Follow Me Foodie to The Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner
A recap of the 2nd Annual First Harvest dinner at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island.
See – Full post of the 2nd Annual First Harvest dinner (Parts 1-5) here.
See – A behind the scenes look at the 2nd Annual First Harvest dinner here.
lksajdnf!! Omg. Did that photo really happen?! And did I really have a Lummi Island style pow-wow over a beach bonfire at midnight with Dominique Crenn and the chefs at Willows Inn?! Shut the front door. I could pretend this stuff happens to me all the time and act like I wasn’t star struck, but I totally was. I’m not that cool, but this was cool. I’m getting jittery just looking back at the photos and I still can’t believe it happened.
I was so excited I couldn’t sleep for weeks leading up to this dinner and I almost cried even before it started. Never in my life would I think I’d be living these moments. I’ve been waiting for this dinner since last year when The Willows Inn hosted their first exclusive First Harvest dinner. It was a collaborative dinner with John Shields (Town House Restaurant), Sean Brock (McCrady’s Restaurant), Jason Fox (Commonwealth Restaurant), Kobe Desramaults (In De Wulf Restaurant, Belgium), Kyle Connaughton (Culinary director for Stevel Ells at Chipotle) and of course Blaine Wetzel, chef and co-owner of The Willows Inn. It was a star line up of chefs and I was on the edge of my seat anticipating the five new ones invited to cook at this year’s 2nd Annual First Harvest dinner.
And boom. From left to right: Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA), Grant Achatz (Alinea, Chicago), Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco), Justin Yu (Oxheart, Houston), Virgilio Martinez (Central Restaurante, Lima, Peru), and Blaine Wetzel (The Willows Inn, Washington). Photo credit Charity Burggraaf.
I know! I can almost hear your screams. Impressive line up huh?! It’s okay if you’re not familiar with all the chefs (I’ll judge you behind my monitor), but if you are, then you can understand
why I almost lost my s*** my culinary enthusiasm for this dinner. I have no idea who the guest chefs are for next year, but this year will be hard to top.
The 2nd Annual First Harvest Dinner took place July 24-25 at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. There were two seatings (35 seats per seating) and I was invited to the second seating. What was once a culinary secret is now on the culinary map and food enthusiasts everywhere are making trips just to visit this 10 mile long island. The island itself is rural and quaint, but what makes it a destination is the restaurant – The Willows Inn. It is one of the three restaurants (under the same family) on Lummi Island and I had the pleasure of dining here earlier this year – see my post here.
Chef and co-owner of The Willows Inn, Blaine, selected five widely-acclaimed chefs to collaborate in this once in a lifetime dinner. The chefs had little to no preparation since the ingredients had to be sourced from the island. They fished, foraged and gathered all their ingredients with the help of the local fisherman, farmer, and supplier, and explored all the island had to offer.
In a short few days they each created three dishes for the special 18 course dinner starting from scratch. Most, if not all, of these chefs can take months before they put a dish on their menu, so this was really a change of pace. I didn’t get to witness it all happen, but I got to taste the final product… served by the chefs themselves. I know! I’m jealous of myself right now.
It was possibly the culinary equivalent to a #1 hits concert and every artist was singing their own tune. Each dish was from a new artist who had a new vision and interpretation using the same ingredients. Not all the ingredients were the same, but there was overlap since it was all sourced from the same land and water. Their personalities and tastes were so different, so my palate was constantly changing with every dish. The style, flavour, seasoning and presentation were all unique to each chef and it was like speed dating on a plate. Hey, now there’s an idea!
The theme of the dinner was ingredients from Lummi Island, but there was no real connection between each dish. It flowed because the dinner was executed by outstanding chefs with the same passion and talent for creating. Three dishes won’t tell me everything about a chef or their restaurant, but it gave me an idea of how they approach food. Considering they were working out of their own kitchen, without their staff, and with new ingredients, it was interesting to see how each took on the challenge. The overall experience was more valuable than what was served, although what was served was nothing short of exquisite.
These chefs are the influencers, mentors, and leaders of the current culinary scene. It was truly an honour to be here. As some of the most highly acclaimed chefs at the moment they need little introduction, but here is a brief bio and how I experienced their food.
The Featured Chefs at the 2nd Annual First Harvest Dinner…
Meet Chef Blaine Wetzel
Born and raised in Washington, Blaine Wetzel is the co-owner and chef of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. I tried his tasting menu in April and wrote about my experience here. He was named Best New Chef 2012 by Food & Wine Magazine and was nominated as Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. He has been at The Willows Inn since he was 24, and before that he was chef de partie for 3 years at Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. He’s only 27, but his accomplishments are of chefs who have been around for much longer. Since being at The Willows Inn he’s rescued it from closing, and New York Times listed it as one of their “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride” in 2011.
Chef Blaine Wetzel’s courses…
I’ll start with the host, or “the boy laying the golden eggs” as my friend Mike would say. Since I’ve dined at The Willows Inn before, I had an idea of what to expect from Blaine. At this dinner he repeated two of his signature courses which were actually a couple of my favourites from his seed to table Tasting Menu. Three words to describe Blaine’s cooking style would be: simple, honest, and natural, which is more or less his personality too. Blaine had the advantage of being in his own kitchen so he was ready. I actually found his food refreshing due to its simplicity and use of few ingredients, it was quite the opposite of what the other chefs were doing. It was primitive without being dated.
Meet Chef Dominique Crenn
Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn, San Francisco, “Iron Chef America” Winner (2010)
Dominique Crenn is the owner and chef at 2 Michelin Star Atelier Crenn, which she named after her father’s art atelier (meaning studio). She was born and raised in Versailles, France, and moved to San Francisco in 1988 to continue her culinary training working under highly celebrated chefs. Her parents loved fine dining and her mother initially taught her how to cook, but her refined style and tastes come from her father who was a politician and artist. Dominique made history in 2012 as America’s first two-Michelin-starred female chef and won “Iron Chef America” in 2010. This year Chef Crenn was nominated as a semi-finalist for Best Chef: West by the James Beard Awards.
Chef Dominique Crenn‘s courses…
Beautiful inside and out. Having never went to culinary school, she’s a natural talent who cooks, speaks and creates from the heart. For Crenn, plates are her canvas and food is her art. At Atelier Crenn she emphasizes a modern take on fine French cuisine using local and seasonal ingredients with international inspiration. There was an undeniably feminine touch in her dishes, and they were colourful, soft and elegant in style. Interesting enough she made the riskiest dish of the night too.
Meet Chef Christopher Kostow
Chef Christopher Kostow, The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, California, 2 James Beard Awards this year
Originally from Chicago, Christopher Kostow (pictured with his lovely wife, Martina) was a one Michelin Star chef before the age of 30. In 1999 he trained with Trey Foshee at George’s at the Cove in San Diego, where he was trusted to create his own dishes at 22. He continued his training in France and moved to San Francisco as Daniel Humm’s sous chef at Campton Place Restaurant. In 2008 he became the Executive Chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley which went from a 2 Michelin Star to a 3 Michelin Star in 2011.
Food & Wine magazine named him Best New Chefs 2009 and this year he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West. The Restaurant at Meadowood also earned the 2013 James Beard Award in the Outstanding Service category.
Chef Christopher Kostow’s courses…
We bonded over our dislike for “best of” lists and lists in general. While they do give some restaurants much deserved attention, they can be really annoying. That’s coming from a guy who makes it on many too.
At Meadowood he is used to having his own garden and gardener, so this seed to table concept is familiar, but Chris’s food was focused on technique and ingredient, much like Blaine’s. Neither of them play too much with molecular gastronomy, but they still used modern techniques to improve the classics. He had the heartiest dishes of the night and even his vegetarian courses were meaty in texture. I liked his attention to sauces which were all quite delicate, and the various salty ingredients he used to bring umami to the plate were inspiring.
Meet Chef Virgilio Martinez
Chef Virgilio Martinez, Central Restaurante, Lima, Peru
The friendly and outgoing 36 year old Virgilio Martinez is a chef and restauranteur in Lima, Peru. His Peruvian restaurants include Senzo in Cuzco, Lima in London, and his flagship restaurant Central Restaurante in Lima, which was listed as #50 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013. The Summum Guide, which ranks the best restaurants in Peru, named Central as the best restaurant in Peru for 2012 and 2013.
According to this article he was a professional skateboarder with a degree in law before he became a chef. He spent 10 years traveling and working at restaurants including Spain’s 2 Michelin Star El Raco Can Fabe, and Astrid Y Gaston which was #14 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013. Next year he plans to open a 4th restaurant in London featuring fine dining Peruvian cuisine.
Chef Virgilio Martinez’s courses…
Being from another continent, Virgilio was probably up for the biggest challenge. He specializes in Peruvian cuisine and uses ingredients close to home, so he was totally out of his element. It is hard to showcase his Peruvian cooking using Lummi Island ingredients, but he made it work. His two courses were ying and yang in colour, but they represented Peruvian cuisine despite the ingredients. He made a ceviche and a crudo which are both raw courses, and he tried to keep it as authentic to his style given the circumstances. In Peru they use a lot of lemons and limes which are not grown on Lummi Island, so he had to borrow them from the restaurant bar. That just puts it into perspective the extent he had to go just to create these two dishes.
Peruvian cuisine is up and coming and apparently Blaine learned more than 100 ceviche recipes from Virgilio. It is a hybrid cuisine from indigenous ethnic groups in South America combined with influences from Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and European food. It is a multi-cultural country which uses mostly local ingredients, so I didn’t get to try the real deal here, but hopefully one day.
Meet Chef Justin Yu
Chef Justin Yu, Oxheart, Houston
Native to Houston, Justin Yu is the chef and owner of Oxheart which opened March 2012. Bon Appetit magazine listed it as America’s top 10 Best New Restaurants of 2012, and this year it earned a nomination for Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards. At the same time Justin was a semi-finalists as Rising Star Chef. He attended New York’s Culinary Institute of America and worked at Green Zebra and Spring in Chicago, *17 in Houston, and Ubuntu in Napa, California before opening Oxheart. He was also a stagiaire at Michelin Starred In de Wulf in Dranouter, Belgium, and at AOC and Geranium (2011 Bocuse d’Or Gold Medal winner’s Rasmus Kofoed’s restaurant) in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Chef Justin Yu’s courses…
He might have been the underdog (the down to earth chef would say so himself), but he should give himself more credit. His presentation wasn’t as elaborate, but the dishes tasted great and he made a couple of my favourite courses. Being Asian, I related to his food differently and it was one course in particular that was a bit nostalgic. He is American born Chinese and his Asian palate and background were not obvious in the food, but I could tell (for a couple dishes at least). He used some really interesting techniques and inspiring concepts, and he has a long and promising career ahead. This is the beginning.
Meet Chef Grant Achatz
Chef Grant Achatz, Alinea – Chicago, 6 James Beard Awards, Outstanding Chef (2008)
Grant Achatz is one of the world’s most celebrated chefs. Period.
He worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for four years and eventually became his sous chef. In 2001 he moved to Chicago and eventually opened Alinea in 2005. The owner of Next, Aviary, and 3 Michelin Star Alinea (which was #7 in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants in 2012, but dropped to #15 this year) is most known for his progressive cooking which combines food with science and art. The James Beard Foundation has awarded him 6 times, which include awards for Rising Star Chef (2003), Best Chef: Great Lakes (’07), and Outstanding Chef (’08).
Chef Grant Achatz’s courses…
What can I say? I said it all here… in 13 373 words. He gave me one of the most memorable dining experiences in my life at Alinea. His courses weren’t really representable of Alinea, which offers much more of an interactive and sensory experience, but I would never doubt his cooking ability. His time consuming dishes and labour intensive techniques come across effortlessly, and I would never guess he put this menu together in 3 days. He made my favourite course of the night, and he was also the only chef who brought a sous chef, so credit to Eric Rivera for helping with his vision and execution.
Meet Mary VonKrusenstiern
So she wasn’t one of the 6 chefs at The Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner, but she deserves more than sunlight, so I’m putting her in the spotlight. Mary is the Farm Manager for Loganita, the organic farm which supplies The Willows Inn and the Beach Store Cafe with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and specialty crops. Without her, the dinner wouldn’t have happened (she hand picked all the chefs’ requests from the farm) and The Willows Inn wouldn’t be where it is today.
Photo from Joe Ray
And last but not least, was me! A good eater. I had the pleasure of dining with other good eaters. PS: The whole table was taking photos and while I didn’t see what was happening in the main dining room, I bet you anything they were taking photos too.
**Note: Given the context and it being a one off dinner I’m not going to get into too many details about the food.
On the table:
Eaglemount Homestead Cider Semi-Sweet – It is made from heirloom apples on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington State. It was crisp and sweet from the apples and it was The Willows Inn “champagne” or sparking wine to start the dinner. I liked it better than the Westcott Bay Traditional Cider they served to start their regular tasting menu.
- Tokyo turnips poached in oyster juice
- This was an illusion, and it brought me back to memories of Grant’s Oyster Leaf dish at Alinea, but it had more effort.
- It was an oyster shell, without an actual oyster. That almost seems cruel, but you come to this dinner to be surprised.
- A Tokyo turnip is a radish sized turnip and it is sweet with a firm bite. It is a hybrid of a turnip and a radish.
- The Tokyo turnip melon ball was compressed with oyster and turnip juice and it actually tasted like oysters, but the texture was different.
- It was a meaty turnip, sweet in the beginning and then savoury and briney.
- The juice tasted like oyster juice too and the mind games were starting early.
- Salmon with barley, salmon mousseline
- Poached salmon with mousseline sauce was an appetizer they had on the Titanic, but she reinvented the old fashioned dish.
- It was a lightly smoked and lightly cured pink salmon with salmon mousseline on a barley cracker.
- The sauces on top seemed like salmon mousseline alternating with lemon and thyme crème fraîche (?).
- Salmon mousseline tasted like a salmon infused hollandaise which is what mousseline is.
- The crème fraîche was possibly a pickled ramp mayonnaise, but it tasted along the lines of lemon and thyme crème fraîche.
- The barley cracker was a thin and crisp chip and I liked it for texture, but it was frail for the weight and size of the cured salmon.
- The salmon was rich and buttery and seasoned with what seemed like pepper and nori flakes.
- The garnish was caper, fennel and I think shallot.
- Romaine root, grated herring roe, yogurt
- Chris put a focus on the core ingredient which was the core part of the dish… puns intended. It was very “Ideas in Food”.
- I actually enjoy the romaine root more than the leaves and this root was tender and young so it was still nice and sweet.
- It was shaved thin and it was still a bit crunchy and the dish came chilled.
- I wish there were a couple more to finish the whipped yogurt with though.
- The whipped yogurt was not super thick, but it was very savoury from the grated herring roe on top. I loved it.
- It was almost a deconstructed Ranch or dill dressing meets a deconstructed taramasalata (Greek fish roe dip).
- The dill was fragrant and pretty strong given the sizes and portions of each component.
- It was sprinkled with salty and crispy crumbs for texture and I think also sprinkled with nori.
- The nori (?) enhanced the umami in the whole plate and it was more interesting than flaked salt.
- It was garnished with some citrusy sweet leaves as well, but I’m not sure what kind of herb it was.
- Green tomato gazpacho with fennel olive oil and green onion straw
- It was very “Achatz” in the sense that it was a playful and interactive course.
- It was a chilled gazpacho soup made from unripened tomatoes.
- The green onion straw had fennel, onion flowers (?), and lovage flowers (?) balanced at the tip, so when you drink the soup the initial sip is incredibly aromatic.
- It was only in that sip though, and the aromatics lasted a couple other sips before it faded away.
- He requested thick green onions straws which were almost like bubble tea straws and it surprised me because I got a lot of air using the thicker straw.
- The gazpacho was smooth and thinner than a bisque, but thicker than vegetable juice.
- It was a bit creamy, but not rich. I found it rather refreshing and light and it could have been emulsified with olive oil, but it wasn’t oily.
- It was sweet, tangy, and savoury, and it was hard to pin down the flavours, but it was made with fennel, lovage and cilantro, and other things I couldn’t pick out.
- There was a warm heat at the end, but I’m not sure from what.
- They don’t grow jalapenos here, so it might have been a spice, or just the onion flowers.
- I ordered both the wine and juice pairings.
- You want to do juice pairings here too because the vegetables and fruits used to make them are pristine.
- The cucumber juice was not watery, bland, or bitter, but slightly refreshing, sweet and tangy.
- Salted raspberries and fresh peas with kale juice, bitter and sweet herbs.
- I’ve never thought about pairing peas and raspberries, so this was new.
- I loved the pop of colours and it looked like dessert, or a deconstructed smoothie.
- The peas were firm, but cooked and the kale juice was not bitter.
- I couldn’t really tell the raspberries were salted, so I’m not sure if the salt was just sprinkled on top?
- The raspberries seemed quite natural and as is.
- This one tasted like a direct translation of the description, but I didn’t find it bitter.
- It was unique in theory, but more expected in the flavours it achieved.
- Lummi Island Salmon smoked with green alderwood
- It was Blaine’s signature from his regular Tasting Menu. I gave it “6/6” – see here.
- It never fails, and impresses everyone… even if you don’t like fish, you might like this.
- I didn’t mind that he served a course from his regular menu because it’s one of those items you would request if he didn’t.
- He smoked it for 5 hours over green alderwood from Legoe Bay.
- It is meant to be finger food and it tasted like the best Indian Candy ever.
- I really hate saying anything is “the best”, but I actually blurted out loud “this is the best smoked salmon ever” after the first bite.
- It was warm and smoky with a glossy finish from perhaps a brush of maple or brown sugar glaze.
- It was so moist it was almost falling apart as I picked it up.
- I could smell and taste the smoke, but it did not over power the natural flavours of the high quality fish.
- It was buttery and savoury and I was surprised how rich and oily it was for being salmon.
- It was a bit sticky on the outside and just tender with a silky flesh on the inside.
- Usually people use lower quality salmon if they plan on smoking it or making it into candy or jerky, but they used a high quality one here.
- High quality salmon is usually eaten sashimi, but in this case I was more than happy to have it smoked and served like this.
- It was so perfectly cured and savoury with just a hint of sweetness and smoky aroma… it made my knees weak.
- Halibut with beetroot tiger’s milk
- To be honest, the “Pepto-Bismol” pink colour reminded me of just that. It caught me off guard, but I don’t know enough about Peruvian food and this could be traditional.
- In Peru, ceviche is eaten for breakfast or brunch, but this was served for dinner which I didn’t mind given the context of the event and North American culture.
- It was a Peruvian style ceviche made from halibut which is a very mild and almost bland fish, so it needs to be marinated.
- The chunks of halibut were quite large and they were sprinkled with crispy flaked salt.
- The beet root was used just to dye the tiger’s milk, which tasted like yogurt.
- Tiger’s milk or “leche de tigre” refers to the leftover juices produced from making ceviche.
- It is supposed to be a great cure for hangovers and Peruvians will drink it in a shot glass sometimes.
- I didn’t find the “Tiger’s Milk” “exotic” or even acquired, but I am quite an adventurous eater so it didn’t even phase me.
- It was tangy, bright and acidic from lime or lemon, a bit creamy, but not sour and not spicy. Usually it is a bit spicy.
- It might have been creamy from cream, but I think if he was in Peru he might have used coconut milk.
- I’m not sure where they would find coconut milk on Lummi Island so I don’t think he used it.
- He could have used the beet juice to sweeten it, but I couldn’t taste the beet so it was probably just for colour.
- There was also a slice of potato which was interesting because I’ve never had that in ceviche.
- The garnishes included a carrot and onion flowers.
- Given the context it probably wasn’t representable of an authentic Peruvian ceviche he would make at his restaurant, but I still appreciated the effort to replicate and introduce.
To be continuned…
… sneak peek…