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Sea and Smoke
Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest
By Joe Ray
Formats and Prices
- ebook $22.99 $29.99 CAD
- Hardcover $40.00 $52.00 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 27, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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A native of the Pacific Northwest, two-time James Beard winning chef Blaine Wetzel saw Lummi Island, a rugged place with fewer than 1,000 residents off the coast of Seattle, as the ideal venue for his unique brand of hyperlocalism. Sea and Smoke is a culinary celebration of what is good, flavorful, and nearby, with recipes like Herring Roe on Kelp with Charred Dandelions and Smoked Mussels creating an intimate relationship between the food and landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
The smokehouse, the fisherman, and the farmer yield the ingredients for unforgettable meals at The Willows Inn, a reflection of Wetzel’s commitment both to locally-sourced ingredients and the sights, smells, and tastes of the foggy, coastal environment of Lummi Island. Award-winning journalist Joe Ray tells the tale of the Inn’s rise to stardom, documenting how all the pieces came together to make a reservation at Wetzel’s remote restaurant one of the most sought-after in the world.
INTO THE KITCHEN
Three days before the annual winter shutdown at The Willows, the wind slings the flags sideways on the Whatcom Chief ferry. Earlier in the day, it blew hard enough to shut the ferry down for a few hours, an indication of how brutal the weather can get in Hale Passage—the narrow strait between Lummi Island and the mainland.
The next morning, it hasn’t let up. The rain seems to come straight out of the sea, and a particularly high tide has submerged much of the beach on Legoe Bay, causing the tree-length timbers on shore to bob like twigs.
This is December, the month described by locals as “cold, wet, rainy, muddy, and sometimes freezing,” and it is all on display on the two-mile stretch between the bay and the Inn.
Over the water to the west, a downpour drenches Clark Island and obscures Mount Constitution. On Lummi, wet leaves cover the ground and the green-brown mix in the long grass confirms that winter isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Life, however, is still rumbling along just above and below the surface. Bald eagles swirl overhead and seals poke their heads out of the water. Sheep and alpaca graze on the point occupied by Granger Ranch, where a utilitarian sign reads: “FOR SALE: Beef. Lamb. Pork.” Nearer to the Inn, a welcoming whiff of smoke from their smoker reaches upwind. It’s barely ten in the morning and dinner preparation is well underway.
Inside the kitchen, Blaine’s team of six chefs wear black Dickies work pants instead of typical chef pants, and many of them eschew clogs in favor of more rugged shoes that can better handle the rocky ground outdoors. Blaine checks in with Johnny, a pale, lanky twenty-something with a mop-top that makes him look like a lost member of Radiohead.
“I ran the Black Truffle Explosion station,” Johnny says, by way of introduction when we meet, referring to his former role as caretaker of one of chef Grant Achatz’s signature dishes.
Right now at The Willows, Johnny is doing something a bit less flashy. At his tiny station on the prep bench, sandwiched between several other cooks, he works with a pair of tweezers and a box of weeds. He’s doing what this crew calls “pickin’ herbs”—pulling off the tender, edible tips of the wild-growing chickweed plant that will be used as a garnish for a dish that night, and he’ll spend the next few hours sifting through the box, dropping the tips into an ice bath.
The kitchen buzzes behind him: sauté pans clank, cooks sometimes trot down its length, blenders whir. It’s the sound of people working in earnest, an environment where everyone is deeply focused, all day long. He keeps a timer at his station mostly to time the things he does in an effort to become more efficient.
Behind Johnny, the plancha (a.k.a. the flattop grill) sizzles away. Mikey, a scrawny cook with sandy blonde hair and the wan look of someone who never sees sunlight, fills the grill with a neat grid of onion halves, and their scent soon takes over the kitchen. While most of each onion remains raw, the cut sides get scorched against the flattop. Mikey waits for a thick black layer of char to form before scraping the onions off the grill and disappearing with them into the prep kitchen.
The quiet neighbor to Johnny’s right is Cameron, and as he fills a mixing bowl with chopped pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, he wears an expression of something between excited confidence and total concentration.
Cameron toasts a few ultra fresh-looking bay leaves on the flattop for a moment, then reduces them to a near-powder with a square-bladed Japanese knife. While old bay leaves from a home spice rack smell like toasted cardboard when given this treatment, these fresh leaves have a complex scent like sweet and savory herbs, a completely new aroma. Sprinkled atop the warm dessert he’s working on—sweet pumpkin with fresh cheese and pine—the bay will wow customers with its scent even before their first bite.
Picking the leaves may also qualify as the easiest foraging job in history for a chef and his crew. They come from a pair of ten-foot-tall bay laurel trees just outside the kitchen window, the closest living things to Cameron’s station.
Two slots to the left on the prep bench, Mikey crams what looks like a crumbling handful of charred hay followed by raw scallions, shallot, and a splash of vinegar into a variable-speed Vitamix blender, a kitchen tool with a motor powerful enough to be categorized by horsepower. Blended, Mikey’s project looks like thick green sludge.
“It’s raw scallion and charred scallion,” he says, explaining that there is also cold grapeseed oil and a bit of chicken glacé in the mix. Together, they create a thick paste that will be used with his onion dish.
Mikey grabs a spoon and dunks it into the blender. Far from tasting like charcoal, the emulsion incorporates the better qualities of the raw and the cooked. It tastes alive.
Johnny picks away at the chickweed for another half hour, coming up with a scant handful of tips, and stores them in the walk-in cooler. The chickweed now sits alongside shoebox-sized plastic bins with dated labels: mustard, thyme, lemon thyme, thyme scraps, chervil, tarragon, chives, salsify and horseradish, two containers of dill, celery, nasturtium capers in brine, a related bin simply labeled “nasty,” and a tub of venison fat.
Later, in the prep kitchen, a room separated from the main kitchen by the corridor where the dishwasher works, Mikey holds bags of his charred onions, fresh from the sous vide machine, where they have poached in their own juices at a precise and relatively low temperature for a specific amount of time. The cooking leaves them pleasingly firm, but without the harsh oniony flavor.
Mikey uses a curved bird’s-beak paring knife to pull the individual “shells” from the onion halves—something like extracting Russian nesting dolls from their encompassing larger sisters—yielding concentric cups with charred rims.
What he’s doing is nearly as painstaking as what Johnny had done with the chickweed. He even removes the one-cell-thick “skin” between each layer of onion. That skin, which wouldn’t be pleasant to eat, is hard to remove. Bits of the charred edge are prone to flaking off, meaning they’d need to be put back into place with slippery fingers. Mikey lines up neat rows of the shells on parchment-lined baking sheets, a tedious, labor-intensive job that no diner would ever realize took place.
The day begins to pass quickly, and the cooks work in a blur. Background music comes on long enough to play a Jimmy Buffett album, then goes off for the rest of the day. Every cook seems to be rotating through every job in the kitchen, right down to doing the dishes, something fairly unbelievable, considering that just about every restaurant, from cheap, backcountry diners to the Ritz in Paris, has dedicated, low-paid dishwashers.
Lunch never happens. At five, everyone breaks for the staff meal. A stagiaire (kitchen speak for “unpaid intern”) makes burgers and a salad for the kitchen and waitstaff, and everyone eats quickly.
By 5:45, everyone is back at it in the kitchen, and at six there is a staff meeting—a quick roundup of special needs and dietary restrictions, along with a who’s who of the customers, noting a few VIPs and returning diners. All of this information is also contained in the “dining report” that is taped on the table directly under the expediter’s nose during dinner service.
Nine hours after everyone in the kitchen arrived for work, dinner service begins.
Part of the quality of the meals served at The Willows is a function of the restaurant’s format. Dinner is a prix fixe with a set number of courses starting at a specified time. There’s no à la carte dining, no showing up at nine and ordering a steak. You eat what’s good, what’s available and in season, and what Blaine and his team feel like making, which is almost invariably the product of days or even months of thought. This also allows them to serve only their best dishes, waste less, and concentrate more on the careful preparation of every plate.
Guests at The Willows have a cocktail on the porch overlooking the sea at about seven and are then invited into the dining room. By seating all diners within a forty-five-minute window, the kitchen can concentrate on just a few dishes at a time. Over the course of the night, six chefs can get upwards of 600 well-prepared plates out the door quickly, while maintaining exacting standards. It makes an à la carte kitchen look like complete chaos.
On this night, seventeen courses go out of the kitchen in three hours that disappear in a flash. Entire dishes seem to appear out of the ether; it’s sometimes hard to tell where they came from or who made them. Baked sunflower roots arrive on beds of moss in tiny wooden boxes that release puffs of smoke when diners open them. Sockeye salmon roe are tucked inside crisp, tube-shaped crêpes and bookended by creamy mousse and bits of chive. Fingers of salmon smoked to a near-mahogany color and covered with a translucent glaze sail out on small wooden planks. One bite through the smoky, flaky exterior reveals a texture like custard on the inside.
Surveying the kitchen over the course of the night is like watching a minutely choreographed show. The cooks huddle and work, heads down, with the quiet intensity of surgeons, talking only when they need to. Anyone who has a (rare) spare moment sets up upcoming courses in the back, helps with dishwasher duty, finds someone who needs a hand, wipes down a bench, or sweeps the floor.
When it’s time to serve Mikey’s onion dish, he spoons a dollop of the raw and charred scallion emulsion onto the center of each dish. Four onion “shells” of diminishing sizes, seared-edges up, are anchored on top of it. Next, Johnny balances the chickweed tips he’d picked through all morning and tiny tips of lemon thyme around the edges of the onion. The cooks spoon in warm rhubarb juice, then add a few drops of thyme oil that float like luminous disks of green atop the rosy liquid below. Chefs using tweezers to plate a dish can seem a bit fussy, but seeing this one assembled, the herbs on the rim make the onion look like it is studded with tiny jewels.
On the plate, one bite can contain multiple forms of onion: charred, raw, and supercharged with flavor, an exploration of what you can do with a single ingredient and a great deal of thought.
For the dish with aged venison and forest mushrooms, slices of flash-cooked meat are covered with umbrella-shaped cinnamon cap mushrooms, which give the illusion of peering down on a Magritte painting. A quick-pickled fiddlehead fern sits at what would be the bottom of the painting, and a pair of wood ear mushrooms are arranged on either side. The whole thing gets a sprinkle of wild herbs.
It feels like moments after the first diners took their seats, yet it’s three hours later, and Cameron takes a blowtorch to cubes of pumpkin for his dessert. Dinner is nearly done. By the time the team cleans up, they’ve spent almost all of the last fourteen hours on their feet. They head home, peel off their clothes, and collapse into bed. No reading, no television, no email. They have to be up in a few hours to get back to work.
Even when witnessed from within, it’s difficult to understand how it all happens. Where did all of those dishes materialize from? This kitchen isn’t structured in the traditional top-down style most cooks are used to—the one with a very clear pecking order and a testosterone-heavy chef barking orders from the top. Here, the cooks bust their butts all day long, but understanding how it all happens, day in and day out, requires a bit of explanation.
“This isn’t a traditional kitchen. It’s more democratic,” Nick says. “Here, each chef prepares at least one course and one snack, usually more. You do everything, start to finish, for a dish. Butchering fish, picking herbs, visiting farms, making sauces, whatever it needs.”
He looks at the cooks around the kitchen and explains who is responsible for what in that night’s meal. Mikey is in charge of the smoked salmon, onion, and sunchoke courses. Aaron Abramson, the other sous chef, shucks oysters, makes a crab dish, and bakes the bread. Cameron makes the pumpkin dessert with the bay leaves, the salmon roe snack Nick likes to call the “roe rolls,” and another snack of crispy halibut skin studded with tiny clams. Nick himself is in charge of the venison plate and a toasted kale dish that uses the leafy green as a delivery vehicle for tiny dollops of truffle coated with tiny toasted crumbs of rye bread.
Some kitchen jobs are doled out simply based on who lives where. Johnny is the herb guy because he lives near the farm. Nick has just moved to a house along the beach, so he brings the seaweed.
“It’s a collective. A cooperative. The antithesis of the French brigade mentality,” he says, still conjuring up a “Three Musketeers” ethos, “but six talented minds are better than one.”
As he talks, you can hear that he knows he sounds like a bit of a hippie, but Blaine’s kitchen is a quiet, well-oiled machine. Nobody yells, and for the most part, nobody has to. Everyone is too busy doing their job.
Blaine’s most agitated state tends to come out during a staff meeting, when he might remind everyone in the kitchen to keep it down during service, drawing and re-drawing an arrow in the margins of his notebook as he speaks. It’s a rare occurrence.
“It’s hard work, but it’s not tense,” Blaine says later. It doesn’t hurt that his entire crew wants to see the restaurant succeed.
This is a kitchen full of lifers. They’re the ones who are committed to the craft, appreciate the collaborative style, don’t mind putting in fourteen-hour days, come to work early, and don’t touch their phones all day.
In this industry, with its blisteringly high turnover rate, every cook on staff at The Willows has already signed on to come back the next year, following the annual shutdown.
“I’ve never been in a kitchen where we do so much positive feedback and critical analysis,” Nick reflects. In his mind, the system fosters creativity. “I’ll never go back to the old way.”
The wild-berry hedges of Lummi Island can look like great waves frozen in midair, cresting along the roadside and engulfing whole trees. Loganita Farm in June is a managed version of that kind of fecundity, a plot where thickly packed fruit and vegetable plants swell from the ground and compete for space.
Loganita is at the northern tip of Lummi, just up West Shore Drive from the Inn, and they do nothing but grow produce for The Willows. The ocean crashes against the shore across the street, and swallows chirp and flit from fence post to tree. Above them, the sky’s windblown clouds and dusty blue contrast with the hundreds of shades of green in the field.
On one of the busier San Juan Islands or over on the mainland, it would be easy to imagine real estate like this crammed with houses on view lots, but here, Loganita has a commanding view, high above the water, the neat line of the horizon taking up nearly 180 degrees, each end flanked by craggy pines favored by bald eagles on the lookout for a meal.
Both Loganita and The Willows were popular resorts throughout the 1900s, attracting hundreds of people over the course of the summer. For a time, The Willows prided itself on not serving (or tolerating) alcohol, but Loganita didn’t suffer from those qualms.
Now, Loganita’s garden is a smart, spare production. It’s a half acre delineated by a tall fence made of wood and wire with a simple shed near the gate. Along one of the rectangle’s long sides, four plastic greenhouses—known around here as hoop houses—amp up the heat. In the middle of summer, they fill with the smell of tomato plants, bringing immediately to mind your dad’s garden when you were a kid. Nearby, sixteen raised beds are followed by row after long row of crops. Depending on the vantage point on the farm’s gently sloping hill, the plot can feel either slight or intensely abundant. It is simple, elegant, and functional.
The shed, exponentially neater and more sparse than most backyard sheds, contains a minimal amount of typical garden gear with shovels, pitchforks, rakes, a few tubs of seeds, and an 8,000-foot spool of watering hose known as T-tape.
A casual observer strolling the farm will see flowers and plants like tomato starts in the greenhouses, along with lettuce and strawberries. An avid gardener will spot the kale, kohlrabi, and tomatillos, along with unusual versions of plants like the red-speckled Trout’s Back lettuce and Caraflex cabbage.
The gardener here is Mary von Krusenstiern. Mary is Blaine’s age, and she lopes around Loganita’s raised beds barefoot when it’s nice out and sports rubber fishing boots when it’s not.
While home gardening tends to focus on using fertilizer to nourish the plant, here, Mary concentrates on feeding the soil.
“All organic fertilizer uses microbes to break down the soil and soil nutrients to make them available to the plant, and that needs a certain amount of heat,” she says, working some fertilizer into the soil with her hands as she talks and explaining the relatively slow start to the growing season in the Pacific Northwest. “Synthetic fertilizer comes from a lab. This stuff comes from a chicken’s butt.”
That mentality yields healthier plants that can better repel pests and disease.
“Most veg has traveled an average of 1,000 miles. Apples come from New Zealand. I guarantee you that the greens in the grocery store are already two or three weeks old by the time you buy them,” Mary says matter of factly, before playing her trump card. “Here, we can harvest and deliver on the same day.”
What this yields on the palate, particularly those of city dwellers or those who have never grown a backyard garden, is extraordinary. Blaine talks about “juicy food” like it’s something the supermarket-bound world understands, but in reality, nothing like this ever hits the shelves at the local Safeway.
This is easy to understand when walking across Loganita’s field and nibbling whatever is close at hand. While something like store-bought broccoli rabe can be intensely bitter, here it bursts with a not-too-strong flavor. Kohlrabi, which can send people scurrying to a cookbook to figure out what to do with it, can be peeled with a pocketknife and chomped like a carrot. When the big gray tubs of rainbow chard that Mary delivers in the farm’s pickup are opened at the Inn, the two- to three-foot leaves burst from the box, their stems saturated in color, the whole thing looking like a prop from the set of Land of the Lost.
Mary was born and raised in Bellingham, coming to her family’s camp on Lummi for weeks, weekends, and holidays as she grew up, the island framing her personality. She’s an outdoorsy person who can get a little twitchy at a dinner party and, in recent years, has returned to live in the house in Bellingham where she was raised.
Her path to farming might sound peculiar, but it’s also straight as a string.
Fresh out of high school in 2002, she spent five months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, top to bottom. All 2,663 miles of it. All by herself. Then she went to Europe to travel, picking strawberries in Germany whenever the money ran out.
In college, she spent much of her time developing the agroecology internship program between Lesley University’s Audubon Expedition Institute and Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Ester, Alaska.
“With the Expedition Institute, you drive around in an old school bus to different bioregions,” she explains. “There’s a library in the back and all of our stuff was on top.”
When the bus stopped in Ester for a few weeks in the fall of 2004, it was her formal introduction to small-scale organic farming. Mary returned the following spring and stayed for six months, the first intern in the program she’d helped to create.
She came back home, then followed a boyfriend to Keene, New Hampshire, where she finished her degree. They lived in a yurt next to a vacant building, followed by another yurt on his parents’ land. It really didn’t matter to them. They just wanted to farm.
“Right before we started, the farmer who had hired us told us he could only pay us six dollars an hour, so we decided to expand our backyard into a farm and started selling at the farmers’ market,” she says. “So we planted strawberries and asparagus in a field away from the house and had no idea how we’d water them.”
They’d go to the farmers’ market with an onion, two tomatoes, and a card table. They raised turkeys and chickens and killed them by hand, and slowly, they started gaining a following.
“We didn’t care. We were driven. We wanted to make it happen, and we didn’t care about the rest.”
When she moved back to Washington, Mary worked at Sunseed Farm in Acme for a few years, then started farm on leased land in Bellingham. She built hoop houses, buying straight metal tubing at Home Depot and bending it to make the roof frame. She borrowed a broken tractor to till the land and figured out how to fix the steering box by herself in a friend’s machine shop.
“Farming is a love-hate relationship that bypasses a lot of people,” she says. “Every year, it gets better. Every year, you learn more. Every year it gets a little easier.”
Easier, but still all-consuming. She worked the fields and ran the business of the farm twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and eventually, she burnt out.
In 2013, Mary was skimming through the Whatcom Farmers’ Google Group, a listing of what she calls “job postings, tractors for sale, and people with extra onions,” when she came across a promising lead out on Lummi Island.
Flash forward and there she is, loping around barefoot in June, the ground around her tightly packed with leafy green plants and bursting with more produce than it seems could possibly come out of the tiny plot. Different lettuce varieties crowd up, nine heads per square foot, a thick carpet of green and red pushing above the bed; they are a product of the years she’s spent in the Pacific Northwest, figuring out what works well and how to coax them along.
That crowding is by plan. Mary often double plants the seeds, which are relatively cheap, to make sure something grows. When a planting is harvested for the last time, the roots are tossed into the compost heap and the space is immediately replanted.
“We plan for disaster, and we use several varieties in case something goes wrong. One type might get a disease that another won’t, one variety might take longer to germinate than another. We always need more to…” she trails off in the thought for a moment before returning to clarify. “We always need more.”
The goal, it turns out, is to close the circuit and have the ability to deliver 100 percent of the produce for every day the restaurant is open.
She even plants 20 percent more than the Inn will need, so if bad things happen, she has plenty to show for her efforts.
“I don’t think there isn’t a week that goes by where we don’t plant something,” she says, gesturing toward the rows in front of her. “Two weeks from now, this’ll look totally different.”
Blaine and Mary learned to take an adaptive approach to get the farm and the Inn working together. There was a good deal of trial and error in the early days as Mary figured out what grew, what didn’t, and how the year’s weather would play out, versus what Blaine wanted, needed, and wished to explore. It’s still a process that requires give and take, something that is much more difficult than calling Charlie’s Produce in Seattle, but there’s no need to worry about quality, freshness, or provenance. It’s all juicy. It produces miraculous results.
“Ingredient quality is the key. A roasted head of lettuce could be ordinary, but here, it’s amazing. I can go after harvesting dates and work to get unique products. I can get tiny escarole, then escarole flowers and escarole seeds. My one ingredient turns into ten throughout the season. Plus, I can walk around tasting things. If I know what’s wild and what’s being caught, I can walk around the farm and know what will be perfect with that night’s fish course,” Blaine says. He’s not bound by what he can buy commercially, what stores well, or what ships the best. “I can just go after flavor. It’s huge. When a chef’s working directly with their farm, all of a sudden, they’re amazed by a potato.”
The farm gives him unique ingredients that he chooses, the kind of stuff that people would be hardpressed to find at the market or at another restaurant.
None of this would work if the Inn were a bigger restaurant.
- "This book is written with passion and talent. It is outstanding. It will make a great gift."—-Edouard Cointreau, President of the Jury - Gourmand World Cookbook Awards
- On Sale
- Oct 27, 2015
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Running Press