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What You Need to Know About the Troubling Times Report on the Willows Inn

Grub Street logo Grub Street 4/27/2021 Rachel Sugar

At 24, Noma alum Blaine Wetzel took over the kitchen at the Willows Inn on remote Lummi Island, tucked off the northwestern corner of Washington State, and began racking up accolades, turning the award-winning Willows into a destination for diners in search of multicourse feasts made exclusively from ingredients found, fished, and foraged on the island. But according to a series of allegations in a new report from Julia Moskin at the New York Times, the restaurant’s idyllic facade has been hiding an “ugly reality that includes routine faking of ‘island’ ingredients, physical intimidation and verbal abuse by Mr. Wetzel, including racist, sexist and homophobic slurs; and sexual harassment of female employees by male kitchen staff members.”

Thirty-five current and former Willows employees spoke to the Times about their experiences in Wetzel’s kitchen — another entry into what is now an all-too-familiar canon. While it’s absolutely worth a read in its entirety, here are the key points you need to know.

Ingredients Aren’t Always Local

Part of Wetzel’s claim to fame is that all the food at the Willows was said to be made using only ingredients from the island, but all 35 employees the Times spoke to said that most of the ingredients are in fact ordered from distributors and farms on the mainland. They cited “Pacific octopus” that was actually from Spain and Portugal, “wild” venison that actually came from a farm in Idaho, and “roasted chicken drippings” made in big batches from (organic) Costco chickens. Supermarket beets and broccoli were also allegedly passed off as products of the island. “On my first day, I was cutting frozen Alaskan scallops down to the shape and size of pink singing scallops,” one former line cook told the Times.

The Work Environment Was “Toxic”

Staffers — many of whom have since resigned — report a “toxic” and “nightmarish” workplace culture, alleging Wetzel’s behavior went beyond normal kitchen autocracy and “often crossed the line into abuse,” according to the Times. “I could go farther than a boys’ club,” a former sommelier said of the atmosphere. “It was ‘eat or be eaten.’” Multiple employees report that, despite a growing awareness of racism, sexism, and discrimination in top kitchens, “misogynistic language” and “homophobic slurs” were standard at Willows. Wetzel reportedly “publicly humiliated cooks whose work displeased him, often using a derogatory term for mentally disabled people to disparage them,” and also “used racist language to describe Latino employees and Asian customers.”

Female Chefs Were Passed Over for Promotions

While more than 30 women have worked in the kitchen as interns and line cooks, Wetzel told the Times, none of them were ever promoted to sous-chef or chef de cuisine, and two women Wetzel identified as former sous-chefs told the Times they’d “never held that job.” One female chef was told she was in line for a sous-chef position, “after two years of watching younger men steadily being promoted ahead of her, and seeing other women chefs ignored, she resigned.” On this and other issues, upper management, they say, was unresponsive.

Furthermore, according to the report, “Female employees from the island said Mr. Wetzel and other managers ordered them to lose weight and get manicures and eyelash extensions at their own expense, in order to polish the image the restaurant wanted to project.” (A charge that Wetzel denies.)

The Willows Has Had Multiple Labor Violations

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor found that the Willows had violated federal labor law by forcing employees to work 14-hour days for “as little as $50,” and using “stagiaires” — unpaid interns — as free labor. As a result, the inn was fined $149,000 and “forced” to end the intern program.

Then, this past March, Wetzel agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by 99 employees over “various forms of wage theft.” Those include “misappropriation of tips,” not paying overtime, and not providing adequate breaks to employees working 14-hour days. The settlement did not, however, require him to admit any wrongdoing.

Restaurant Staff “Constantly Harassed” Teenage Employees

A dozen female employees say that men from the Willows’ kitchen crew “constantly harassed teenage employees from the island with sexual overtures and innuendo, pressured them to stay after work hours to ‘party,’ and plied them with alcohol and drugs to make them compliant.” The report goes further: “Local girls were assumed by male employees to be sexually mature, they said; ‘island age’ was a running joke,” a reference to the legal age of consent in Washington State, which is 16.

Wetzel Has Offered Broad Denials of These Allegations

Wetzel denies that he ever misrepresented how his ingredients were sourced, though he did not deny that many (including the chickens) came from elsewhere. He assured the Times he has never used any racist language: “My step mom and brother are Chinese, my wife is Mexican, and anyone that would claim I was racist is lying.” He disputes allegations of sexism on similar grounds. “I support female chefs with all my heart (so much so that I married one),” he wrote in an email to the Times. “Anyone that would claim that I don’t support female chefs is lying.”

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