Blaine Wetzel brings home a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest, has a new cookbook coming out, and will be part of the crazy-sounding Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle this summer.
Blaine Wetzel’s brand-new James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest is more than well-deserved. The 29-year-old chef of the excellent Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Wetzel tied for the nationwide category Rising Star Chef just last year, so this second award would seem to indicate something meteoric. But he was nominated for Rising Star back in 2011, too; with only so many Beard awards to go around (and many going to New York), sometimes the official Rising Star is already very much risen.
Wetzel — who’s from Olympia and trained with the renowned Rene Redzepi at Copenhagen’s illustrious Noma — has made a worldwide name for himself and for the Willows Inn, up on tiny, lovely Lummi, a couple hours (and a five-minute ferry ride) north of Seattle. (Willows made me feel things I’d never felt about food before when I reviewed it in 2011, and it’s garnered more great press all over the place since.) For him to jump from Rising Star to Best Chef: Northwest makes a James Beard amount of sense.
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The award comes as a bright spot in a difficult year for Wetzel: His fiancée, Willows’ general manager Raquel Ruiz Diaz, was hit by a drunk driver while visiting Paraguay in February, and she remains there after extensive surgery. Wetzel says there’s hope for a full recovery, and that Diaz is making progress faster than anyone had expected. A fundraiser for her — she had inadvertently let her health insurance lapse at the time — exceeded its goal, and Wetzel was profusely thankful for support far and wide in his Beard awards acceptance speech.
Fans have more to be happy about: Wetzel has a cookbook coming out in October called “Sea and Smoke,” written with Joe Ray and with photography by Charity Burggraaf. To celebrate that, he’s looking to do a Willows Inn pop-up in Seattle for a week in the fall. “My mom lives in Seattle,” he says, “and it’d be cool to change things up for a week” — an understatement for those who might get to enjoy the change-up.
Wetzel is also excited about taking part in the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, a project in which 37 of the culinary world’s biggest names will swap restaurants, all around the globe, for the night of July 9. It was Wetzel who came up with this idea for the chefs’ collective — the participants, including his mentor Redzepi, are here (roll over the photos). “We basically drew names out of a hat,” Wetzel says, “and only one or two people even know where they’re all going. And the diners won’t know who’s going to be cooking.” To buy a ticket (around the same price each restaurant usually charges, on sale online May 13) is to roll the dice. It sounds ambitious to the point of nuttiness, but Wetzel says all of Gelinaz!’s events have been “a mix of genius and chaos, in a really fun way.”
(The full list of 2015 James Beard Award winners is here.)