'Sea and Smoke' Lifts the Haze Surrounding Willows Inn

This new book offers an inside look at the celebrated Lummi Island restaurant
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

The fog practically lifts off the pages of Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest (Running Press, $40) by Blaine Wetzel and Joe Ray. Wetzel is the young chef and James Beard darling at the wildly hyperlocal Willows Inn on Lummi Island. There, Wetzel and his loyal staff craft a 10- to 20-course prix fixe (several nights a week) with ingredients farmed, foraged and fished on the island.

Even if making digestifs out of tree leaves isn’t your thing (though there is a recipe for roasted madrona broth), Sea and Smoke offers a fascinating glimpse inside an intriguing kitchen. “It’s a collective. A cooperative,” says Wetzel about his crew. “The antithesis of the French brigade mentality….This is a kitchen of lifers. They’re the ones who are committed to the craft, appreciate the collaborative style, don’t mind putting in 14-hour days, come to work early and don’t touch their phones all day.”

Food and travel writer Joe Ray spotlights the finer details with poetic descriptions. “Time becomes elastic in the hushed space, helping to intensify the Zen-like single-mindedness of the hunt,” he writes about the team foraging for yellow foot chanterelle mushrooms. “The world and its problems melt away. Hands become thickly covered with dirt and peppered with spots of blood and tiny cuts.”

While the tasks of operating a restaurant on such a level might be physically and emotionally straining, Sea and Smoke often paints warm pictures that glow with ease for vicarious patrons. Stunning, almost haunting photographs by Charity Burggraaf help set the tone. Observing service one night, Ray writes, “Outside, it’s dark enough that the first things you notice are the sound of the sea, the blink of a buoy miles out toward the horizon, and the silhouette of the pines backlit by stars, but inside, the dining room is loud. The gestures are large, the smiles wide.