octupus dish photo courtesy of wd-50

A Conversation with Wylie Dufresne

It was recently announced that Chef Wylie Dufresne, one of the leaders of the country's modernist cooking movement, would be closing down the acclaimed, 11-year-old wd~50 on New York City's Lower East Side. Dufresne has gained national recognition for his cutting-edge creativity, receiving awards including the 2013 James Beard Award for "Best Chef New York City" and a Michelin star, which he has maintained every year at wd~50 since the founding of the Michelin's first American edition, in 2006.

The restaurant's closure is a set-back that we are sure will open up many new opportunities for the famed chef, who, prior to striking out on his own, served as sous chef at Jean Georges in New York City and chef de cuisine at Prime in The Bellagio, Las Vegas. Today, Dufresne also oversees the kitchen at Alder in New York City's East Village, a restaurant that reflects a more approachable interpretation of his modernist leanings. Earlier this year, we spoke to Dufresne about his influences, his unique perspective and what's next for him as a chef.

How your passion for food translated into a career in this business?

I think my joy of eating has translated into a curiosity about how things are made. You know, whether I’m eating sushi, and I wonder how that piece of fish is cut or butchered, or want to learn more about the rice-making process, or I’m at a diner and am fascinated by the short-order cook and what he or she is doing behind the counter.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know anything. I’m a curious person, so it’s been exciting to me to realize that cooking is an opportunity for continuing education; it will never end....No one will ever know everything; it’s mathematically impossible. I was in Mission Cantina the other night eating Danny [Bowien]’s food. And I’m not a particularly good student of Mexican cooking...But, you know, the fact that he’s making his own tortillas and the nixtamalization [cooking corn to prepare it for masa dough] that’s involved...There are times when I certainly can figure out how somebody did something. But I don’t know how exactly one makes corn tortillas, and, while it’s a simple thing that’s been made by simple people for centuries, it’s still fascinating to me because it’s something that I don’t know how to do.

You got your degree in philosophy at Colby College. What led you to cooking?

I went through life as an average student. It wasn’t until I found a love of cooking and was able to really apply my curiosity to it that I excelled. No one at Colby College remembers me for my academic achievements. When I stumbled upon the kitchen, I realized that I had found something that I wanted to do. I had learned how to learn [with philosophy], so I just transferred that onto the subject of cooking. I take a very academic approach to cooking, but it was accidental that I was drawn to cooking.

Do you know what it was that initially made you start applying yourself and wanting to learn everything about food?

I realized that playing team sports and working kitchens were very similar, and cooking was the closest I was ever going to get to playing professional sports. There’s a lot of similarities between the kitchen and sports. The life lessons that you find in sports, you find in kitchens, and the experiences that you find in team sports, you find in kitchens. The physical aspect, the mental aspect, the hierarchy, the layout.

The fact that there is a chef and a coach overseeing a sous chef and a team captain—and practice players are sort of like prep cooks. The first half of the day is preparing for the second half of the day, which is a lot like going to practice before the big game. There's an anxiety level, the redemptive quality, the fact that you missed a layup, or you struck out. Or you overcooked a piece of fish, but you’ve gotta do it again and again and again....Each time, you have a opportunity to try and do it better than you did the time before.

You thought you could excel in this career.

I didn’t think I could excel; I hadn’t done anything that I enjoyed as much. I hadn’t done anything that moved me. I was slated to go spend a year as a ski bum in New Mexico. But I blew out my knee skiing in college, so I couldn’t go. And I started thinking, “Well, why don’t I go, you know, go be a cook?” Because it’s the only thing that I’ve done that really moved me the way playing sports had. I mean, I would be a professional athlete if I was as good at sports as I am at cooking.

How have you changed since you first started out in the kitchen? 

Well, I was always committed, but I was green, and I’m no longer green. I have 21 years under my belt of professional cooking, so I’m more comfortable. Back then I had a different role. I wanted to be the best line cook I could be, I wanted to be the best cook in the room. I wanted to be better than everybody else.... I had the mindset of an athlete, like, “I’m going to be better than all the people here, I want to be better”. “Who’s the best one in the room?” “I’m going to size that one up. I’m going to try and do whatever he or she is doing better than they’re doing it. Whatever it is they know, I want to know”. And I became a voracious consumer of knowledge. Early on in my career, I spent all my money on cookbooks....I still continue to invest in them.

Did you have any particular mentors?

Early on in my career, I was lucky to work for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. He was probably the person that’s left the deepest impression on me. I’m lucky he’s still a partner in this restaurant; I was on the phone with him yesterday. He’s someone who I consider a mentor, but now I consider a friend as well. Still to this day, when I think about food, whether consciously or subconsciously, he’s very much a part of my process.

What are some of the lessons that he imparted that stuck with you the most?

Simplicity. He showed me the value in taking away, taking things off of a plate. He always talked about two, three, four elements on a plate. That’s it. The more you put on the plate, the easier it is to hide. The more you take away, there’s nowhere to hide—it has to be good. More than just about anyone I can think of, he has done a great job sort of melding traditional European style with some of the Asian influences. He took traditional French food and lightened it. He took all the cream and the stocks and replaced them with juices and oils. It’s still, to this day, very compelling to me. 

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Wylie Dufresne in the wd~50 kitchen. [Photo from newyorkkitchen.net]

Tell me about the reality of running a restaurant versus working in restaurants earlier in your career.

Well, it’s very different. I think it goes without saying that it’s easier to be an employee than it is to be an employer at times. When you become a manager, you’re responsible for more people. As a line cook, you’re responsible for your own sort of small, little world. As an employer, obviously, you have a bottom line, you have investors, you have to somehow try to make a profit. You just take on more weight as you move up the ladder. You have to see a much larger picture as you become a restaurant owner.

So not only do you have to think about the little things, but you also have to think about the larger things and all things in between. But if the myth of Sisyphus is compelling, if you don’t mind pushing the rock up the hill—if you can find the joy in the doing, as Camus said—then it’s great; you don’t mind moving that rock. But you feel a responsibility for other people. I have, between the wd~50 and Alder, 55 employees, and I have to look out for them and worry about them and make sure that they’re okay, as well as the clientele. But I see all of those things not as a burden but as a joy.

What brought about the second restaurant? What was the opportunity there, or were you looking?

We can take wd~50 and put the restaurant in a place that’s not as hard to get to, because we’re still a destination. Like, you could come to Alder for just a bite and a drink. Or a drink and a bite. It’s not as much of a commitment. You don’t have to come for a tasting menu. It’s not as expensive—you can get in and out. The average check is $55 [for Alder] versus $165 [for wd~50].

Like I said, I surely don’t favor one over the other; obviously, they’re both very important to me, and Alder doesn’t exist without wd~50. So Alder is hopefully standing out for the quality and the approach. It’s a boat in a pond full of other boats; wd~50 is in a pond all by itself.

Are there any particular restaurants, chefs, or cuisines that are inspiring you right now?

I’m on a bit of a Japanese kick right now. We don’t know much about Japanese cooking as a culture, even as cooks, and the more I learn about Japanese cooking techniques, the more intrigued I am. It’s very labor-intensive and very complicated stuff that is presented in a way that’s very simple. So you don’t see the labor behind it, and that’s what I find beautiful. It seems effortless, but yet there’s layers and layers behind it.

I’m always intrigued by what the Spanish are up to. Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastián [in Spain], is probably one of the smartest and more clever chefs in the world today. Whatever Heston Blumenthal is up to I find compelling. And then, of course, I always return to France, because that was sort of my first love and where I started in terms of cuisine and the cooking styles that I was drawn to initially.

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Dishes of wd~50. [Photo from chefhermes.com]

How much stock do you put into restaurant criticism and awards and stars?

I think that there’s always going to be an interesting relationship between those that do and those whose job it is to critique those that do. Whether you’re a writer or an athlete or a painter or a chef, there’s going to be people whose job it is to critique what you do because that’s the nature of the beast. Maybe it’s the philosopher in me that sees it that way. But there is inherently an unease between them. You go into it knowingly. Very few of us are blindsided by the fact that suddenly, we’re reviewed by the New York Times.

Or that we did or didn’t get a Michelin star. You can’t say, “Well, that’s not fair.”, you can’t stomp your feet. You signed up for it. This is the name of the game. When a restaurant gets an award or a star or recognition in some sense, it’s an acknowledgement that the team is really working on all cylinders, the team is being effective. So yes, it’s nice for me personally, but it’s more satisfying for me because it’s acknowledgement for a lot of people who are often anonymous in the process. You can’t say that this is a four-star restaurant or a three-star Michelin restaurant without acknowledging that there’s a bunch of people whose faces you’ll never see, killing themselves for you. It lets those anonymous people know that, in fact, people are seeing the details.

You've been on Treme, Top Chef, MasterChef, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and more. Do you have a favorite experience after being on so many different shows?

It’s not something that I ever expected to come my way; it was very serendipitous. I do think that Top Chef, which I’ve done the most, has been really enjoyable. But I feel lucky, you know, whether it was Treme or Top Chef or local news. Again, it was never a goal, it was never something I set out to do, so I feel fortunate that it’s been an unexpected part of what I do.

Do you have a current dream, goal, or mission you’re working toward or that you could envision?

I have a couple more ideas that I’d like to sort of spring on the world and see if they’ve got legs, but I don’t have like a plan for world domination or something. You know, I’d like to continue to grow. I’d like to continue to take the restaurants that I have and operate and continually make them better.

I’d like to continue to improve. Hopefully as an individual, as a parent, as a leader, as a chef, as a restaurant owner. Take better care of our customers, better care of our staff. Just see how we can make it a pleasurable place to work. Make it a good organization to be a part of. That sort of thing.

What are you looking for when you’re hiring?

I’m just looking for somebody that has the right attitude. That has a willingness to learn. I just want people that are willing to think. And I mean that in a broader sense—people who don’t want to just charge ahead but stop and say, “Why am I doing it this or that way?”

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[photo from thebraiser.com]

For people who are studying culinary arts now or thinking about getting into the industry, do you have advice?

It’s harder than people think it is. I think to excel at anything or be good at anything, there has to be a lot of personal sacrifice. A good support team around you, whether that be family or loved ones. Whether you want to be the greatest, you know, stamp-licker in the world, or an Olympian or a painter, you have to be willing to make some sacrifices. You have to be willing to love the miles.

Any last words for students who are just starting out in the restaurant world?

Don’t email your resume. Drop it off in person. If you didn’t take the time to walk in here, I’m not going to take the time to read it. If you take the time to walk into the restaurant with your resume, somebody from the kitchen will walk out and shake your hand and look you in the eye. But if you email it to us, it won’t even get to us.

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