Chef Blaine Wetzel first came to Lummi, a tiny island near the San Juan archipelago of Washington state, in 2010. At age 24, he was fresh off a two-year stint at the vaunted Copenhagen restaurant Noma. He could have found a job in any kitchen in the world.
Instead, he’d answered an ad on Craigslist, posted by a chicken farmer who owned a century-old inn on Lummi Island, 100 miles north of Seattle and reachable only by ferry. Sight unseen, Wetzel had fallen for the island’s ravishing isolation — fewer than 1,000 people live there full time — and its unspoiled forests, farms and fisheries.
Since he took over the kitchen at the Willows Inn, it has become a global destination, fully booked nearly every night of its annual season, from April to December. Culinary pilgrims come for multicourse dinners of foraged dandelions, custards infused with roasted birch bark and salmon pulled from Pacific waters they can see from the dining room. After dinner, they float up to one of the luxe-rustic bedrooms, and wake up to wild blackberries and long-fermented sourdough.
Beyond the food, they come for the story, and pay at least $500 to live in it for a night.
But 35 former staff members who spoke to The New York Times said that story — the one Wetzel tells to diners, to the media and to aspiring chefs who come to Lummi to learn from him — is deeply misleading.
For years, they said, Wetzel’s culinary pedigree and the Willows’ idyllic image have hidden an ugly reality that includes routine faking of “island” ingredients, physical intimidation and verbal abuse by Wetzel, including racist, sexist and homophobic slurs; and sexual harassment of female employees by male kitchen staff members. In March, the Willows agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit, after a 2017 federal investigation confirmed accounts of wage theft and other unfair labor practices.
Former employees who grew up on the island told The Times that as teenage girls, they were touched inappropriately, given drugs and alcohol and pressured into having sex by men on the kitchen staff and visiting chefs. Former managers said Wetzel and the inn’s longtime manager, Reid Johnson, have been aware of these troubling patterns for years, but did little or nothing to change them.
In response to questions from The Times, Wetzel wrote, “We are deeply saddened to learn that some former employees shared concerns about our business. Our goal is for anyone who works at the Willows to think of us as the most kind, caring, generous, and talented people they have ever worked with and that the Willows was the best job they have ever had. If we are missing that mark in any way, we must improve.”
In a subsequent email, Wetzel, 35, denied the substance of most allegations. Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
Meredith O’Malley, 29, was a dining room manager at Del Posto in Manhattan when she dined at the Willows in 2016, soon after Wetzel was named Best Chef in the Northwest by the James Beard Foundation. She immediately decided to move to Lummi to work as a server on the inn’s team of 30-odd people. “You think it’s going to be this dream: local sourcing, one service a day, sunsets every night,” she said. “But all these problems were swept under the rug.”
Along with eight other senior staff members, she resigned last season, disgusted by a toxic culture they say begins with Wetzel’s autocratic, erratic management style and permeates the workplace.
“I am really proud of the work I did there,” said Teo Crider, 31, who resigned as bar manager in November after five years at the Willows. “But the atmosphere was nightmarish.”
Some former employees said the Willows is no worse than other top kitchens, where perfectionism is rewarded and fanaticism about ingredients is admired. “I wanted to learn and grow, and I didn’t take it personally when Blaine was being tough,” said Robert Mendoza, who now heads the kitchen at the Paris restaurant Vivant.
But far more said that Wetzel’s substitutions cross the line into deception, and that his behavior often crossed the line into abuse.
The Willows opened for the 2021 season this month. Some of the new chefs have worked with Wetzel’s wife, celebrated chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won awards and accolades for her modern Mexican cooking at the New York City restaurants Cosme and Atla. Soto-Innes resigned from those restaurants in December and moved to Lummi, but she and Wetzel told The Times she has never worked at the Willows.
The couple’s romance, lavishly documented on Instagram since they met in 2018, has added a glamorous chapter to Wetzel’s story. His fame rests on his longtime claim of using only the island’s locally foraged, fished and farmed ingredients, mainly from the inn’s 1-acre Loganita Farm.
But all of the restaurant employees interviewed disputed that claim. In fact, they said, most ingredients were ordered from distributors and farms on the mainland. When local produce ran out, cooks routinely bought supermarket ingredients, like beets and broccoli, that were then passed off as grown or gathered on Lummi.
They said “Pacific octopus” arrived frozen from Spain and Portugal; “wild” venison purportedly shot on the island was farm-raised in Idaho; “roasted chicken drippings,” part of a signature dish, were made in big batches from organic chickens bought at Costco.
“On my first day, I was cutting frozen Alaskan scallops down to the shape and size of pink singing scallops,” said Julia Olmos, 24, a line cook from 2017 to 2019.
Wetzel’s claim, said a longtime sous-chef, Scott Weymiller, was mathematically impossible: to serve 25 different plates to up to 40 people, six nights a week, from a 9-square-mile island. “You can do that for two days, but you can’t do it for two weeks,” said Weymiller, 32. “Much less for an entire season.”
Guests who requested vegetarian and vegan versions of the menu, they said, were routinely served standard dishes made with chicken and seafood. Wetzel denied this.
“If a cook asked me now if they should go work there, I’d say, ‘It’s not the place you think it is,’” said Julian Rane, a chef from 2017 to 2019.
In response, Wetzel said “we never misrepresent our ingredient sources,” and described how the Willows grows and sources food on the island. He did not, however, deny that many ingredients come from elsewhere, including organic chickens.
Employees said they were uncomfortable with the lies, but far more troubled by the poisonous work atmosphere.
“The way in which people were abused and belittled there was horrifying,” said Spencer Verkuilen, 28, who said Wetzel shoved, screamed at and sent him home in full view of customers when he served a course out of order to one table. (Wetzel denied this; several employees confirmed it.)
“I would go farther than a boys’ club,” said Phaedra Brucato, 33, a former sommelier. “It was ‘eat or be eaten.’”
In recent years, the restaurant industry’s long-standing tolerance of tyrannical chefs has begun to crumble. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have produced new awareness and language regarding inequality, bias and harassment in kitchens. Leading chefs like René Redzepi of Noma and David Chang of Momofuku have acknowledged the harm caused by their past behavior, and many others have vowed to raise professional standards.
But Willows employees said the kitchen atmosphere of misogynistic language and homophobic slurs has remained. Wetzel has publicly humiliated cooks whose work displeased him, often using a derogatory term for mentally disabled people to disparage them. He also has used racist language to describe Latino employees and Asian customers, they said.
“We used to laugh it off, give Blaine the benefit of the doubt,” said Larry Nguyen, who arrived at the Willows in 2018, having cooked at renowned restaurants like Noma, and Central in Lima, Peru. “We fully believed it was ignorance.”
But last summer, Nguyen said, after he and another Asian American chef confronted Wetzel about using offensive language, including a racist slur directed at them, Wetzel denied ever having done so. Both chefs resigned within a day. Weymiller, the sous-chef, also quit in solidarity.
Wetzel said he had never used racist language of any kind. “My step mom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying,” Wetzel said.
Female cooks said that in addition to enduring constant barrages of sexual innuendo from male colleagues, they were consistently blocked from promotion and nudged out of the main kitchen by Wetzel.
More than 30 women have worked in the kitchen as interns and line cooks, Wetzel said. But none have been promoted to sous-chef or chef de cuisine; the two women he identified as former sous-chefs there said they had never held that job. (On the innkeeping side, and in the dining room, some women have been promoted to managerial positions.)
Jen Curtis, 39, was a seasoned chef de cuisine when she left a job and went back to culinary school, just so she would be eligible to cook at the Willows as an intern. “The cuisine is what I identify with,” said Curtis, who grew up on a Cape Cod farm. “Hyperseasonal, coastal, handmade.”
When she was hired full time, she said, Wetzel told her she was in line for a sous-chef position. (Many employees said they had heard the same promise, usually when they were on the verge of quitting.) But she said that after two years of watching younger men steadily being promoted ahead of her, and seeing other female chefs ignored, she resigned.
Wetzel said: “I support female chefs with all my heart (so much so that I married one). Anyone that would claim that I don’t support female chefs is lying.”
Many former employees said they put up with Wetzel’s offensive language, sexism and bullying, because a recommendation from him is a springboard to any cooking job in the world. But many others left midseason, or walked out midshift.
“There were countless times I tried to get upper management to bring in HR to deal with our problems,” said Anne Treat, 42, who was fired in September 2020 after confronting Wetzel. “There was no interest in why we were constantly losing employees.”
Going to Johnson, the longtime manager, was the only recourse for the many employees who clashed with Wetzel. But, they said, Johnson boasted about a “hands-off” management style that made it unnecessary for him to intervene, and never acted on complaints against Wetzel.
Johnson did not comment for this article, but Wetzel wrote, “Reid Johnson records, reports and acts on every complaint in the workplace in the appropriate manner.”
Wetzel added that the Willows has “an independent HR consultant available at all times,” but would not confirm when the person was hired. Employees said it was during the 2020 season, as the senior staff was resigning en masse and the Willows, like many workplaces, was forced to confront its institutional racism and other problems.
In 2017, after employees reported the Willows to the U.S. Department of Labor, the department found that it had violated federal law by forcing employees to work 14-hour days for as little as $50, and by using “stagiaires” — a French term for culinary interns — as free labor. The inn was fined $149,000 and forced to end its intern program.
In March, Wetzel agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a subsequent class-action lawsuit, brought by 99 employees over various forms of wage theft, including misappropriation of tips and failure to pay overtime or provide rest breaks to employees working 14-hour days. As part of the settlement, he was not required to admit any wrongdoing.
According to public records, Wetzel co-owns the Willows with one partner, Tim McEvoy, who did not respond to requests for comment.
After 10 years with Wetzel in charge, the relationship between the inn and Lummi’s residents is showing signs of strain.
A dozen women who worked at the Willows said that men on Wetzel’s kitchen crew constantly harassed teenage employees from the island with sexual overtures and innuendo, pressured them to stay after work hours to “party,” and plied them with alcohol and drugs to make them compliant.
Female employees from the island said Wetzel and other managers ordered them to lose weight and get manicures and eyelash extensions at their own expense, in order to polish the image the restaurant wanted to project. Wetzel denied this.
Local girls were assumed by male employees to be sexually mature, they said; “island age” was a running joke. “‘Lummi Island 16’ meant that you were available for sex, and that any kind of creepy and predatory behavior was fine,” said Sarah Letchworth, 21, who was 15 when she started working there. (Several women who worked at the Willows said they did have sex with kitchen crew members. All said it occurred after they turned 16, the legal age of consent in Washington state. None said Wetzel had sex with staff members.)
Many employees said Wetzel and Johnson were frequently present at events where underage employees drank with older staff members until they were unconscious. When Letchworth was 18, she said, Wetzel offered her a ride home from a party but instead drove to his house, then refused to take her home unless she did rounds of shots with him. He then drove her home while drunk, she said. Wetzel denied this.
“Those girls were our sisters and our daughters,” said Kari Southworth, 43, who grew up in the area and managed the restaurant in its previous incarnation. She stayed until 2014, when, she said, the Willows’ celebration of the island had turned into exploitation. “They treat the community with no respect,” she said.
The pandemic proved to be a breaking point. Wetzel reopened the restaurant in June, and in the fall, at least one COVID-19 case on the island was traced to a guest at the inn.
“They were bringing people over on the ferry every night,” said Rhaychell Davis, a former employee who lives on the island with her two daughters. “And they stayed silent about it while we all were panicking.”
The Willows managers said that they feared for the safety of guests, staff and islanders, and that Wetzel’s response underlined leadership failures that had been accumulating for years.
“The island is beautiful, the people are kind, the seafood is incredible, just like he says,” said Nguyen, 32, the chef who resigned because of Wetzel’s denials. “But our faith was broken.”
Correction: This story originally listed Lummi Island as being part of the San Juan archipelago. Lummi Island is in Whatcom County, not San Juan County.