An Interview with Chef Wylie Dufresne
I have to admit even after ten years of talking to chefs with a pad and pen in my hand, I am still nervous before an interview, but today I was meeting Wylie Dufresne chef owner of New York eatery wd~50 and I was all twisted…
With my brave face on, I entered the restaurant; then I heard it belting out of the kitchen - not the chef shouting, but Bob Dylan singing. “Sweet” I thought, “this guy’s gonna be cool!”
Wylie Dufresne was born in 1970 in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of a designer and a restaurateur. In 1977 he moved to New York. In 1992, he completed a B.A. in philosophy at Colby College, Maine.
After college Wylie enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York and was then employed at Jo Jo's from 1994 to 1997. Wylie was hired to work on the opening of Jean Georges, eventually becoming the sous chef. In 1998 Dufresne was hired as chef de cuisine at Vongerichten's Prime in The Bellagio, Las Vegas. In 1999 he left Prime to become the first chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, a 30-seat restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side where his father, Dewey, was a partner. The restaurant's mission was "fine dining in a casual atmosphere." The restaurant was a great success and garnered much favorable press attention, in spite of a Lilliputian kitchen.
Dufresne opened wd~50 (named for the chef's initials and the street address), a 70-seat restaurant with a state-of-the-art kitchen, in April of 2003, on Clinton Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In 2006, in the Michelin Guide's inaugural American edition, wd~50 received one star, which it has retained through 2009.
An interview with Wylie Dufresne
G.C. - Is your food “molecular gastronomy”?
W.D. - That’s really become a dirty word… Scientists are molecular gastronomists; I am a chef. I am lucky enough to have relationships with some of those scientists, learn from them and use that knowledge in the right way, but it is a mistake to say we practice molecular gastronomy, a chef is a chef a scientist is a scientist.
G.C. - Why do you term it a dirty word?
W.D. - It just does not sound appealing, you just can’t hear people using it can you “hey you want to go out for dinner, Italian, Japanese, molecular gastronomy?” My food is modern American, hyper modern or progressive.
G.C. - How do you see molecular gastronomy affecting the way we cook (professionally)?W.D. - For me, it’s important that the knowledge I gain is used correctly in the kitchen and that the knowledge is applied towards creativity. I think for our industry it has created a culture of questioning. We now question what is happening to our foods during the transition from prepared to finish rather than just processing. Chefs want to understand why things happen when they cook; it has created a healthy culture of learning.
G.C. - I see so many new cooks being more interested in molecular gastronomy than in foundational cookery, what do you think?
W.D. - I think that cooks should really avoid that at all cost. Learn the foundations, become proficient with the basics, then progress to cutting edge. If you don’t understand the basics, your foam will be empty.
G.C. - What ingredients have you been most successful with and which do you find challenging?
W.D. - I love eggs. They are so versatile and exciting; there is so much you can do with them. Vegetables on the other hand can be a challenge. I am not saying that I don’t love them; they are delicious but hard to work with and process in new, creative ways.
G.C. - What the latest technique you have been working with?
W.D. - I have been aerating foie gras… making a terrine, breaking it, re emulsifying it, then placing it in a food saver type container with a one-way valve. I put the container in the cryovac machine, the pressure aerates the foie. It creates amazing texture and a superlight dish.
G.C. - What inspires you?
W.D. - People, music, my family, my wife… My wife gives me the greatest inspiration and support, she is also my toughest critic.
I am never sure when I will be inspired, so I just make sure I am ready for it when it comes, and that my staff are ready for it too.
G.C. - I read that you were into collaboration in the kitchen, is that true?
W.D. - It is part of my belief. No creative endeavor is truly created by one person. It’s exciting for all involved and it is the success of the restaurant.
G.C. - Will there be a cookbook anytime soon?
W.D. - I am addicted to cookbooks. I have a lot; I could not say how many, but I have quite a few. I have no plans right now to write my own but maybe one day.
G.C. - Which chefs inspire you?
W.D. - Ferran Adria (elBulli - Spain), Rene Redzepi (noma - Denmark) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck - England) are inspirational chefs. On a bigger scale, the food culture of France is an inspiration, as is Japan. When you think about Japan’s food it is so stripped, so simple. It can be just three elements on a plate, but the process to get each of those elements can be far from simple. It can be precise, take discipline and time.
G.C. - What is the best meal you ever had?
W.D. - I do not like to qualify absolutes. The right food at the right time can be the best food; a hot dog at the ball park can equal an amazing 35-course dinner.
G.C. - Can you offer some advice to the chefs of tomorrow?
W.D. - Learn the foundations, be curious and take your time. Be the tortoise not the hare. That’s coming from a tortoise!
As I left the meeting I reflected upon the hour or so that had just past; my pre-interview nerves and anxiety - such a waste of energy. I smiled; I had become a new fan of two much lauded artists, the nerve-calming Bob Dylan and chef Wylie Dufresne – cool guy, culinary philosopher and friend of molecular gastronomists everywhere.
50 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
By Jeremy Emmerson