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Chef Blaine Wetzel of Willows Inn

A chat with James Beard winner, Blaine Wetzel

It's been one heck of a year for Blaine Wetzel, the chef of Lummi Island's Willows Inn, and it's only Maythe acclaimed restaurant is just barely getting into its busy season. Since the beginning of the year, an idea of his was turned into a worldwide restaurant event called the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, his fiancée was devastatingly injured, he won a James Beard award, and his first book just went on pre-sale on Amazon.

The 29-year-old took a moment from his busy schedule (that moment was while driving home from the airport, where he just landed from visiting his fiancée in South America) to let us in on a little secret about the seemingly sold-out local portion of the Gelinaz! Shuffle, to tell us how he got the idea for it, and to update us on his fiancée. For those not already following the story, Raquel Ruiz Diaz, who is also the restaurant manager at Willows Inn, was hit by a drunk driver in Paraguay (where she is from) in February, and has been hospitalized since.

Wetzel reports that she's doing okay. "She's getting better everyday, but it's still going to be a month or so before she can stand, and a little ways after that before she can come home. So, kind of a road ahead, but doing okay." (The restaurant and its supporters have been raising money for her recovery fund: you can find more information and help out yourself at her GiveForward site.)

The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, happening Thursday, July 9, involves the chefs of 37 restaurants around the world (India, Japan, Peru, Denmark, and so on) all traveling to each others' restaurants and working with the team there for a few days to produce a grand feast.

Tickets to the event went on sale on May 13, and Willows Inn was one of a handful of locations that sold out within the first two hours.

Seattle Refined: Well, we were all excited to talk about why people should go to the Gelinaz! Shuffle at Willows Inn, but it seems to be a little late for that.

Blaine Wetzel: This is the coolest thing to happen in the food world in a really long time. We haven't put up all the possible tickets yet. We'll probably release some more tickets closer to the date. They sold the full dining room, but I was planning to open up some additional seats that day that we don't normally have available. I'm not sure exactly how many that's going to be, but I'll do my best.

That's good to hear! Tell us about how you got involved in the event.

I actually came up with the event. The Gelinaz! group was meeting up to have a week-long brainstorming session because we'd done two events together, and we were really enjoying it, but it was kind of like, where do we want to go from here? What do we want to do?

We thought we needed to take a step back from what we were doing and figure out what we wanted to do. So the night before we left, I was thinking, "I am going to meet with some of the most creative minds of our time and I don't have anything to say." It popped into my head that we could do this shuffle thing. So I made a little map that had all the chefs based in all the cities, and it kind of winds and criss-crosses in all sorts of ways.

When I got there, it turned out none of the other chefs had any ideas; I was the only one with any idea. Beyond that, everyone liked it. My original idea was somewhat different from what we're actually doing because obviously there are a lot of details: moving all the chefs, reservations, pricing, and all that. It's really complicated. So I can't take full credit for the Shuffle in all, but it was really cool to have an idea that I once had in the basement of my restaurant evolve into something that is going to happen with all these great restaurants and chefs.

How is the Shuffle different from all of the other events that happen throughout the year?

I think it is really a first of its kind. There are other cooking events that have the A-list chefs around the world, even ones by Gelinaz!, but this is the first that really branches beyond having a celebrity chef or a well-known chef traveling to the city. It really involves a huge network of cooks as well.

When I left the restaurant to go do these events, I would come back and be glowing that I just got to cook with Alain Ducasse or Alex Atala or someone, but you couldn't share these feelings with anybody. In fact, in the time you got to do this, the other cooks were working even harder to keep up the kitchen. So the idea of including all of the teams of all of these restaurants was really exciting. All of a sudden, instead of just having 40 traveling chefs, you really have 1000 cooks in the world that are all participating in the event by working with this huge chef who is traveling there. That was a big motivation for us doing the event.

What will be different from the diners' perspective?

It goes beyond just the chance to taste food by a traveling chef. I've done several events where I've traveled to another city, I've traveled around cooking, but this is some of the best chefs in the world traveling to some of the best restaurants in the world. It's not like they're going to be at an Hyatt Regency or something, in an unfamiliar kitchen. It'll be a different kitchen, but there will be a lot of similarities in terms of the quality of the staff, the work environment, and the level they work at. In other events, you might get thrown into a kitchen that is not normally doing food similar to your restaurant at all, whereas in this event, you are going to be working with some of the best kitchen teams in the world. Somebody's going to go cook at Fäviken! And D.O.M.! And Attica! So this is a chance for the visiting chef to spend time with some of the best culinary teams in the world. It really means that they are not just coming to your city, they're also enabled with outstanding talent.

Also, these chefs are coming to your restaurant, but you're also going to a restaurant. You're relying on each other to be spot on as far as pristine ingredients, seeing around the curve of ingredient availability, helping each other in whatever way possible. And I think when you have this type of league of chef all trying to set each other up well, the outcome is going to be amazing. This is very different for the chefs as well. I think for any chef from anywhere in the world, the chance to come and cook on Lummi island is exceptional.

It's pretty exceptional that you get to cook there all the time! In fact, it just won you the rather prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest. How did that feel?

It's pretty sweet. There are a lot of good restaurants that were up for the awards this year. All those restaurants that we were up against are outstanding, and it's cool that the Northwest has such a strong scene.

Let's talk about that scene. There's clearly a hunger for high-end restaurantsas seen by your success and the quick sellout of the Gelinaz! Shuffle. Is there room for more?

Yes. We've been unbelievably well supported. It's not just the diners, though yes, there's plenty of interest in the region, but we're very well supported by the community of local artisans and their ingredients. We have a variety of raw products and ingredients, seafood, crazy farmers, all this, we really have a supply base, and I think there certainly is a demand there. I think it's just a matter of time.

The restaurant scene is really great. I think Northwest and Seattle restaurants are good already: versus ten years ago, or even five years ago. They're getting better and better, and the better restaurants are busier and busier. I don't think that the more traditional aspects of fine-dininglike French service, white linen table cloths, tuxedoed waiters with sommelier pinsis going to take off in Seattle in the way that it has in the past in New York. But I do think that there is a huge appreciation for quality around here.

And Willows has certainly shown that. You're headed into another busy season, you've got this event, and your book just went on pre-sale. How are you feeling about all that?

We just have more going on than ever, we're doing cooler things, I'm more excited than I ever have been about the direction that we're going, the collaborations that we're doing with people, the projects that we're involved with, and we're just kind of getting into it.

It's our fifth year and we've always been building on the year before, and now we're kind of at the tipping point where we're doing some awesome stuff. The energy that we've been putting into things, like doing this cookbook, things that are just now coming to life. We're just evolving in good ways.

Tell me a bit about the cookbook: what can people expect to find in it?

It's been a weird thing writing a book; it's not something I've done before. It gives people who have maybe eaten only once at the restaurant, or maybe have never been, an idea of the food and the philosophy behind what we do. It doesn't spell out everything that we do and every dish and every reason why, and who I am and whatever, but it points you in the direction of what we're doing and how we choose to do it.

And what are you doing this year, maybe that's new and different, at the Willows Inn?

It's very different: we've remodeled the entire upstairs of the hotel, we're doing a different menu orientation than we have in the past, almost all new items, all new dishes, a constantly evolving menu.

We're doing everything from house-made vermouth to lots of different cured fishes and smoked items. It's kind of like we're digging deeper into the food that we do. Our farm is now growing 100% native plants. It's our own farm and it's indigenous and heirloom varieties of things. We're doing really interesting work.

To be honest we're better. We're getting better. The food tastes better, we're happier to do it and it comes naturally.

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