Lummi Island and the Willows Inn ( or as the NYT stated, “Idyllic Island, Toxic Workplace” 4/28/21)

The New York Times just ran a spread (Idyllic Island, Toxic Workplace 4/28/21) that obliterated one of our top epicurean fantasies.

Back in 2019, we had saved up to splurge for a Birthday celebration for Michele at the Willows Inn. We had stayed at the Inn before the “Before Blaine Wetzel” era. Before the place was on the map following gushing reviews in major papers. For us, the Willows Inn had been a quiet retreat situated on Lummi Island. A short ferry ride from the Lummi reservation took us to a less traveled island in the Puget Sound. Lummi Island had always been that mysterious place on the horizon across Bellingham Bay when I was growing up in Bellingham. (Orcas had been our retreat at the time when we were lucky to stay at a neighbor’s cabin.) Getting to Lummi meant driving through the rez, through a world unknown to me except for the annual salmon bakes and wild canoe races. The Lummi people were not a wealthy tribe at the time, rich in culture but not in financial equity. Now they have a casino, so perhaps they share some wealth. Houses were aging in the mossy forest. Old cars rusted in driveways.

On the last visit to Willows Inn, during the off-season several years ago, we and one family were the only visitors. In chatting, it turned out the father was the author of the first Lonely Planet guide to Cuba. He had led bike tours there and Lonely Planet brought him on. It was serendipitous, since we had been scheming for years on how to visit Cuba. [We did eventually make it – see Cuba-The Loveliest Land page on my blog.]

Even then, the food was well presented and lovely with taste treats…but nothing extraordinary by New York food critic standards.

This time, we booked the Willows Inn cabin near the main lodge and settled in.

We budgeted for one dinner and one breakfast at the Willows Inn. The rest of our meals would be elsewhere on the island, or we would make snacks at the cabin.

Preparations for dinner were underway around the BBQ pit as we approached the main lodge to check in for our reservations. All tables were outside. This was to be a total al fresco immersive experience. Having been forewarned, we dressed accordingly but some other guests were in lovely but thin diaphanous fabrics. Space heaters above some of the tables…(except ours), gave you some indication of the possible complications. Blankets on the seats were another clue.

As the twenty plus courses arrived, most of the women started to cover themselves in wool, losing the au couture look, though we were all still cozily wrapped in privilege. Don’t cry for me, bartender. But I must say, since the morsels were tiny, and the air was chilly, some guests started looking as desperate as the Donner Party.

Each course was basically a mouthful, with a few exceptions. We were sampling the “Best of the NW” ingredients from Lummi Island…supposedly. And getting chilled to the bone. Since pneumonia should not be part of the aftertaste of any epicurean indulgence, we requested to move inside near the fire for coffee and dessert. Soon other guests chose the warmth over the fresh air. When your are investing in a meal, you do not want to suffer too much.

The Willows Inn breakfast was served all at once, like on a Thali plate, with multiple bowls of organic goodies. This was a vast improvement over the outdoor dining. We had hot coffee and tea, and we were inside…and comfortable. The staff appeared more relaxed. And we could linger.

We thought it worth another visit to Lummi Peak for the beautiful view spot high above the Rosario Strait, with views of Orcas Island and beyond. We made sure not to step too far back for the selfie. It’s a long way down.

The artist Ann Morris opens up her Sculpture Woods once a month on the first Saturday (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.). Her gallery is open by appointment only. After a long conversation with Ann, we toured her studio to check out her boat sculptures. One of the boats sailed away with us, dangling from the coat hooks over the back seat. It bobbed and swayed with the waves of cross drafts.

Ann Morris’s earlier works are much more substantial metal sculptures of mythical proportions that inhabit the landscape.

The Beach Store Cafe offered a reasonably priced and very nice dinner. The cafe was packed with locals. People stopped by to chat with other diners. Two elder sisters next to us seemed to be the main attraction. This was much closer to the island life I was familiar with on Orcas.

So chock it up to Ignorance is Bliss, but our stay was restful, soothing and tasty. We used the time to recuperate from the stress we had been living with for a good while.

Yes, we regret that so much abuse was taking place at the time, according to the NYT report. Mea Culpa. (And I am shocked that the some of the tasty morsels might not have really come from the island.. the Horror, the Horror.) The Willows Inn did finally reach a monetary settlement, and the chef and management claim they will do better. Right. But this is yet again another tale of arrogant chefs taking advantage of their staff, and many staff being too intimidated to do anything about the abuse. The culture of commercial kitchens needs a revolutionary movement to overturn the modern day tribal lords. As Che Guevara must had said at least once, Viva La Revolucion!

About Whittoons

Cartoonist, and community organizer who has covered the globe as a doodlebugger, gandydancer, supernumerary steward, Able Bodied Seaman, Wireman, monkey man, Night Baker and dishwasher, Hobo, hitchhiker and husband.
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