Mary von Krusenstiern is an early riser.
Up and on the road before dawn, she leaves her Glacier home in time to catch the 6:30 morning ferry to Lummi Island. Five minutes from the dock is Loganita Farm, where she grows herbs and vegetables for The Willows Inn, just down the road, where renowned chef Blaine Wetzel works closely with Mary, his culinary gardener, throughout the seasons.
I first met Mary when Steve McMinn and Julie Trimingham, the owners of Loganita, asked me to use their vegetables while fashioning a summer lunch for the makers of Taylor guitars. I knew my luncheon would be a success, because when I visit the farm, the first thing I see are rows of raised beds with healthy, vibrant vegetables. Leading me through the garden with easy strides and a knowing eye, Mary picks a handful of miniature cucumbers, pops one into her mouth, hands me a few and, while munching, exclaims, “Aren’t these great!” She is a chef’s delight.
Each fall, Mary and Blaine meet to talk about what needs to be grown for the coming year. Together, they select vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that look pretty and have fine flavors. She prepares the greenhouses and land for the winter, then patiently waits for the earth and air to say when it’s time to plant.
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Blaine, this year’s co-winner of the prestigious James Beard Rising Star Chef Award, hosts a yearly event he calls First Harvest. He invites chefs of distinction from around the country and Europe to create artfully tasty seasonal food, rub elbows, and have fun. Knowing that, Mary asked him, “Want anything special for First Harvest?”
“Caraflex cabbage and fields of vegetables!” replied Blaine, who has a special fondness for the pointy-headed cabbage popular in Europe.
Mary reflected on their plan and added harukei turnips, which, if eaten raw and unpeeled, are crispy and sweet, almost fruity.
For this year’s First Harvest, Blaine invited Joshua Skenes of Saison, the San Francisco culinary mecca; Matt Lightner of New York Cities’ Michelin-starred Altera; and two young rising stars from Copenhagen, Nicolai Norregaard of Kadeau and Matthew Orlando of Amass. Ignoring the adage “too many cooks spoil the soup,” Blaine knows that with Mary’s garden, the nearby sea, and his guidance, it will be a symphony.
Arriving a day before the First Harvest dinners on Sept. 22 and 23, the chefs briefly consult with Blaine, then speed away for a fast sockeye salmon fishing adventure before rushing back to the farm, where Mary is ready to greet them. They admire her orderly, raised beds bursting with green and colorful edibles, then enthusiastically scatter, plucking this and tasting that. They each cradle a bowl of freshly snipped garnish as they hurry back to Mary with explicit gathering and cleaning instructions for the rest of their order. She takes detailed notes and begins to prepare their personalized bins.
Skenes wants red beets with trimmed tops, daikon and black radishes with full tops, plus rhubarb, turnips and rutabaga.
Lightner insists on autumn colors and sunset reflected in his baskets of vegies, with bright and burnt yellows, oranges and browns. He especially requests arugula dark on the outside and yellow in the middle.
Orlando, holding on to the end of summer, wants lots of heirloom slicing tomatoes: brandywine, Cherokee purple, and deeply ribbed Italian. He adds tomato vines, Indian sour gurkins, lemon cucumbers, and blackberries — some Mary’s, some foraged.
Norregaard wants to be sure to have tiny inner leaves of cauliflower, tender leaves from Brussels sprouts, and purple chervil in his 80 bunches of baby greens. He adds green zebra tomatoes, ripe strawberries, and as a counterpoint, green, unripe strawberries for their crunchy acidity.
It’s the final evening of the dinners and I am there, overjoyed to have finally secured a seat. In the previous two years, obtaining one was nearly impossible.
In the restaurant I watch Blaine moving calmly with clear intent. There are 15 workers in the kitchen, including his four guests. Everyone is busy with their tasks and looks ready to go.
After cordial pleasantries are exchanged with fellow diners, the meal begins. It flows with a nice beat and tone. Each of the 19 small plates are introduced with measured fanfare by the chefs themselves.
There is Orlando’s dried farm tomatoes, blackberries and lemon cucumber; Lightner’s harukei turnips, Asian pear and hazelnut with grilled geoduck; Skenes’ grilled shrubs and seaweed broth; Norregaard’s shoots from the farm, lovage and unripe strawberries; and Blaine’s radicchio leaves and squid. They all taste better than they look or sound.
It’s a concert with splendid moments, fine tunes, and a couple of minor squeaks. The chefs are serious yet playful as they present dishes reflecting the seasons and tell a story of the land and sea. Their dishes are inventive, naturalistic and pristine, and have delicate, intriguing layers of flavor.
On my plate I pick out what came from Loganita, and enjoy recalling when the Japanese turnips were still growing in the ground.
That night I visited Mary at the farm before dinner and asked if she would be coming to the legendary after-dinner bonfire beach party. It is said to roar on cheerfully until the wee hours, I say, and wine pours freely, with everyone loose and happy to have pulled off another memorable event; and weed is legal too! Yes?
Mary grins, nodding her head, “No, I need to get up early tomorrow. I’m a farmer.”