Photo Credits Charity Burggraaf
Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest by Blaine Wetzel and Joe Ray // Recipes Here
As much as I’d like to say that Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest, the new cookbook on The Willows Inn on Lummi Island and head chef Blaine Wetzel, gripped me from the start, I can’t, because it didn’t. The book sat on my shelf unopened for several weeks before I really took a look.
“All right. What do you have to offer?” I asked.
I dreaded the possibility that not only would I not like the book, but that this dislike would take on a personal note. This is, after all, a book inspired by a love of the Northwest, more specifically an area less than 20 miles from my home.
Afraid of disappointment, pretension and unapproachability, I worried this was a book reserved for those few fortunate enough to have eaten at The Willows. I was also biased by the ethereal quality of another cookbook I’d seen: Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine.
Wetzel came to Lummi from Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant that is considered one of the best in the world, and I associated what little I knew of Noma’s food style to that of Wetzel’s. This isn’t the first time I’ve come with assumptions toward a cookbook or chef, but this is certainly the most wrong I’ve been.
“[Blaine] started as a fry cook in a steakhouse in a Wal-Mart parking lot,” said Joe Ray, who is co-author of Sea and Smoke. “He worked his way through every station. Then moved to a nicer restaurant and then a nicer one. And yes, he eventually moved to Noma, but he didn’t want to just re-create Noma. You want to have your own recipes, your own ways.”
I recently sat down with Ray to talk about his experience writing Sea and Smoke. More than anything I drew from what he said as we sat and shared lunch at Le Pichet in Seattle, was that the book is personal — to Ray, Wetzel, photographer Charity Burggraaf, The Willows Inn and nearly anyone this book touched during its creation.
A travel and food writer, Ray worked for years in Paris as the English-speaking Paris restaurant critic for the website of Francois Simone, the French critic who inspired Anton Ego of Pixar’s Ratatouille. Ray said he was lucky to be one of the first journalists to visit The Willows and meet Wetzel.
“Very quickly you could see he was headed in a certain direction.” said Ray. “Eventually I started thinking of writing a book. I liked him and I like the food and it was something new for me out here. And he was game.”
Ray and his wife were married at The Willows in 2012. He asked Wetzel about the book a month later. By spring 2013, Ray and his new wife moved from Brooklyn, New York to tiny Lummi Island, where they rented a home and he started the process of writing.
Before reaching out to Ray, I set aside an evening, made tea and curled up to read the book. I say “book,” because Sea and Smoke is one of those that toes the line between coffee table book and cookbook. It leans toward the former, but don’t discount the recipes just yet. They are not without purpose.
I meant to read in sections, as I usually do with a cookbook that has a lot to say, but Ray’s voice drew me in, and by the chapter on reefnetting fisherman Ian Kirouac and his team, I found myself falling in with the emotion and urgency of a day’s catch.
I’ve never dined at The Willows, nor met Wetzel, but it’s clear that Sea and Smoke has a story for me, one that’s as familiar as my own backyard.
I discussed the recipes with Ray, specifically his days spent in the kitchen learning each dish.
“I wanted the challenge of writing the recipes,” said Ray, “These are to the letter how they do it in the kitchen.”
For a year, Ray spent Fridays in the kitchen, working all day with one person on one recipe — they even carved out a special place for him to stand so he wouldn’t be in the way. Afterward, he’d review and describe the technique. There is little written down at The Willows and Ray is one of the only sources of written documentation of a dish’s process.
“[The Willows’] most famous dish is the salmon and it’s right there,” Ray said, pointing at the cookbook. “You want to make that, you can. It’s hard work, but this is the effort it takes to make the best restaurant food in the world.”
I’m not nearly the same caliber of chef as Wetzel, hardly anyone is, so what on earth could I do with a recipe from him? These creations take hours of work, sourcing, diligence, trial and repetition.
When I was in art school as a painting major I was required to copy the masters — anyone from Leonardo to Matisse.
“Be careful who you choose to copy,” my mentor said, “some can’t lead you anywhere new. They’ve done all that’s to be done, they’ve exhausted the vocabulary. Best to go back to the master who inspired their work.”
Cooking from Wetzel is like imitating a master. I don’t have his ability or creativity, and Wetzel’s work isn’t a starting point, it’s a pinnacle. I can still learn from him, but I’m not going to get as much from trying to exact his efforts as I would from looking at his process, and this is what Sea and Smoke provides.
“This book is an attempt to show you my process and how this rich island changed my perspective.” writes Wetzel, “The basis for most of these recipes is incredible ingredients that speak to you.”
As I write this I’m trying to stop eating what is actually a failed attempt at Wetzel’s Milk Jam. I cooked too high a heat, cut the recipe and didn’t factor the changes correctly. I’m used to a bit of wiggle room, but there’s none to be had here.
As Ray put it: “There’s nothing said about scaling back the recipes. What’s the point.”
This is an opportunity to watch Weztel work from the same ingredient palate available to me. To see him push hyper-local ingredients to their greatest realization. What Weztel is doing at The Willows is not only art, but something so unique that chefs around the world are clamoring to replicate.
“The setup he has any chef would kill for,” Ray said. “He’s got a farm right down the road that grows vegetables for him. He’s got reefnetters a mile down the road. There are literally times he has to wait for rigor mortis to pass through a fish before he can start using it.”
That’s just it. Only we in the Pacific Northwest have these specific items. It’s not that other locations in the world don’t have mussels or salmon or woodruff, but Wetzel’s food isn’t about just any ingredient, but rather those available to him in a specific season, week, day. Although I can’t translate what I see around me just as he has, this is a spirit I can emulate.
So I did. Or at least I tried.
Several recipes call for fresh milk — it’s safe to assume all recipe items are intended to be fresh, as in picked at their peak and used not more than a day later, so I asked my friend if I could milk her goat. Instead, she brought me a quart of sweet raw goat milk fresh from that morning. I raided friends yards for plants still flourishing in November’s cold. I foraged for madrona bark along Chuckanut Drive, and asked Taylor Shellfish Farms for live Fanny Bay scallops.
Here, I encountered my first tangible understanding of the transitory quality of the recipes in Sea and Smoke. Taylor Shellfish can no longer get live scallops, not only that, but Wetzel was one of the only ones to receive the Fanny Bay scallops when they could be harvested.
I mentioned the book and was asked, “Is there a picture of a live razor clams in there? We gave Blaine the only ones we had.”
Yes, there is a picture of fresh razor clams in the book. And again, I’m brought to the connection each person has in this process going on at The Willows restaurant.
Fresh milk is now simmering for a second time on the stove, since that first batch of milk jam became more “milk candy.” Surprisingly, the slightly burnt caramelized curds are delicious and I’ve learned something new that fresh milk and heat can create together. It’s nowhere near what Wetzel’s recipe intended, though, so back to the stove more fresh milk goes.
If you’re going to cook from Sea and Smoke — and here I must tell you of the shocked responses I get when I say I am actually cooking these recipes — Burggraaf’s photographs are an essential tool. In my opinion, Burggraaf is the uncredited third author of Sea and Smoke. Her photo documentation of not only the year in which Ray writes, transports you to Wetzel’s inspiration.
Sent on a photo assignment to The Willows, Burggraaf met Wetzel in fall of 2011. She was wowed by what she saw and the staff’s enthusiasm and chemistry.
“We had a great day shooting,” she says, “and afterward they invited us to join them for a beach bonfire and oyster roast … Never, had I ever experienced anything like it. A bonfire right on the beach, under a clear star-filled sky, eating some of the best oysters that I’ve ever tasted — they had this tequila sauce, it was fantastic. I felt so connected to this group of guys that I had only just met that day.”
I was curious if she’d dined at The Willows, and if so, what stuck in her mind most.
“One of my all time favorite dishes/snacks of Blaine’s is the kale chip,” Burggraaf says, “I’m a sucker for truffles. But the dish that changed my life and perspective of food completely was the Stew of Stinging Nettles. It encompassed flavors I had never before experienced.”
She goes on, “Blaine and his team have this knack for allowing ingredients to have a voice, even those that seem the simplest, and they become stars.”
Burggraaf has been photographing for over 8 years now, but credits her time on Lummi as very influential. She still visits the Island and The Willows regularly, sometimes accompanied by other accomplished photographers eager to experience this world that Wetzel and his farmers have created.
For my own selfish reasons, I’m very grateful for Burggraaf’s thoroughness. Without her close documentation I’d have little to no idea how to plate the difficult creations in Sea and Smoke.
As I put together Wetzel’s scallop dish I was forced to go solely on Ray’s description — for this recipe Burggraaf has photographed the dish’s lovely components, but this is little help to me. The dish ended up looking as though it had been vomited onto a scallop shell that only added to its misery rather than allure.
But, the dish was delicious.
Somehow in my fumbling attempts, I’d grasped at the essence of what Wetzel is doing. I won’t start inviting friends and family over for a mock Willows Inn meal, but I have learned a great deal in my attempts, no matter how inferior my results.
Sea and Smoke tells a unique story, and its recipes show the careful process of Wetzel’s artistry. Burggraaf’s photography lends that “coffee table” appeal and Ray’s writing illuminates what makes The Willows and Wetzel such rarities in the culinary world. But it’s the spirit of Wetzel’s endeavor that carries the book.
“It’s a love song to the Pacific Northwest.” Ray said.
And this is a tune I can understand.
Who should buy this: Those with a love of Lummi Island and surrounding area. Anyone who has dined or plans to dine at The Willows Inn. Brave home cooks who love a hefty challenge. Chefs who want to learn from a master.
Publisher: Running Press // Sea and Smoke is available on Amazon.com
NOTE: Due to the sort of cooking this book requires, I think it best to note that several recipes contain incorrect reference pages for accompanying recipes. The publisher is aware of these errors and plans to make corrections at reprint.