Meet Nick Green, who worked as a sous chef at the Willows Inn for 6 years - one of the top destination restaurants in the world. The Willows Inn is located on Lummi Island, a small island 2 hours off the shores of Seattle that's only accessible by ferry. Headed by award-winning chef Blain Wetzel, alumni of Noma in Copenhagen, the restaurant focuses on seasonal, sustainable dishes made solely from ingredients grown on the island.
Tell us your story and how you became a chef at The Willows Inn!
I grew up in Seattle, Washington. From a young age, I've always been fascinated by cooking which is why I decided to take up a professional cooking career after I graduated. Having worked at some great restaurants (and even doing some artwork in between), I wanted a change of scene and to get out of the city. I wanted to cook in a different environment or a less typical restaurant. That's when I found this little bed and breakfast - The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The island is 2 hours north of Seattle. I was curious about the restaurant, so I made a visit there to see what it's like. I immediately fell in love with the place. The chef there, Blaine Wetzel and I really hit it off and so he basically hired me on the spot. I've been with The Willows for 6 years and it was an incredible 6 years! As of now, I'm doing restaurant consultancy since I left The Willows last year. I wanted to be more involved in the restaurant industry but at a different capacity, not necessarily slaving away in the kitchen and that's how the consulting aspect came up.
Absolutely, for me the best part about cooking is working with quality ingredients, and to work with the best ingredients consistently is to work seasonally. Obviously, when something is in season, it's at its peak and at its best. This approach is taken to the extreme at The Willows because a lot of the ingredients we work with, for example, wild berries and certain wildflowers, would only be in season for 7 days. We even had an ingredients calendar to make sure we capture those and hold on to them for as long as we could. I know this is extreme, but I think you can take this food philosophy to wherever you are. Moving forward when it comes to food, I will only cook seasonally because if I do so I will be working with ingredients that taste as great as they can be throughout the year. With the best ingredients, you can make great tasting food and that should be what dictates the menu.
The food is very minimal, simple and focuses only on the quality of the ingredients. For me, it's a fun way to cook and at the same time somewhat unusual because you see a lot of dishes today that are really convoluted or overloaded with too many components. I'm really attracted to simple and clear flavors. You might not find all the raw ingredients that tasty but it's important to know what they taste like. When it comes to cooking, I like sharing those kinds of direct flavors with people. That's what I like to cook because it feels a little like exploration and a fun discovery. Making something taste really good using the minimal ingredients is the philosophy at The Willows.
I feel that the Willows is pretty unique because we're on a small, isolated island with no distraction and the stress of city living. There are no bars, no other restaurants. All we have is literally a post office, a small store and The Willows - that's it. In terms of the work though, it can get pretty intense; we did a 22 course of tasting menu for about 30 people every night. To prepare for 30 something guests, there are 12 of us in the kitchen, so we were always super busy. On the other hand, it can be mellow because there are a lot of relaxing activities we can do on the island like foraging outside, whale watching, going for a swim; so there's always a good balance. Also, The Willows is closed for 3 months during the winter because it's a seasonal restaurant (which is pretty unheard of in restaurants). All in all, I think chef life at The Willows is very healthy.
During the time that the restaurant was closed (3 months in winter), I liked to go travel. I’ve spent time all over Europe, Mexico, Asia and Southeast Asia. When I travel, I mostly like to eat and that would become a really big influence when it comes to my cooking. I like to take inspiration from different cultures, the techniques they use and their approaches to food. I’ve even done an internship at a 3 star Michelin Kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, called Kichisen, to learn more about Japanese cooking. I find Japanese food culture very fascinating in particular. It was fun to see all the different varieties of cuisines and the way master chefs approach the ingredients. The simplicity, the austerity and the minimalism are really inspiring and I took a lot of that with me back from Japan in the way I approach my food.
Going from a small island to the middle of Texas (where I am now) has been super extreme, but this ride has mostly been a management lesson. It's been a lot of people management, and less time on working with awesome ingredients and developing amazing menus. The journey has been fun so far. Going from behind the scene where all the focus was on ingredients, food and plating to managing the front side of the business are kind of like a total 180 for me; but I'm enjoying every single bit of it.
My plans for my restaurant would not be a high-end restaurant. It would be accessible, casual and affordable. It'd be food-focused but comfortable. It'd be about the people who worked there and creating a community. I've eaten at a lot of high-end restaurants; but my most favorite meals are the ones where I'm sitting at a bar, eating with friends. That's the energy I want to create! This style of restaurants is gaining more and more respect and I think more and more people are gravitating towards those kinds of dining experiences because it's affordable and fun without having to compensate on the quality of food.
I think that what's so different about food and restaurants today is Instagram. We're all connected and influences are coming from everywhere now. People used to have one mentor, one chef who you worked with for a couple of years, maybe 10 or 20, and after that, you could open a restaurant. From there you were probably going to put out your mentor's food with a slight twist, but it's not like that anymore. People get inspiration from not just one source now, it's from all over the world. We had this really cool event call 'First Harvest' at the Willows every year, where we'd invite 5 chefs around the world to cook with us for a week. We had amazing chefs, some of the best in the world coming in each year. It's interesting because all chefs have different backgrounds which makes them unique in the way they cook. Using the same ingredients that we use on a daily basis, they come up with something totally different. That opened up our minds.
After all these experiences and being lucky enough to travel around the world, having the opportunity to eat and spend time at different kitchens, I think it comes down to cook what you want to eat and the way you want to eat. Cook what feels right. I think you always have to be intuitive about it. For me, I would definitely work seasonally, listen to the ingredients and cook what's exciting to me at the moment; but there is so much accessibility today that you can become so overwhelmed so quickly, so you kind of just have to listen to yourself.
I think in the end, what's keeping me in the industry now is the community. I love cooking and I love the history of food. I'm learning about new techniques and new ingredients every day, but what I enjoy the most is working with awesome people and sharing what we've created with other people. The Willows was such a tiny restaurant, but we had people who came 3–7 times a year. They would make a reservation, come to the restaurant just to hang out with the staff and see their friends. The kinds of connections I made there with people have actually been what's fun for me. That happening through the vehicle of food (and I happen to love food so that's great) and the community it has fostered has been amazing which is why moving forward I want that to be the focus of what's ideal.
“You need to keep tasting things if you haven't found your thing” - Gary Vaynerchuk
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