Whidbey Island Weekend
A farm-to-table restaurant and a winery bed-and-breakfast make for an in-the-moment weekend on Whidbey Island.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
IMAGES COURTESY OF JACK PENLAND
Vincent Nattress pulls a lumpy green pod off the eight-foot-tall vine tangled above his head, snapping it open to reveal the quarter-sized white Corona bean inside. In a few hours, beans just like this will grace a plate of potato gnocchi, crisped country ham, kale, and preserved tomatoes, prepared and served just a few yards away.
Vincent and his wife, Tyla, own and operate Orchard Kitchen, a restaurant and cooking-class venue set on a five-acre plot near Whidbey Island’s southern end. Each weekend, the couple serves an elegant, multi-course menu with optional wine pairings, and nearly every ingredient comes from their three-acre garden or from farms and ranches very nearby.
As the longest island in Puget Sound, Whidbey is a 58-mile squiggle of small towns, state parks, wind-scoured bluffs, and historic farms. There’s a lot to see on Whidbey, which has seen a recent bloom of restaurants, distilleries, and breweries. It’s too much to experience in a single visit, so I concentrate on two destinations on the southern end, near the ferry terminal connecting the mainland: Orchard Kitchen and Comforts of Whidbey.
When I visit Tyla and Vincent, low, gray clouds suffocate the sunlight above their property. The couple is preparing for dinner, but also for winter. In the coming weeks, they’ll dry beans, mill corn, put away squash, and pickle, can, dehydrate, and otherwise preserve darn near everything else.
Their farm-to-table restaurant has operated year-round since it opened in 2015. From fall through the beginning of spring, about half of what Orchard Kitchen cooks and serves was grown on-site. That number jumps to 75 percent when spring firmly takes hold, through July, and leaps to 90 percent from July through early October.
Regardless of the time of year, nearly all of the restaurant’s produce is grown on the island, as is some of the animal protein. They buy produce from hoop houses on the island to supplement the winter harvest, and often add products from island purveyors like Penn Cove Shellfish and goat cheese from Glendale Shepherd. Guests are served at communal tables inside a rehabbed 1920s-era barn that also houses the kitchen.
Several years in, Vincent and Tyla are intimately acquainted with their land and the seasonal rhythms. When the calendar hits February, they know it means seeing the first flowers of the brassicas that they’ve over-wintered. “It’s the answer to the prayer of, ‘What can we serve in winter?’” Vincent says.
Though his enthusiasm for the island is palpable now, as a kid growing up on Whidbey, Vincent couldn’t wait to leave. He landed in Napa Valley after college and spent 16 years moving up the ranks of some of the region’s top restaurants. There, he met Tyla, who was working in the wine industry. “Wine and food brought us together,” Tyla says.
And it brought them much acclaim: The couple opened Roux Restaurant in St. Helena in 2001, and the awards rolled in. In 2005, Vincent became executive chef at Meadowood Napa Valley, a three-star Michelin restaurant. But life’s focus changed once they started a family.
“Once we had two kids, we realized that trying to be owners in Napa was not reasonable,” Vincent says. “We decided to move back to Whidbey, and we had literally taken a piece of poster paper and crayons and drew a barn and a house and a little restaurant cooking school, and an orchard and some goats and chickens.” He sweeps his hands toward the rows of crops and the red barn. “We literally drew this.” Just past the small parking lot, chickens dart under the apple trees Vincent planted soon after they bought the land in 2011.
Tyla and Vincent live on the five-acre property, too, in a small home near the farm stand at the main entrance.
“In Napa, there was a lot of cross-pollination. We were always thinking about what restaurants were doing in San Francisco, New York, and Paris,” Vincent says. “This is about what’s happening when I walk out of my back door. My commute is 40 steps!”
Each Monday, Vincent scans the farm for ingredients and develops a menu based on what’s fresh. He and his team cook a pared-down meal on Thursday nights, at a cheaper price point intended for locals, while ramping up for Saturday night’s four-course finale. And that night also acts as a send-off for that week’s menu: After three days of cooking the dishes, the whole thing is scrapped; Vincent never repeats a dish.
“I’ve cooked in almost 30 restaurants,” Vincent says. “This is about letting the place dictate what the weekly menu is going to be. Opening this restaurant was a tremendous leap of faith for us, and it’s a leap of faith for our guests every week, that they’re going to make a reservation not knowing what the menu is going to be.”
Before experiencing the food myself, I drive to Comforts of Whidbey, a bed-and-breakfast and winery run by another husband-and-wife team, Rita and Carl Comfort.
Near the property’s entrance, rows of grapevines flash the golden hues of fall. Two alpacas recline in the grass beyond the grapes, and they eye my car through tufts of woolly fleece. The property’s main building, which houses the bed-and-breakfast, tasting room, events space, and winery, is impressive, with massive beams that reach toward a view of the strip of Puget Sound separating Whidbey from Camano Island.
Rita and Carl’s story follows a similar arc to that of Vincent and Tyla’s. Carl lived on the island as a teenager, and he and Rita met in the military. They spent 20 years abroad, living in Turkey and Australia, where they started a family — and learned a good deal about wine.
When their children were 10 and 12 years old, they decided to move back to the island.
“We bought this land because we loved the fields, the pastures, the rolling hills, the views,” Carl says. “We didn’t plan on having a winery, but the grapes were already planted. We figured, ‘How tough can it be to grow grapes?’”
There was definitely a learning curve, as it turns out. “It took us five or six years to really even know that small vineyard well and know how to consistently get a harvest,” Carl says.
Carl and Rita sold their grapes to an island winery for the first few years after they bought the property in 2006. But when the harvest of 2009 rolled around, their island winemaker fell seriously ill. Their four acres of vines sagged with ripe fruit.
“I didn’t have the heart to drop 12 tons of fruit,” Carl says. “Rita and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we make wine?’”
Carl relays this story while pouring me samples of their estate white wines: Madeleine Sylvaner, Madeleine Angevine, and Siegerrebe, all of which are unfamiliar to me despite their popularity among Puget Sound vineyards for their suitability to the area’s cool climate. We’re sitting on the winery’s front porch, which looks over a bluff and down to the water.
I can spot the couple’s home and the two-car garage that served as the first production space. There, for five years, Carl managed to learn the ropes of making wine. Along the way, the idea for opening a bigger space that could double as an events rental and bed-and-breakfast came about.
The Comforts smashed the champagne bottle on the new building in 2016, after doing much of the painting, staining, and light-building themselves — just as they care for their cows and alpacas and chickens and fruit trees and wine grapes. “My hands show the story of my farm,” Rita says. “We do all of our pruning, weeding, and picking by hand. This fruit is grown, tenderly picked, and made into wine right here at this winery.”
Each fall, when it comes time for harvest, the Comforts send out a call to members of their mailing list. Neighbors and mainland fans materialize quickly for the last-minute request; there are even some folks who come from Idaho to help. Anywhere from 20 to 75 people descend upon the vineyard, and Rita bakes treats as a thank-you.
When I visit, the year’s harvest of Pinot Noir is in the back of a pick-up truck from that morning’s picking, and I later watch as their perfect globes are pulverized in the wine press. Though they can’t get the red grapes to ripen every year, this summer was warm enough to coax them to maturity. Rita and Carl buy other red varieties — Sangiovese, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec — from Eastern Washington to round out their offerings.
Guests staying in the winery’s six light-filled rooms, with views of the pasture or the Sound, are treated to a flight of wine and a cheese plate at check-in. In the morning, Rita rolls out quite a spread: On my visit, breakfast included two quiches made with eggs from the property’s chickens, a berry cobbler, smoothies, and baked potatoes.
After my final sip at Comforts of Whidbey, I’m back at Orchard Kitchen, sitting down at a communal table next to six strangers I’ll soon share a meal with. We eat family-style, sharing plates and, eventually, swapping names and stories. Vincent kicks things off with the clink of a fork against a wine glass, and we start on a meal of the season’s last tomatoes and beans and berries, and the fall’s first kale and root vegetables: This moment, at this place, captured on a plate.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.