Lummi Island, 100 miles north of Seattle, has a population of around 900 and is accessible only by boat—not the sort of place one would expect to find the culinary world’s latest wizard. But in the two years since he signed on as chef at the Willows Inn, a century-old former fishing lodge, Blaine Wetzel, 27, has been attracting big-city-calibre buzz. Food & Wine named him a 2012 best new chef; Rene Redzepi, the genius behind Copenhagen’s Noma, called Wetzel, “a rare and amazing talent”; and the New York Times deemed the Willows Inn one of 10 restaurants “worth a plane ride.”
Wetzel got his start when he was 14 in an Iowa City steak house. Recently, he spent two years at Noma, as Redzepi’s chef de partie. These days, when he’s not behind the stove, he’s chopping wood to smoke salmon, mussels, and venison; collecting seaweed off the rocks to serve pickled with Dungeness crab; and foraging in the hills around the inn for porcini mushrooms and tender pine needles.
With his repertoire so tied to the tiny island he calls home, it’s hard to imagine the Washington native cashing it in to, say, open a mega-bistro in Vegas—despite his potential to draw crowds. “I think we pretty much have a good thing going here,” Wetzel says.—Jenny Comita