When Joe Ray called, saying he felt like spilling some beans, I had an inkling that it might something big. Ray's writing and photographs have been featured in The Boston Globe, the New York Times and dozens of other publications. He wrote a story on Riley Starks' chicken butchery workshop for the June issue of Seattle magazine. Ray, who's from the Seattle area but has lived in Brooklyn for several years, had already told me he was spending a year on Lummi Island. So it didn't take much of a leap to put two and two together. And now he's ready to go public: Ray and chef Blaine Wetzel, one of the country's rising star chefs (trust me, or take Sean Brock's word for it), are working on a cookbook to be published in Fall, 2015 by Running Press.
Over a delicious lunch of curried rockfish fritters (excellent little guys dressed in a rice vinegar dressing popping with chiles) and sweet (and very spicy) beef liver larb (put this on the menu!) at Pioneer Square's Little Uncle, Ray gave me the details on the book and, with great enthusiasm, told me what it's like working alongside the young prodigy.
Of the overall book, Ray says he'll be, "telling the story of what goes into creating one of the world's next great restaurants, using a full year on the island--working in the kitchen, working on the farm, foraging, working on the reefnet boats--to highlight the seasonality and cover everything that comes and goes throughout the year."
To that end, Joe is working alongside Blaine and his team in the Willows kitchen one night a week. "It helps me understand how things work in there," he says, "what the guys, the atmosphere and the pressure are like, day in and day out. It'll also be a huge help when it comes to recipe writing." Ray says that while the book isn't a traditional cookbook--there'll be quite a bit of back-story and discussion about what daily life is like in the Willows kitchen--there will be around 100 recipes included. (Including, one hopes, a more in-depth discussion of how to make that unforgettable smoked salmon.)
The book will tell the almost unbelievable story of how Blaine, who was a sous chef at Noma in Copenhagen prior to joining Willows in fall of 2010, came to work for Riley Starks, then owner of the Willows. And it'll delve into the new ownership, the new farm and farm relationships that Blaine has forged. According to Ray, "Blaine would never have ended up here (at Willows) without Riley's ability to dream big. Having John Gibb and the (new) owners... gives Blaine the support he needs as the restaurant's reputation grows around the world."
By now Wetzel's daily foraging trips and sublime tasting menus have been well-documented. Tonight he's hosting some of the culinary industry's biggest bigwigs (both in the kitchen and at the tables) for Willows' 2nd Annual Harvest Dinner. So what's the young chef like to work with? That might be the most surprising part. "Part of the reason I first started writing about Blaine and his food is that he's a calm force in the kitchen. Blaine's in charge, but there's a spirit of collaboration in the kitchen that beats the pants off of walking around on eggshells all day."