The Weeping Willows of Lummi Island

Willows Chef Blaine Wetzel in April, 2017.

To get to Lummi, a little island tucked under the Canadian border off the coast of Bellingham, you take an ancient, 20-car ferry, the Whatcom Chief, which sails from Gooseberry Point; the trip takes six minutes. (The Lummi Reservation, 12,000 square miles, population 5,400, and home to the Silver Reef casino, is back on the mainland.) The island itself, 9,500 square miles, at the northeastern tip of the San Juan archipelago, is home to maybe 800 year-rounders, including Riley Starks, a commercial fisherman with a convivial manner.

Fishing may be its own reward for some, but Starks branched out; some two decades ago he took over a rustic lodge on the island’s western shore, the original Willows Inn. He hired a dazzling 24-year-old chef named Blaine Wetzel (Northwest native, staff cook at Noma in Copenhagen) to run the kitchen, and then, just as the resort was on the cusp of becoming world-famous, Starks sold the property to a group of local investors.

The new owners quickly remodeled the accommodations, reconfigured the dining rooms, and rebranded Willows Inn as a luxury resort with a world-class chef who used only ingredients foraged or grown on the island. Dinner for two with wine pairings and overnight accommodation could easily come to $1,000.

One of those “too good to be true” stories. Turned out, ingredients might also come from mainland supermarkets, including Costco and Target. Turned out, young stagiaires weren’t always paid. Turned out, female staff members were regularly harassed and abused. Turned out, Wetzel and Willows kept settling complaints from federal agencies, some $2 million worth.

This week, it all came crashing down.

The Willows closed down for the season before Thanksgiving. Wetzel’s wife, a chef named Daniela Soto-Innes, told reporters at an out-of-state culinary conference that the couple planned to open a new restaurant near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The local family that owned Willows signed the $2 million property over to a non-profit in Bellingham. The Willows had ceased to exist.

As for Starks, the original owner, he moved back to his five-acre B&B farmhouse inn, which had a good year. He no longer puts out to sea, preferring instead to operate a reef-fishing business closer to shore; a seaweed farm is on the horizon. Having recruited Wetzel over a decade ago, Starks is appalled at how quickly the good burghers of Lummi turned on the man who had brought fame to the island. Appalled as well by a national newspaper ‘s hit job, written by its go-to reporter for stories about workplace sexual harassment.

Is it really the end? The non-profit could sell or lease the property to a new restaurant operator, of course. But the great undiscovered gem of the Pacific Northwest, the beacon of geoduck, locally foraged mushrooms and odd combinations (broth of roasted madrona bark, anyone?) is g-gone for good.

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