From renowned chef Blaine Wetzel, a culinary treasure map of Lummi Island.
Glossy, gorgeous cookbooks like “Sea and Smoke” are often called “aspirational,” which can be a backhanded compliment — you might aspire to make the beautiful food on the heavy-paper-stock pages, but it’ll sit on the coffee table until it’s supplanted by the next tome of wishful thinking.
“Sea and Smoke,” from world-renowned Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel, writer Joe Ray and photographer Charity Burggraaf, might not result in a lot of dinner parties. But those who love food will recognize its recipes as site-specific poetry: “A Broth of Roasted Madrona Bark,” “Tiny Squid and Charred Radicchio with Green Onions,” “Nootka Rose Petals and Salmonberries.” It’s a treasure map of Lummi Island, a few hours north of Seattle, accessed by an open-air ferry. It’s also a time capsule, with essays written by Ray during the full year he spent on the island, capturing four seasons of Pacific Northwest cuisine at the highest, freshest and wildest level. (Everything served at the Willows Inn comes from Lummi’s nine square miles, its lapstrake menu sometimes changing day by day.)
In the book, Wetzel says, “I’m here to define the region. For myself.”
Talking to him last week, he demurs. “I would change the word ‘define’ to ‘explore,’” he says modestly. But as “Sea and Smoke” shows, his inquiry into Northwest ingredients is a definitive one.
The cookbook also functions as memoir, with Wetzel telling his own story in the introduction and the notes on each recipe. He relates his upbringing in Olympia, much of it out-of-doors; how he went from working in a steakhouse in a Wal-Mart parking lot, to a restaurant at the Wynn in Vegas with a Picasso on the wall, to yet-to-be famous L’Auberge Carmel in California (where a crate of porcinis brought to the kitchen door changed his world), to Copenhagen’s storied temple to the hyperlocal, Noma.
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His longtime relationship — working and romantic — with Raquel Ruiz Diaz is sketched, but in the outlines, there is love. They met years ago, in culinary school, and Diaz managed the Willows until earlier this year, when she was hit by a drunken driver in Paraguay. Surgery and recuperation kept her there for months, but, Wetzel happily reports now, she’s back on Lummi, doing physical therapy and “walking like a champ.” (She just beat him in a pushup contest. “You know how embarrassing that is?” he says with evident joy.)
There’s also love between the lines in Wetzel’s description of his long-distance correspondence with Riley Starks, then-owner of the Willows Inn, as they wooed each other writing back and forth about Lummi’s produce, chickens and more.
Wetzel’s prose is straightforward and unpretentious, quietly authoritative, but with moments encapsulating his own awe. “When I first arrived on Lummi,” he writes in the notes for Shiitake Mushrooms Roasted Over an Open Flame, “it took some time to find my voice as a chef … because the island was overwhelming and inspiring in an absolutely electric way.” It contained, he writes, “the most spectacular and diverse ingredients I had ever seen.”
As for Joe Ray’s thoughtful, intense essays — they go until page 83 of “Sea and Smoke” — Wetzel says they were “unguided.”
“It gave him the freedom to experience being here and then write about it,” Wetzel says. “The only kind of requirement was for him to work two days a week in the kitchen and one day a week at the farm for an entire year.”
What resulted is a deep dive into seven aspects of not just the work of Blaine Wetzel, or the food of the Willows Inn, but life on Lummi. These stories are about the kitchen crew; about Mary von Krusenstiern, who runs the Willows’ picturesque-but-demanding farm; about reefnetting salmon with Starks and a rough-and-tumble crew; about foraging, and the cycle of the smokehouse, and the whirl of Willows’ front-of-house — where marriage proposals are not infrequent.
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Top-tier restaurant lovers will especially enjoy chapter four, an account of industry rock stars including Grant Achatz and Dominique Crenn descending on Lummi for a friendly collaboration/competition. (Laypersons, it should be said, may find that the book’s level of detail strays into geek-out territory, but Burggraaf’s photos should act as a balm.)
In total, the essays of “Sea and Smoke” are much less about Wetzel than about the people around him, the processes and the rhythms of the microcosm of Northwest cuisine he’s helped create. Was that intentional?
“I didn’t really notice that or think of it,” he says. He doesn’t need his book to be all about him; he knows the story of what he does is much more than that. “It’s unusual,” he acknowledges, these chapters. “Some of them have little relation directly to the food or a dish or something like that, but I think over the course of the book … it paints a pretty clear picture of what we do.”
The book’s foreword also paints a picture — it’s by one of chapter four’s visitors, the esteemed Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea. Achatz writes of his highly elevated expectations for his first dinner at the Willows Inn, after it had already garnered considerable acclaim, and how from the first course — “A simple smoked mussel” — those expectations were met and more. He calls Wetzel’s cooking “sincere, provocative, mature, and intelligent.”
Wetzel was humbled. “I can’t believe the foreword,” he says. “It’s really something I’m thankful for and very proud of — a chef that I have definitely looked up to a lot, and someone who has really been a pioneer, really done genius-level work.”
Later in the book, visiting Lummi, Achatz comments that he wishes he could walk through a garden where Alinea’s produce grew. In other words, the stellar Chicago chef is jealous of Lummi’s particular, marvelous circumstances.
How does Wetzel feel about that?
“That’s cool,” he says, an obvious understatement. “That’s cool, isn’t it? That’s what I think about that … I really think we have a special scenario here at the Willows. And to hear Grant Achatz confirm that is just really encouraging.”
What Wetzel’s most excited about right now, though, is quince. He’s just met a farmer on nearby Guemes Island who he’s planning to visit. “She has 600 quince trees! Fifteen varieties, 600 quince trees,” he enthuses. It’s an early blooming, late-ripening, short-season fruit; he usually gets his from a big quince bush right in front of the Willows Inn (a dessert recipe in the book gives more details). Now, he’s got access to so much more.
“I really feel like I’m constantly discovering more depth to the food set here,” he says.