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Still or Sparkling? The Future of HyperDining

By Ronald Holden

An elite clientele prepared to pay outrageous prices for meticulously assembled dishes, surrounded by. servers circulating like surgical nurses while a brigade of culinary priests in white vestments hover over the next offering in an immaculate kitchen. This is the scene of comedy: Hyper-Dining.

Anthony Bourdain wasn't the first to glamorize, in Kitchen Confidential two decades ago, the boozy, drug-fueled, testosterone-driven life of restaurant line cooks, but he did it with an elegant, disarming panache that we haven't seen since. Today, the ultra-high end of haute cuisine is once again under scrutiny, and it's not really a surprise that outrageously offensive behavior often extends to the top levels of top restaurants. The demands in those kitchens to create gastronomic perfection on every plate are costly, financially as well as emotionally. We critics may deplore vain exhibitions of tweezer food, but as civilian diners, our expectations remain high; customers at fine-dining establishments do not tolerate slap-dash food or indifferent service, especially when the price of a meal is in the three figures.

Chefs, feeling the pressure, spiral higher and higher; their dishes become increasingly rarefied and pricey. Diners (with ready access to cameras and social media) become increasingly critical. And restaurant employees feel increasingly emboldened to critique a system that for generations has depended on the system of slave labor known as internships.

The film "The Menu," currently streaming on Hulu, is just the most recent example. A generation ago, Luis Buñuel made two satirical films along these lines ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "Exterminating Angel"), and there's not a lot that hasn't been grilled and dissected since then on the farm-to-table-to- landfill continuum: chefs are perfectionist jerks ("Burnt," "The Bear," "Boiling Point"), diners are obsessive fools. At best, in this view, dining is merely a subversive act; at worst, it's seditious, and the penalty for treason is, gulp, execution. So yes, "The Menu" is a dark comedy where almost everyone dies. (Sorry, spoiler.) Extreme suffering is now a side-effect of dining out, not just for the staff but for the diner as well.

But "The Menu" comes at a time when one of the most famous restaurants in the world, Noma, in Copenhagen, has announced it is shutting down its public dining room. And Washington State's most famous "worth the trip" destination, the Willows Lodge on Lummi Island, has blown itself up.

Noma's chef, René Redzépi, is pivoting from super-intense meals (reindeer penis, duck brain) to a "lab" that will devote itself to culinary research and only-occasional pop-up meals.

The Willows Lodge, having booted its disgraced chef, Blaine Wetzel, for sexual improprieties and illegal treatment of interns, announced last month that its idyllic property is being donated to a homeless shelter in Bellingham. Seattle freelance writer Joe Ray, who moved to Lummi for a year to write a cookbook with Williams (Sea and Smoke), has the inside track for the inside dope, and is no doubt crafting his inside story for momentary release. For the rest of us, this recital:

Willows Inn started out as a rustic retreat, then morphed into a luxury resort. The chef, recruited via an ad on Craigslist, and with cred as a cook at world-class Noma no less, pledged to use only ingredients foraged or grown on the island. Dinner for two with wine pairings and overnight accommodation could easily come to $1,000.

Blaine Wetzel, April 2017

One of those "too good to be true" stories. Turned out, ingredients might also come from mainland supermarkets, including Costco and Target. Turned out, young stagiaires weren't always paid. Turned out, female staff members were regularly harassed and abused. Turned out, Chef Wetzel and the owners of the Willows Inn kept settling complaints from federal agencies, paying out some $2 million in fines.

Then it all came crashing down.

The Willows closed down for the season in late 2022, just before Thanksgiving. Wetzel's wife, a chef named Daniela Soto-Innes, told reporters at an out-of-state culinary conference that the couple planned to open a new restaurant near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Then the local family that owned Willows signed the $2 million property over to a non-profit in Bellingham. The Willows Inn had ceased to exist.

As for Riley Starks, the fisherman who was the property's original owner, he moved back to his five-acre B&B farmhouse inn. Starks no longer puts out to sea, preferring instead to operate a reef-fishing business closer to shore; a seaweed farm is on the horizon. Having recruited Wetzel over a decade ago, Starks is appalled at how quickly the good burghers of Lummi turned on the man who had brought fame to the island. Appalled as well by a national newspaper's hit job, written by its go-to reporter for stories about workplace sexual harassment. (Deets: the NY Times, Julia Moskin.)

Is it really the end? The non-profit beneficiary of the donation could still sell or lease the property to a new restaurant operator, of course. But the great undiscovered gem of the Pacific Northwest, the beacon of geoduck, locally foraged mushrooms, and odd combinations (broth of roasted madrona bark, anyone?) is g-gone for good.

* * *

Fortunately, there's an antidote to HyperDining. Take, for example, Le Pichet, a 20-year-old French bistro abutting Seattle's Pike Place Market.

The story starts three decades ago when Jim Drohman, a Boeing engineer, fulfilled a lifelong dream by moving to France. He enrolled at Le Ferrandi cooking academy in Paris, and, when he returned to Seattle, got a job cooking on the line at the original Campagne. He met Joanne Heron (his wife Sheila's uncle, Joe McDonal, introduced them), and, as business partners, Heron and Drohman opened Le Pichet in August of 2000. Seattle had never seen anything quite like it. Unapologetically French, focus on classic dishes but, get this, without the usual French attitude.

Biggest favorites bistro standards like steak-frites and roast chicken, but unusual dishes as well. Biggest hits? Petite salade verte (bibb lettuce with hazelnut dressing), gâteau aux foie de volaille (chicken liver terrine, $11 for a slice). The best chocolate dessert in town is the Chocolat Chaud. ($8) Parisian-style hot chocolate made to order and served with whipped cream. You can try to drink this, but you're really better off enjoying it one spoon at a time.

"Le Pichet is the first place I go when I get back to Seattle," says a New York journalist who left town almost a decade ago. "And I make the gâteau in my tiny kitchen in Brooklyn."

The Oeufs Plat, Jambon et Fromage is another dish that looks incredibly simple. Ham & eggs topped with melted Gruyère cheese. What could be simpler? "We take modest products and turn them into tasty food," Drohman says. Food that pleases Drohman himself. You can't get a Caesar salad at Le Pichet, certainly no caviar. It's not an "I want" restaurant for fussy diners, it's a "show me" place for 32 eaters at a time, lucky enough to eat whatever Drohman and his kitchen turn out.

Steak frites at Le Pichet

And now, two decades after opening Le Pichet, Drohman and his wife are leaving Seattle. The restaurant has been sold to two long-time employees, Michael Chick and Marcel Boulanger. The Drohmans will move fulltime to their "country house" in Orthez, a medieval town of 10,000 in the Basque country of southwestern France. It sits on a tributary of the Pau river, dominated by the Pic du Midi and is the birthplace of superstar chef Alain Ducasse. Drohman's blog recounts the painstaking process of acquiring all the needed documents, no small feat.

I understand the appeal of living among the natives in a foreign country, specifically a small town in France; I did it myself, mid-career, and adored it. So did the kids. Came back after three years when the money ran out, had to start over. Still, highly recommended.

February 2023

Ronald Holden, a longtime contributor, is the author of Forking Seattle.

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