Willows Inn chef wins James Beard award for best chef in Northwest

The celebrated head chef of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island has been named best chef in the Northwest for the 2015 James Beard awards — a year after he was named one of the top young chefs in America by the James Beard Foundation.

Blaine Wetzel was one of five vying for best chef in the Northwest, which covers Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

The winners were revealed Monday, May 4, in Chicago.

“I’m so honored by this award, in a category filled with great chefs from the Northwest,” Wetzel, 29, said in a statement. “This has been a really amazing year, with so many both great and difficult things happening.”

Wetzel was referring to his life partner, Raquel Ruiz Diaz, who was struck by a drunk driver earlier this year while jogging during a visit to her homeland of Paraguay. She was seriously injured but is rehabilitating.

“My friends and family have been so wonderful to me, and far exceeded all expectations in the past few months,” Wetzel said. “The support from other chefs, many here with me in Chicago, and around the entire industry for my partner Raquel has been truly touching.”

Several chefs and restaurants have helped raise money for her hospital expenses. She also is the restaurant manager for The Willows Inn.

This was the fifth straight year that Wetzel was at least a semifinalist, and his third year as a finalist.

Other Northwest finalists and their restaurants were:

• Renee Erickson, The Whale Wins in Seattle.

• Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, Joule in Seattle.

• Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, Ox in Portland, Ore.

• Justin Woodward, Castagna, in Portland, Ore.

In 2014, Wetzel shared the prestigious Rising Star Chef of the Year honor with Jimmy Bannos Jr. of The Purple Pig in Chicago.

It was the first such tie.