Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner

To get away – seclusion, slow time, and the freedom to work. To explore the land and work within its bounty. To be inspired by the physical connection to food and walk amongst it – on the farm, into the green. Down to the beach: currants on the slant, stonecrop along the shore, and sea lettuce beneath the waves. Spot prawns swim just beyond. Five chefs ride the ferry into a new land of possibility.1

Sean Brock saw a realm of smoke. John Shields catalouged the environment and found plants in full blushing bloom. Dotting the bay, fishing boats must have piqued Jason Fox’s curiosity for the waters below. Kobe Desramaults, too, thought of weeds and herbs – and the dairy of such diets. And with its salty breeze and clear air, Lummi Island must have reminded Kyle Connaughton of Hokkaido. For Blaine Wetzel, it is merely home.

The First Harvest Dinner was held at Willows Inn on Lummi Island. It was to be a celebration of harvest and bounty. Chef Blaine Wetzel asked his team to write down the names of five chefs they wanted to cook alongside. The most frequent names were invited out for four nights of foraging, fishing, farming, and cooking two dinners. A get-away to a get-away.

The restaurant experience of the final list deftly read like an in-the-know gastronaut’s dream tour: Townhouse, McCrady’s, In de Wulf, Commonwealth, Michel Bras Hokkaido, Fat Duck, noma, and Husk. The cooks at Willows Inn have great taste. Many of the invited chefs cook in a way that would honor the island. Would shedding their proper jobs for a few days unleash something new, creative, or even profound?

2012 was the year of the guest dinner – every week yielded some new possibility.2 At odds with their often expensive cost is the quality – it is hard to pull off. Rarely true collaborations, the meals feel herky jerky, abruptedly changing direction with each course. The visiting chef is in a new kitchen, working with new talent, with potentially new ingredients: new ideas and new experiments. New, new, new does not always materialize immediately; but it might later pay dividends for the chefs. For this, guest dinners might be considered as patronage supporting an art.3

This dinner was quite good.4 With this line-up, how could it not be?

Note-mode was for the previous night at Willows Inn proper – one of my best meals this year (opinions of Blaine’s dishes below can be found in that review.5) This night was more social, and drinking, so notes and photography suffered some. Dinner followed a similar routine as the night before – cocktails in the hotel lobby and outside decks, with groups being ushered in at dinner time. Everyone was seated, and served, within a half hour of each other. It is a proper way to dine when staying somewhere – please just show up by 7pm.6

Meals at Willows Inn begin with a series of snacks – small bites, analogous to amuse bouches, that percolate and brighten – quick taste and texture diagnostics for the palate. Restaurants like noma serve them, as does In de Wulf. The Rhubarb and Lovage was a near-exact replica of what Kobe serves at the beginning of his own meals. Austere, lean, and, with two ingredients, a perfect summarization of Kobe’s cuisine – minimal. And yet, it has a signature.

Rhubarb & lovage – Desramaults

Kale leaf w/ rye & truffles – Wetzel

Magenta sprem gazpacho w/ cucumber – Fox

Stripped down, Brock was in elemental mode, practicing the Southern alchemy of fire and smoke. This smoked beet was a stand-out of the night. Smoked for many hours (did we wake up to their scent?), they had a great mix of smoke, mineral, sweet, & acidity. A perfect little bite that engulfed the mouth with flavor – you wanted more. His diminutive onion course, later, was similar. A sweet onion, bittered with char, peppery nasturtium, and a nice rye kick.

Smoked beet w/ chocolate, balsamic, & woodruf – Brock

Shigoku oyster w/ egg yolk & coastal plants – Shields

The Shields plate often looks like wild nature. He also has a gift for pairing similar textures. At a Townhouse meal, Sheets of Cuttlefish & Pork Fat melted identically in the mouth, their differing savoriness identifying each ingredient. Here, the oyster and egg yolk both gobbed with fattiness. With each bite, the leafy and crunchy plants sang with tartness and salt, with shifting tones of sweetness and brininess. Shields has a gift for dimension and layering without feeling too busy.

Despite their troubles at finding the right place,7 the Shieldses (both John and Karen) will go down as one of this generation’s best talents – cult figures. Answering yes to Did you eat at Townhouse? will become a small badge of honor for those who made the trek to Chilhowie. John in particular has been busy guest-chef’ing and one should make every effort to catch him in the wild.

Crispy halibut skin w/ razor clams – Wetzel

Sockeye salmon tartar, fennel, huckleberry, horseradish, & sea beans – Fox

Sockeye salmon tartar found Jason Fox mixing techno with a natural bent. The salmon was fresh, fished off the shore less than a mile away. The seasoning of fennel and sea beans lent a seasonal lightness to the fatty fish. But the frozen huckleberry balls were too abrasive, in texture and temperature. If served in their natural forms, while still utilizing the same taste profile, this dish would have clicked better for me.8

Moving from raw to the barely cooked, Blaine’s smoked salmon stunned as it did the previous night. An accomplished chef at the next table shook his head – damn.

Smoked salmon – Wetzel

Summer cabbage, red currant, coriander flowers – Wetzel

Grilled onion, nasturtium, goat cheese, rye – Brock

Crispy nasturtium wrapped spot prawn w/ green garlic emulsion – Fox

Venison heart, red currants, rhubarb, shitake – Brock

Quinoa w/ pinenut butter & coriander – Shields

Brock’s meat course was perfect for this sunny day on Lummi Island. A shitake broth lent its umami to the minerality of the venison heart. The red currants and rhubarb popped bright and strong. This was firm meat which quenched that desire, but treaded lightly so late in the menu.

Sometimes the dish is merely a wow. Here, a collective wow silenced much of the dining room. Kobe’s Kerre Melk Stampers was his take on a traditional Belgium dish but it still retained his trademarks. Potato, buttermilk, peas, goat whey, and arugula – everyday ingredients. Dairy is used more for its acidity. This dish expertly straddled a line between lightness and creaminess, with just enough richness to be pleasurable. It was my favorite dish of the night and, for that, unfortunately, my notes are bare.

Kerre melk stampers – Desramaults

Burnt bread & peas – Desramaults

Kamado-san – charred leaks, seven grain rice, dungeness osumashi, sea lettuce – Connaughton

Connaughton is the best chef you’ve never heard of. He plated the infamous Gargouille at Michel Bras Hokkaido. Given how the Japanese strive for perfection, one can just imagine how the Hokkaido version compares to the Laguiole. Kyle then moved on to become Head Chef of Research at the Fat Duck. He is now part of Chipotle’s research team. Impressive credentials.

Connaughton ended the meal on a kaiseki note with Kamado-san – kani gohan (crab rice), dungeness osumashi (soup), and pickles. A humble dish to remind us of the extravagence of the earlier courses. Here, the smoky rice had a wonderful texture thanks to the crab meat and grains. Profound in its apparent simplicity.

(Note: You can read more, and buy, the double-lid donabu rice cooker pictured above, dubbed the “Kamado-san”, at Toiro Kitchen)

Wild berries dotted the Lummi Island landscape in September – red, blue, and purple spots everywhere. Kobe paired beetroot and wild berries with a near-savory goat curd ice cream. Creamy, with little sweetness, it allowed whey caramel to pop out with its sweet burnt notes at times. There were also earthy undertones to the dessert. Stylistically, I found this dessert much more satisfying that what he served at his restaurant last year.

And like Kobe’s Kerre Melk Stampers, Shields’s preserved carrot with white chocolate dessert was so good, the notes suffered. Karen Shields is America’s best dessert chef, bar none, but here her husband made a strong case for number two.

Beetroot & wild berries, goat curd ice cream, whey caramel – Desramaults

Preserved carrot, hazelnut praline, spruce, white chocolate – Shields

If you have read this blog post over the past year, a few of these names will pop out – and my praise is high. Their styles were similar enough to yield a continuous whole meal; and, to think, it was still largely improvised. To get the chefs out of the congresses and into the wild. Willows Inn is a destination and, with top caliber talent like this cooking, it makes for the perfect two-day stay. Next year’s Harvest Dinner should be a must-attend event.9

- chuck

1 – Yes, this is mostly the intro from my last Willows Inn review – it still captures the event. I’ve always liked the idea of musicians, or artists, sampling their own work. Has an author written a series of books that borrow from each other heavily? Repetition and patterns.

2 – My personal theory is that the Internet, specifically Twitter, has opened up lines of communication. When you follow the right people, you can see relationships begin and blossom online before your eyes. People working interesting projects get incorporated into smaller, more serious networks, filtration systems that help grow dreams.

Guest cheffing this year has also been driven by cookbooks. Instead of just giving a talk at a book store, cooking at a restaurant seems like an equally good promotional vehicle for a cook book.

3 – For my first contact, I would prefer to experience the chef completely in their own element and context. I used to hope the dinners would be true collaborations but that rarely, if ever, happened. And I have thought of previous guest dinners as auditions – but, outside of the Manresa/Redzepi dinner, few do the original justice. There is an analogy between recorded music and live performances – I’m usually a fan of the former overall; but agree there are more exciting moments in the latter. Of course, one could argue that every meal is a performance, subject to random whims of fancy and chance.

4 – On this night, I was a guest of the restaurant. But I flew in one day early, on my own dime, to try out the normal Willows Inn. Everyone at this meal had the exact same menu and each chef came out to every table to present most dishes. And I believe most, if not all, seats were by invitation only.

5 – You can read my review here: Willows Inn – Island as Plate. When asked by Opinionated About, one of my table companions, to list my favorite meal of the year; Willows Inn was on the very short list with Saison and McCrady’s (see Seeds of Muse and Obsession.)

6 – In fact, I think it is the height of dining when the restaurant shares a hotel. By removing the time slot, and giving you the table for the night, it takes much of the transactional feel out of the experience and ratchets up the you are a guest quotient. One can amble down when they are ready. And many of these same places just put the charge on your hotel bill. A lot of restaurants talk about their guest experience but very few escape the big reveal at the end – this was a transaction and here’s the bill!

At the top tier of restaurants, you could probably increase both the average bill, and customer satisfaction, by rolling the transaction into the hotel bill. (There is a downside – out of sight, out of mind – can also get one in trouble when it comes time to pick the third or fourth bottle of wine.)

7 – Without being privy to details, it is un-imaginable to me how a chef of John (and Karen) Shields’s caliber do not have investors banging on their doors to open a restaurant. Karen is the best dessert chef in the country – without equal. John is one of the very best chefs. To have them both in your restaurant…

8 – This is admittedly a problem I have with many seafood dishes that broach modern waters. Natural seafood, in a pristine state, is near perfection. Sitting atop vinegared rice, in their symbiosis, is the only true rival to its nakedness.

9 – Who would I love to see board the ferry next year? I think these chefs would fit right at home: Josh Skenes and his fire, Scott Anderson and Michael Ryan (Elements) looping the island on foraging expeditions, Justin Yu of Oxheart plucking vegetables from Nettle Farm, and Ben Shrewy representing international with his love of nature. Or just get the man himself out there – Rene Redzepi placed Willows Inn at the top of his bucket list.

  • Stephen

    Hi Chuck, I had family up the in that neck of the woods growing up and used to spend summers up there, so these write ups of willows are making me crazy with some sort of strange modified nostalgia! Also, it seems like Matt Lightner would be a great choice for the next one….. especially given his NW roots.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    you’re right, Lightner would be an excellent pick too! as you can tell by reading these two posts, i’d highly recommend making the trip