Nine years after he was working the fry station at an Iowa steakhouse, chef Blaine Wetzel landed at one of the world’s top restaurants: Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, where chef René Redzepi combines extreme culinary technique with a lunatic-fringe commitment to local, seasonal, and wild-foraged ingredients. Even during the Scandinavian winter, Wetzel helped Redzepi turn out forest-lichen appetizers, wild seagull eggs, and musk-ox tartare.
Noma is now considered by many to be the number one restaurant on the planet, Redzepi has become the culinary world’s most celebrated chef, and the clean-cut Wetzel, now 25, is back in the U.S. He is the first Noma graduate to apply Redzepi’s culinary philosophy to American soil – specifically, the very Denmark-like terrain of the San Juan Islands, a hiker’s and sea kayaker’s paradise of breaching orcas, jumping dolphins, and soaring bald eagles. Presiding over the kitchen of the Willows Inn, an obscure bed-and-breakfast on remote Lummi Island, Wetzel has an embarrassment of resources for a guy running a 28-seat dining room that’s open for dinner five nights a week: Three full-time farmers tend the inn’s private five-acre farm, raising pigs, chickens, and vegetables; the inn’s owner catches local salmon with an ancient netting technique, called reefnet fishing, where a net is set in place by a salmon run and pulled up when the fish swim over it; sea urchins come from Native Americans who scuba dive for them; and the chilly evergreen-rich environment north of Seattle turns out to be abundant in wild foods to forage.
Cooking, Wetzel says, “is a very technical trade, but it’s also a creative outlet” that sometimes involves hiking and foraging for wild plants. On his very first walk along Lummi’s beach, Wetzel says he found nearly all the same wild plants he’d learned to use in Copenhagen – another northern land surrounded by water.
Lummi (population 822) has basically three businesses – a general store, a cafe, and the Willows Inn. But vacationing Seattleites swell the summer population and provide Wetzel with an audience for his ongoing experimentation – wherever it’s taking him.
“We’re using all kinds of little weeds now,” he says. “Real flavorful wild herbs, like woodruff and chickweed; beach plants like stonecrop; ice lettuce and sea asparagus; and even pine-tree shoots.” The restaurant’s beef comes from a little ranch just down the road, and Wetzel says that while he loves the technical challenges and creativity in cooking, he finds particular happiness in what he calls “this great connection with nature.”