Well, I guess I’ll never eat at the Willows Inn again. This week some sad news dropped about the most awarded restaurant in the Pacific Northwest on the tiny island called Lummi.
The New York Times reports “Globe-trotting diners flock to the Willows Inn’s serene Northwest setting. But former employees say faked ingredients, sexual harassment and an abusive kitchen are the real story.”
Let’s talk about it.
Lummi (pronounced like luh-me and rhymes with “tummy”) Island is a tiny dot just off the north Washington state mainland. Accessible only via a 6-minute passage on a 20-car ferry (like many Washington Islands), the island is home to summer cabins of Washingtonians and Canadians.
The population swells in the warmer months as those property owners come to the island to enjoy the amazing Washington summers.
Set on a hill overlooking Sunset Beach and Lummi Bay, this little out-of-the-way spot has become a must-visit destination for foodies. While most of this post is about the restaurant, the Willows Inn is made up of only 7 rooms but has arrangements with many of the cabins on the island. You can book a cabin on their website by selecting “off-site” reservation. The Inn rooms are considered “on-site.”
Reservations to The Willows Inn are usually sold out every night they serve. Blaine Wetzel is the head chef, the man behind the Instagrammable dishes, the man of countless press profiles, the James Beard award winner, the man who probably lied to my face.
The Times exposé not only told of the toxic workplace but told the truth behind all those J. Peterman-esque stories of the supposedly organic, homegrown ingredients on the menu.
Details from former employees in The New York Times:
…most ingredients (were not farmed on-island but instead) were ordered from distributors and farms on the mainland. When local produce ran out, cooks routinely bought supermarket ingredients, like beets and broccoli, that were then passed off as grown or gathered on Lummi.
(Former employees) said, “Pacific octopus” arrived frozen from Spain and Portugal; “wild” venison purportedly shot on the island was farm-raised in Idaho; “roasted chicken drippings,” part of a signature dish, were made in big batches from organic chickens bought at Costco.
“On my first day, I was cutting frozen Alaskan scallops down to the shape and size of pink singing scallops,” said Julia Olmos, 24, a line cook from 2017 to 2019.
More from the Times tells of a terrible culture.
Mr. Wetzel has publicly humiliated cooks whose work displeased him, often using a derogatory term for mentally disabled people to disparage them. He also has used racist language to describe Latino employees and Asian customers, they said.
A dozen women who worked at the Willows said that men on Mr. Wetzel’s kitchen crew constantly harassed teenage employees from the island with sexual overtures and innuendo, pressured them to stay after work hours to “party,” and plied them with alcohol and drugs to make them compliant.
In March, Mr. Wetzel agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a subsequent class-action lawsuit, brought by 99 employees over various forms of wage theft, including misappropriation of tips and failure to pay overtime or provide rest breaks to employees working 14-hour days.
His fame rests on his longtime claim of using only the island’s locally foraged, fished, and farmed ingredients, mainly from the inn’s one-acre Loganita Farm.
Mr. Wetzel’s claim, said a longtime sous-chef, Scott Weymiller, was mathematically impossible: to serve 25 different plates to up to 40 people, six nights a week, from a nine-square-mile island. “You can do that for two days, but you can’t do it for two weeks,” said Mr. Weymiller, 32. “Much less for an entire season.”
This quote hits. Of course! How could I have been so gullible to believe this little island could provide this much bounty? I wanted to believe.
I was part of a large party for my experience at the Willows Inn. It was me, my co-workers, and our business clients; whom we certainly wanted to impress. We spent the early part of the evening drinking expensive cocktails on the outdoor deck before moving into the main room for dinner.
Because of our party size, we had an entire room to ourselves. The staff, including head chef Blaine Wetzel delivered each course to our table and explained what was special about each one. The staff would wait in the wings while we ate the course, all the while watching as we looked in awe at what was presented, and pulled out our phones to document it.
And astonished we were. It was by far the most impressive dinner I had even been a part of. Every dish more impressive than the last. Most importantly, the clients loved it and we strengthened our relationship with them.
After dinner, once all the other patrons shuffled out, our group is invited back to the kitchen to chat with the chefs. Mr. Wetzel shared a special rose liquor that is infused on-site at the Willows Inn and we all shared tastings. Our client got a guided tour of the backyard, where they have the smoker and outdoor grill.
Waiting for the ferry to arrive, we reminisced about the dishes, talking about our favorites. I considered myself lucky to be there. A co-worker and I fought hard to get this dinner approved by our bosses, who joined us that night. We wanted to show the best of the Pacific Northwest to our Metropolitan clients. It was a legendary night, what can I really say?
I wonder how many of those staffers had to endure the gross crap shoveled out by Chef Wetzel. How many of them quit soon after? Who were replacements for the ones who stood up against the behavior outlined in the Times article?
Why can’t we have nice things? Can’t visionaries also treat people well (or at least with respect)? Why do leaders always let us down? It’s all too bad.
We were welcomed into the inner circle with a culinary genius. How much of what we were served or told was based on a lie?
The night to remember forever has since become one to forget.
I usually close out these posts with the information you need to know to have your own experience. Not this time. Visiting the Willows Inn? How about don’t.