At Blaine Wetzel’s Willows Inn, Employees Report Years of Workplace Abuse

The chef Blaine Wetzel first came to Lummi, a tiny island in the San Juan archipelago of Washington State, in 2010. At age 24, he was fresh off a two-year stint at the vaunted Copenhagen restaurant Noma. He could have found a job in any kitchen in the world.

Instead, he’d answered an ad on Craigslist, posted by a chicken farmer who owned a century-old inn on Lummi Island, 100 miles north of Seattle and reachable only by ferry. Sight unseen, Mr. Wetzel had fallen for the island’s ravishing isolation — fewer than 1,000 people live there full-time — and its unspoiled forests, farms and fisheries.

Since he took over the kitchen at the Willows Inn, it has become a global destination, fully booked nearly every night of its annual season, from April to December. Culinary pilgrims come for multicourse dinners of foraged dandelions, custards infused with roasted birch bark and salmon pulled from Pacific waters they can see from the dining room. After dinner, they float up to one of the luxe-rustic bedrooms, and wake up to wild blackberries and long-fermented sourdough.

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.”

Guests who requested vegetarian and vegan versions of the menu, they said, were routinely served standard dishes made with chicken and seafood. Mr. Wetzel denied this.

“If a cook asked me now if they should go work there, I’d say, ‘It’s not the place you think it is,’” said Julian Rane, a chef from 2017 to 2019.

In response, Mr. Wetzel said “we never misrepresent our ingredient sources,” and described how the Willows grows and sources food on the island. He did not, however, deny that many ingredients come from elsewhere, including organic chickens.

Employees said they were uncomfortable with the lies, but far more troubled by the poisonous work atmosphere.

“The way in which people were abused and belittled there was horrifying,” said Spencer Verkuilen, 28, who said Mr. Wetzel shoved, screamed at and sent him home in full view of customers when he served a course out of order to one table. (Mr. Wetzel denied this; several employees confirmed it.)

“I would go farther than a boys’ club,” said Phaedra Brucato, 33, a former sommelier. “It was ‘eat or be eaten.’”

In recent years, the restaurant industry’s longstanding tolerance of tyrannical chefs has begun to crumble. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have produced new awareness and language regarding inequality, bias and harassment in kitchens. Leading chefs like René Redzepi of Noma and David Chang of Momofuku have acknowledged the harm caused by their past behavior, and many others have vowed to raise professional standards.

But Willows employees said the kitchen atmosphere of misogynistic language and homophobic slurs has remained. 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.

“We used to laugh it off, give Blaine the benefit of the doubt,” said Larry Nguyen, who arrived at the Willows in 2018, having cooked at renowned restaurants like Noma, and Central in Lima, Peru. “We fully believed it was ignorance.”

But last summer, Mr. Nguyen said, after he and another Asian-American chef confronted Mr. Wetzel about using offensive language, including a racist slur directed at them, Mr. Wetzel denied ever having done so. Both chefs resigned within a day. Mr. Weymiller, the sous-chef, also quit in solidarity.

Mr. Wetzel said he had never used racist language of any kind. “My step mom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying.”

Female cooks said that in addition to enduring constant barrages of sexual innuendo from male colleagues, they were consistently blocked from promotion and nudged out of the main kitchen by Mr. Wetzel.

More than 30 women have worked in the kitchen as interns and line cooks, Mr. Wetzel said. But none have been promoted to sous-chef or chef de cuisine; the two women he identified as former sous-chefs there said they had never held that job. (On the innkeeping side, and in the dining room, some women have been promoted to managerial positions.)

Jen Curtis, 39, was a seasoned chef de cuisine when she left a job and went back to culinary school, just so she would be eligible to cook at the Willows as an intern. “The cuisine is what I identify with,” said Ms. Curtis, who grew up on a Cape Cod farm. “Hyperseasonal, coastal, handmade.”

When she was hired full-time, she said, Mr. Wetzel told her she was in line for a sous-chef position. (Many employees said they had heard the same promise, usually when they were on the verge of quitting.) But she said that after two years of watching younger men steadily being promoted ahead of her, and seeing other women chefs ignored, she resigned.

Mr. Wetzel said: “I support female chefs with all my heart (so much so that I married one). Anyone that would claim that I don’t support female chefs is lying.”

Many former employees said they put up with Mr. Wetzel’s offensive language, sexism and bullying, because a recommendation from him is a springboard to any cooking job in the world. But many others left midseason, or walked out midshift.

“There were countless times I tried to get upper management to bring in H.R. to deal with our problems,” said Anne Treat, 42, who was fired in September 2020 after confronting Mr. Wetzel. “There was no interest in why we were constantly losing employees.”

Going to Mr. Johnson, the longtime manager, was the only recourse for the many employees who clashed with Mr. Wetzel. But, they said, Mr. Johnson boasted about a “hands-off” management style that made it unnecessary for him to intervene, and never acted on complaints against Mr. Wetzel.

Mr. Johnson did not comment for this article, but Mr. Wetzel wrote, “Reid Johnson records, reports and acts on every complaint in the workplace in the appropriate manner.”

Mr. Wetzel added that the Willows has “an independent H.R. consultant available at all times,” but would not confirm when the person was hired. Employees said it was during the 2020 season, as the senior staff was resigning en masse and the Willows, like many workplaces, was forced to confront its institutional racism and other problems.

Local girls were assumed by male employees to be sexually mature, they said; “island age” was a running joke. “‘Lummi Island 16’ meant that you were available for sex, and that any kind of creepy and predatory behavior was fine,” said Sarah Letchworth, 21, who was 15 when she started working there. (Several women who worked at the Willows said they did have sex with kitchen crew members. All said it occurred after they turned 16, the legal age of consent in Washington State. None said Mr. Wetzel had sex with staff members.)

Many employees said Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Johnson were frequently present at events where underage employees drank with older staff members until they were unconscious. When Ms. Letchworth was 18, she said, Mr. Wetzel offered her a ride home from a party but instead drove to his house, then refused to take her home unless she did rounds of shots with him. He then drove her home while drunk, she said. Mr. Wetzel denied this.

“Those girls were our sisters and our daughters,” said Kari Southworth, 43, who grew up on the island, managed the restaurant in its previous incarnation, and stayed until 2014, when, she said, the Willows’ celebration of the island had turned into exploitation. “They treat the community with no respect,” she said.

The pandemic proved to be a breaking point. Mr. Wetzel reopened the restaurant in June, and in the fall, at least one Covid-19 case on the island was traced to a guest at the inn.

“They were bringing people over on the ferry every night,” said Rhaychell Davis, a former employee who lives on the island with her two daughters. “And they stayed silent about it while we all were panicking.”

The Willows managers said that they feared for the safety of guests, staff and islanders, and that Mr. Wetzel’s response underlined leadership failures that had been accumulating for years.

“The island is beautiful, the people are kind, the seafood is incredible, just like he says,” said Mr. Nguyen, 32, the chef who resigned because of Mr. Wetzel’s denials. “But our faith was broken.”

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