“By mid-December, the pumpkin pile will be depleted. When the pumpkins are gone, it’s time to close our doors for the winter season.” So said Reid Johnson, manager of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The pumpkin pile, bright orange like a warm fire, sits beneath a table of locally-made treats that guests are invited to scoop and nibble. The Inn is over 100 years old now, but thriving like never before.
Guests come from all over the world – and they return, time and again. Many guests arrive after a long journey of planes, trains and automobiles… and then a little ferry. But the award-winning menu, along with beautiful accommodations, is genuinely worth a trip across the county. In fact, the New York Times, in 2011, listed the Willows Inn as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world that are worthy of a plane ride. We here in Ferndale have this treasure in our own back yard, but have you heard about them?
The Willows Inn gathers ingredients from a very small radius around the island, including the woods and the waters. The pumpkins were grown on nearby Loganita Farm as were most other ingredients in their 20-course tasting menu. Even the flower beds and landscaping around the Inn provide culinary contributions. Reid says that 80% of the menu comes from within a mile of the Inn. The kitchen staff is also quite familiar with seasonal foraging treasures to be found throughout the island: patches of berries, rose hips, ancient fruit trees, and so on. Local island residents welcome the chefs to pick and gather on their properties.
Blaine Wetzel, who grew up in Washington, is the head chef at the Willows. He once was the protégé of Rene Redzepi at Noma, a Nordic food sensation with two Micheline stars. The menu design at the Willows Inn is reminiscent of the Copenhagen restaurant where Blaine Wetzel developed his talents. In like manner, Wetzel maintains relationships with local fishermen and farmers so as to keep a steady supply of unique, indigenous, Pacific Northwest foods. One example of a local supplier is Inspiration Farm. They provide seasonal crops such as sea berries, Aronia, or green walnut.
As this is being written, the kitchen team at the Willows is planning next year’s menu and its related garden items. After a few working sessions with Mary, the manager at Loganita farm, next spring’s seeds will be ordered. Garden plans are based, not only upon what inspired the chefs and delighted the patrons, but also upon what thrived (or struggled) in the garden. At the Willows Inn, you won’t find anything ordinary. You will find heirloom vegetables, wild caught seafood, strange fruits, nuts, and berries, and edible flowers. During my visit in November, they were picking sage blossoms, calendula, and the seed pods from garlic chives. Even the arctic strawberries were still blooming and producing.
Guests are treated to a 20-course tasting menu prepared by a team of 15 to 20 culinary professionals. Reservations are required. Patrons should arrive between 5:30 and 6 and should plan to spend the entire evening enjoying the feast. Overnight accommodations are available at the Inn or in nearby cottages and rental homes that the Willows contracts with.
The dining area overlooks the water. Light from the sunset tints the room with golden and pinkish hues. Cocktails are prepared behind a little bar that is lined with all manner of herbal and fruity concoctions in glass jars and bottles. The dining venue is small and intimate and the dishes are brought directly from the kitchen to the tables by the chefs themselves. The chefs narrate the items and guests can ask questions. Many of these fantastic foods do require some explanation, for example, imagine tasting a pine-infused ice cream and being unable to name that flavor.
Food preservation is an extremely important part of meal planning. At the end of the season, root vegetables and gourds are tucked away for the winter. Upon reopening in March, these goodies will be the foundation of the early spring menus. Other items are dried, smoked, pickled, or brined. Herbs and flowers are infused into vinegars and liquors. To the side of the kitchen, there is a pantry resembling a Chinese apothecary’s shop. Chefs pop in there to select the just-so flavor needed in their kitchen creations. Since they do not rely upon foreign spices like pepper or curry, they must learn to work with more local flavorings like elder berry blossoms, birch, dandelion root, or quince.
Reserving your spot at a Willows table is like buying tickets to a Broadway performance. You will be treated to a show. To that end, the kitchen team must prepare and execute without error. So, the crew operates much like an army with a general, sergeants, corporals, and ensigns. Everyone has their assignments, but the battle plan is designed by the head chef, Blaine Wetzel, and chef de cuisine, Casey Palermino. Early in the week, ingredients are delivered so they can break it down, play with it, test some ideas, and formulate recipes. Guests are served Thursday through Sunday, so meal plans are solidified by Wednesday.
During showtime, there is no room for democratic discussion because this performance art must flow according to script. The dishes have to be built according to the blue prints that were designed earlier. However, during down time, any of the kitchen staff are welcome to experiment, create, and offer ideas. Each day by 4 o’clock, a finished copy of each dish is presented to Casey. He, then critiques and provides feedback to ensure perfection. Most of the time, the same menu is presented for a whole week but, by the weekend, a few changes are usually inserted. The menu transforms again for the next week. By the next season, everything adjusts according to new ingredients being freshly harvested.
As I write this, the last menu of the season is being served. The website describes it as follows:
- toasted kale leaves
- venison skewer
- octopus skewer
- pacific oysters and quince
- scallop with poblano peppers
- dungeness crab and pine nuts
- caramelized mussels
- savory doughnut
- seared razor clam
- smoked sockeye salmon
- matsutake mushroom
- cinderella pumpkin
- grilled island pork and bitter greens
- heirloom wheat bread with pan drippings
- toasted birch branches
- orchard fruit
- kiwi berries
- dandelion root
This is the perfect time to check the online calendar and get reservations for next year. Thursday and Sunday dinners aren’t booked out as quickly as Friday and Saturday. If you cannot afford the entire dinner experience, breakfast and lunch are also served on weekends for a very reasonable price.
Note that I receive no sponsorship from the Willows for writing this article. I am simply fascinated that we have a world-renowned restaurant in our own back woods, yet very few of us know about it. Why? Simply put, they have no need to toot their own horn. The Willows Inn has enough notoriety from repeat customers and personal references. So, advertising has become unnecessary.
Just because it’s so close by, we should not miss out on this amazing experience, Perhaps this hidden treasure will be the perfect anniversary surprise for your sweetheart in 2020. Perhaps it will be my anniversary surprise (Wink and nudge to my husband!).