Follow Me Foodie to Lummi Island!
Welcome to Lummi Island.
There it was. That was it. Lummi Island. I’m not first to discover this hidden gem and for many food enthusiasts, chefs, and industry folk it needs no introduction, but for many it still remains unknown. I guess it could be considered an “industry secret”, but this island is on the culinary rise and it hasn’t even hit its prime or peak. It is a good thing too. I’m no psychic but it has a promising future especially at the rate it is going and I’m not sure if I will be able to avoid the wait list in the next few years.
The population is now at about 1000 people, which is how many “friends” some people have on Facebook, but basically it is small. It takes a certain person to live here and I’m not planning to, but it was more than a “once in a lifetime destination” for someone who lives in Vancouver, BC, like myself. It is a historical and rural 10 mile long island at the southwest corner of Whatcom County, Washington (USA) near Bellingham.
The eclectically designed mailboxes, randomly named roads, and welcoming, warm and local hospitality is all part of the island’s quirky charm. People come in and out, but there is little pollution and noise, minus the crickets at midnight and sound of ocean waves crashing against the rocks. Caviar problems, or should I say cricket problems? I encountered no problems though and all of this was part of the Lummi Island experience.
I’m naturally not an outdoorsy type and there are many outdoor activities to do here, but I came for something else. So, if it wasn’t for the biking or the hiking, then why was I really here?
Or was it to eat? If you know me or this blog, it probably required little guessing, but it was for this. The Willows Inn on Lummi Island.
The Willows Inn opened in 1910, but it was only in the last few years it took on a new vision and became an internationally recognized culinary destination. There are only three restaurants on the island and all are owned by the same people.
The Beach Store Café is their local all day cafe and family style restaurant serving casual and affordable fare. The Tap Root Cafe and Pub is a small coffee shop offering light lunches and baked goods, and last but not least is The Mother of them all – The Willows Inn Restaurant located above Tap Root Cafe. The Willows Inn is their secret weapon and reason why people travel from all over the world to visit. This is their hook.
The New York Times called The Willows Inn one of the “Top 10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride” in 2011, and I didn’t even have to take one. It was only a 1.5 hour drive from Vancouver, or 2 hour drive from Seattle, and after a 10 minute ferry ride I arrived at Lummi Island.
Lonely Planet called it one of the “Top 10 US Travel Destinations for 2013” and Bon Appetit ranked it #3 on their 10 Best Food Lover’s Hotels in America. Awards, accolades and hype are what they are, and whether or not I agree with them is a whole other story, but this is my story.
It wasn’t through media I learned about The Willows Inn, but actually through one of my favourite chefs in the city, Dan Craig at EBO Restaurant in Burnaby, BC. He mentioned it a couple years ago and I immediately put it on my radar and since then I kept hearing about it randomly.
Last year The Willows Inn hosted a legendary (and now annual) guest chef dinner featuring 5 world renowned chefs, and then later René Redzepi (chef and owner of #1 restaurant in Top 50 World’s Best Restaurants) endorsed The Willows Inn as his top pick restaurant on his “bucket list”. After this, the secret was very much out, and all appetites were on Lummi Island.
I was invited to Lummi Island to experience The Willows Inn and life on the island, and as a tourist I embraced every moment and absorbed as much Lummi Island air as possible.
There are various lodging options on Lummi Island, but locals and non-locals will attest that The Willows Inn is the place people flock to. Staying here completes the experience and it is more or less the luxurious part of the getaway, with the exception of dinner. Bed and breakfasts are found throughout the island, but guests of The Willows Inn get priority reservations for the restaurant, while others must give 2 weeks notice.
I stayed at The Orcas View Suite at The Watermark at The Willows Inn which was absolutely stunning. To wake up to these views was only something to be grateful for. The house had three suits and then a common area, so I recommend going with a group of friends or with couples if privacy is preferred.
The Willows Inn offers on and off site accommodations featuring specially themed rooms and breath taking views, so there is no bad choice staying with them.
I was here to eat, and to eat his food in particular. Wait, whose food? Him – on the right, cutting the asparagus. That is chef and part owner of The Willows Inn Blaine Wetzel. Yeah, I know. He looks like he’s 24, but he’s actually 27. He’s not Asian, but I guess he inherited the gene.
This locally born and bred down-to-earth chef is still super young, and also very talented. His whole staff of currently 8 chefs are all young and if they keep doing what they’re doing while striving for more, I believe this is only the beginning.
Blaine is also known as Rene Redzepi’s protégé since he worked at Noma (#1 in Top 50 World’s Best Restaurants) for 2 years before taking over at The Willows Inn. He doesn’t need to rely on the label of “Rene Redzepi’s protégé” anymore though, and he has made a name for himself. This year he was named a finalist for Rising Star Chef 2013 at the James Beard Awards and he is getting a lot of attention especially at his age.
Yes, his food philosophy and style are somewhat already moulded by Redzepi, but I still feel like there is so much raw potential in the kitchen that hasn’t even developed yet. There is room for more growth in and outside of this kitchen. I would say it all starts here (in the kitchen with Blaine and his talented staff), but it doesn’t really…
I had arrangements to meet with Mary VonKrusenstiern, who is the culinary gardener for the exclusive specialty garden dedicated to The Willows Inn and the Beach Store Cafe. Mary has a degree in environmental studies and her years of experience in bio-intensive farming ensures every ingredient will reach its maximum potential and be of highest quality.
She showed me around the small scale privately owned farm (1/3 of an acre) which is where Blaine will be sourcing all his ingredients in the future, starting this Spring/Summer 2013. Machinery is only used in the beginning for the soil, but the cultivating, harvesting, and seeding is all done by hand. There are currently 40 things planted and this is only the beginning. The most unusual ingredient Blaine has requested is Pistou basil, but Mary also showed me a thornless blackberry bush (above) which I found quite fascinating.
When it comes to farming there are so many factors affecting the quality of an ingredient. The flavour of a carrot will change depending on the soil, farming methods and many other variables, but the hand planting and caring for it is one of the most crucial. This dedication and passion to farming is the essence of what Blaine tries to bring to the table.
Blaine is currently sourcing from Nettles Farm, another family owned and operated farm on Lummi Island, but eventually the ingredients will come from The Willows Inn farm. Therefore what I tried wasn’t necessarily representable of what his food will taste like months from now since he will be sourcing from a new farm.
Mary is an asset to Blaine’s culinary vision and together they will team up to exceed the “farm-to-table” concept and execute a seed-to-table menu. Farms are global and The Willows Inn is not the first “seed-to-table” restaurant. Farmers have existed and ate like this for centuries, but Mary and Blaine take it to another level.
As organic as they are, what they do is very controlled. With her expertise on producing a pristine ingredient, and his culinary skills exceeding some chefs with years more experience, they are creating food Lummi Island locals haven’t even seen or tasted. The Willows Inn restaurant is truly unique to Lummi Island and it can’t be experienced anywhere else.