Sometimes you encounter a seemingly once in a lifetime experience. And sometimes those experiences are so magical that you feel the need to turn them into repeat experiences. Following a visit to Willows Inn on Lummi Island last year, I knew I had to return to this cherished slice of PNW goodness.
I naturally was concerned that the culinary mecca might fall a notch short of expectations on a second go. Suffice it to say those concerns were curbed before I even stepped foot back on the bite-sized ferry that whisks passengers back and forth between the mainland and Lummi. While its easy to quickly get lost in the surface beauty of Lummi, the truth of the matter is that the real magic lies in the details.
Let’s be honest. If you’re arriving on Lummi Island without a clear focus on relaxation, you might as well turn back. At nine total square miles, it’s best to know what you’re jumping into. A single main road leads you out to the Inn accompanied with views of open farms to one side along with breathtaking picturesque coastal panoramas on the other. On a clear, sunny day, if your jaw isn’t dropping, something’s not quite right.
Immediately, your mind jumps to envisioning Chef Blaine Wetzel’s first island experience. Fresh berries off the side of the road. Chanterelle mushrooms waiting to be foraged. Birch trees tucked away behind small wheat fields. An entire sea of fresh salmon, prawns and sea cucumbers waiting to be plucked. An Inn waiting to be transformed into a destination for anyone and everyone with an appreciation of food to enjoy. Chef Paradise.
It occurred to me on this second visit that I have a rare fascination with the Willows Inn. Yes, it happens to be in a picturesque setting on a picturesque island in the middle of the picturesque San Juan Islands. There is that. But moreso, it is the balance, openness and warmth that the entire Inn emits.
Maybe it’s the stacks of wood located around the perimeter of the property. The aged smoker and outdoor grill creating an umbrella of sensory magic by mid-day. The open doors throughout, the earth tone walls, the perfectly placed candles, the labeled ingredients and foraged goods, the woodburning fire inside the main dining area. All of it. All of it part of a detailed vision from a masterful Chef who doesn’t overlook a single detail.
Fresh, simple, relaxing. Thoughtfully stocked and smartly oriented locally-sourced coffee, tea, wine and cider. Perfectly scented shampoo that will make you want to wash your hair five times during your stay. A purposely placed signed version of the Chef’s own book (do in fact pick up a copy, it’s fantastic). A bed with a skylight above that will have you waking up to birds chirping and early morning gulls swooping along the beach across the road.
With attention to detail comes utter attention to ambiance across an entire experience. Blaine has it all dialed in.
Four hours. 19 courses. Cocktails and wine. Truffles and kale. Doughnuts and black cod. Crab and pine nut milk. Plums and crudite. Digestive tea and toasted birch branches. Mussels and celery root. Wine. Goodness and goodness. Wine. Goodness and more goodness. Epic fudge.
A glance back at the kitchen reveals a culinary general in full control calling in a slew of perfectly timed taste bombs that nail the bullseye every time.
There is a reason Blaine has his team of chefs and servers all live on Lummi. You don’t come to work at Willows to cook or serve. You come to work at Willows to immerse. To experience. To embrace. To grow. The order and consistency in which Blaine and his team operate is slightly beyond mindblowing. Not just in service but in attitude. The smiles are real. The stories are real. The humbleness, gratefulness and lack of pretension is real.
This is a chef who hasn’t trained his team to be authentic. Instead, he’s allowed his inner circle to grow and expand based on a magnetic draw to shared passion and individual appreciation for all that is real in the world.
As evening winds down, I find myself in the Inn’s back stock room admiring shelves upon shelves of ingredients that have been farmed, foraged and fished from the island. Before I know it, I’ve been outed by Blaine who immediately hands me a crab apple infused digestif he has concocted, seemingly out of thin air.
Thirty minutes later, I come to learn a little more about a man whose mind is always churning but in calculated ways. A trip to Japan is being planned for the near future during the restaurant’s annual closure period. And while a well deserved break awaits, knives are on the mind. Japanese knives specifically. They way they look, feel, reflect an aspect of design he’s curious to learn more about.
Fascination with detail. Authentic detail. Real detail.
Mornings are meant for reflection. Well, reflection and eating an amazing breakfast. Both of which you will easily accomplish at the Inn. I opted this time to hop on the hour long tour of the Inn’s farm up the road. I was fascinated to learn about the level of experimentation happening. Trial and error. Risk and reward. The focus on fine tuning and testing.
As I headed off the island, my heart felt a similar glow to my first Willow’s experience. An utter appreciation for the opportunity to see an artistic mastermind at work with his closest friends in his studio. A brief glimpse into his inspirational surroundings and great lengths and effort that is put forth each day to replicate an experience for thirty more lucky visitors.
While many specific, detailed words can be used to show appreciation for such an experience relatively few will ever get to have, I’ll keep my appreciation broad, heartfelt and simple…