
Including the stagiaires?
Total it was eight or ten.
Things have changed.
Yeah, there's more than forty chefs now.
Go back to the story.
Well, René asked me to stay after the month, since he was happy with my work. And I happened to be there when it started to explode.
What did you take from working with him?
Looking back, there were two main things that I took away from being there and working with René, beyond recipes or technique and things like that. One is to be extremely critical. Absolutely extremely critical of yourself, of your food, and how to taste things, in a way, to make sure it's good.
Many times we would taste a dish together that might go on the menu, or I'd present an idea for a dish. We'd taste it together, side-by-side, so doing this exercise with him over and over again showed me how to taste food and look at it from many different angles: texture, flavor, combinations.
What was the second thing?
To demand the highest quality. To have this gut reaction, if you will, where if something is not just stunning or absolutely perfect, it's gone. There's lots of great chefs who will have dishes where there is some imperfection, but he really helped to instill in me a firm reaction to anything that is not totally spot-on. I've worked in several high-caliber kitchens, but I've never noticed that intolerance before. Some will say, "Oh, it's a little fresh, not so great, but let's see what we can do with it." No, fuck it. That rubbed off on me a little bit.
Do you always have the luxury to be that way?
We pretty much do. Yeah, if that's the way you work, you do.
Time to talk about your restaurant, if that's cool with you. How would you describe your cuisine?
The cuisine that I serve here is based on what we produce on this small island — what we grow from our own farm and what we catch on our own fishing boats. The basis for the restaurant is that it's unlike any other. It's not theoretical: we are really, truly producing our own food. I just told you that we are canning tomatoes. These last three months have been all canning. We close for the three most difficult months of the winter, but we're open through December, so we're preparing for that.
This is the concept for the restaurant, this idea of going back in time. It's the original restaurant and the original kitchen. It's been open, constantly, for a hundred years. The idea is to preserve what this place is and what it has been more than it is to create a new northwest cuisine or anything like that.
Since so many articles about you give the Noma label, why don't you describe your execution and style, comparing it to that restaurant?
Beyond our the difference in concept, ingredients, and type of cuisine, there are differences in execution. I would say that the food I serve is more approachable. When I started at Noma, the dishes that seemed like masterpieces were some of his classic, older, simpler dishes. I haven't been back since I left, but towards the end there was a modern twist to his cooking — molecular, in some cases, but also avant-garde ideas and presentations — that make it very metropolitan.
My cooking is a little more countryside, if you will. In some cases, it's more rustic. It's very refined and definitely not bistro fare.
What is an example of that?
One dish that is on the menu now is red cabbages. We roast the red cabbage whole with verbena leaves and various things, and what is presented is just a large red cabbage wedge. To me, it's a very good dish, but I don't think you would see that at Noma. It's too farm-to-table. He might make a similar preparation, but it would look different and feel different. His style is modern and cheeky, and mine is a little more rustic and I don't know, masculine, in a way. It's hard to put into words.
This question may annoy you: you probably supervise people that are older than you. Does that ever lead to awkwardness?
I actually think that's a really cool question, man. I'm twenty-five now. When I started, the sous chef was in his thirties. I think it all has to do with attitude. I think if you come in like a little Napoleon or something, trying to boss people around, no one is going to like that. It's a very chilled-out place here, with people that have been working on this island their whole lives. The attitude is a little different. It was kind of a culture shock coming here and comparing the work habits to what I had seen in Europe, but the energy around here and in the dining room is special — totally chill. I'm a little bit more easygoing than some of my mentors.
And what's your vision for this place in the future?
There's lots of things in the pipeline that I am very excited about. The goal is to make the Inn more of what it is or what it has been. We're making an outdoor kitchen with a stone hearth and a stone grill — ancient cooking methods. Instead of investing in state of the art equipment, we opt for that. That's what excites me the most, bringing it back in a sense. But some things take some very forward thinking.
What does that mean?
There are lots of things that have been lost, like traditions of the natives who lived here for hundreds of years, as well as wild foods. We're also tripling the size of the farm, because the farm can't supply the amount of business we currently have.
What I really meant with that question about the future is: do you want this to be one of the greatest restaurants in the world? You say you are easygoing, but are you competitive?
[chuckles] I guess I am a little bit competitive. Any time that you are held in the company of great chefs, it's great. I would like people to consider this quintessentially northwestern — to have it be known on the international level as the best in its region.