Food & Wine: Best New Chef 2012: Blaine Wetzel
Courtesy of the Willow’s Inn Photo courtesy of the Willow's Inn

Blaine Wetzel

F&W Star Chef

Chef: Blaine Wetzel

Restaurants: Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA)

Education: Scottsdale Culinary Institute (Scottsdale, AZ)

Experience: Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician (Phoenix, AZ); Alex at Wynn Las Vegas (Las Vegas); L’Auberge (Carmel, CA); Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark); Citronelle (Carmel, CA)

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
Rafael Velasquez taught me how to cook at the Phoenician. He taught me how to show a lot of care with food. He provided constant mentorship.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
We have a dish on the menu that’s wild seaweed that we collect and braise with Dungeness crab and brown butter. It’s just a few ingredients; it’s really delicious; and it connects you with the area. We can only do it in the spring and early fall.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I don’t remember the first dish I ever cooked myself.

I’d recommend pasta for the beginning home cook. 80 percent of it is cooking it correctly in boiling salted water. If you get that right, it’s easy to make the rest taste good. I think it’s nice and easy to cook with mushrooms, too. You could easily roast some mushroom slices and toss them with the pasta. That’s a good place to start.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
My mentor is René Redzepi. Rafael taught me how to cook, but René developed me into a chef by teaching me how to be really critical about how food tastes and really independent and creative.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I’m really liking Noma’s new cookbook, René Redzepi: A Work in Progress.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Attention to detail.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Nope. I’ve pretty much got it.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
I think shiitake mushrooms. We just marinate them in shiitake broth and grill them. We make a broth from all the scraps and then marinate the shiitakes with that, toss them with oil and grill them, and they’re really good.

What is your current food obsession?
Paper birch bark. It has a distinct flavor and it’s prevalent on the island I live on. I’ve been making broths from it.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Commis in Oakland, because you get 12 courses for something like $80.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I did an event in Ghent, Belgium, and they make this really good, crazy fermented mustard. I brought some back this year. I have a little bit left.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
Cooking’s pretty much all I got.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d like to open a really awesome ice cream shop somewhere warm. It would be all fresh fruit and freshly churned ice creams with unique flavor combinations.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I’d choose Mario Batali and I’d take him to the Taylor Shellfish Farms to eat some oysters. It’s near Bellingham, Washington.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Sea cucumbers. They’re totally weird. I’m going to crack the code on how to use them.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I don’t do that. I always eat a proper meal at home. I sit down with a candle and a napkin. I might eat some blueberries out the fridge.

Recipes by Blaine Wetzel

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