2014 Restaurant of the Year: wd~50
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: wd~50
Once the sous-chef at Jean Georges, Rhode Island-born chef Wylie Dufresne has made a name for himself as one of the leading champions of “molecular gastronomy” in America. He was the first chef of 71 Clinton Fresh Food in 1999, one of the pioneering restaurants of the culinary playground that is now New York’s Lower East Side. This set the stage for Dufresne to open his own place, and in April of 2003, he unveiled wd~50 just down the street from 71 Clinton. It was soon apparent that the chef had created a different kind of restaurant, distinct from others in the city at the time. As renowned mixologist Jim Meehan explained to The Daily Meal, “[Dufresne] was one of the first chefs in New York City to embrace his cocktail program and his pastry department; Sam Mason, Alex Stupak, Christina Tosi, Rosio Sanchez, [and] Malcolm Livingston reads like the starting lineup for the Knicks (during the Ewing years). Besides absolutely dominating every facet of bread and circus in the restaurant itself, Wylie ran his restaurant like a family.”
In 2006, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star (which it never lost), and was included on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2010. Two months after opening, then-Times restaurant critic William Grimes reviewed it, and said of the chef and his restaurant, “Mr. Dufresne, one of the most distinctive culinary talents in New York, takes risks at wd~50. He has a restless artistic temperament, and a total lack of fear.”
It was this “total lack of fear” that made the restaurant a mandatory stop for just about everyone, from food-loving veteran New Yorkers to curious, culinary-explorers visiting the Big Apple. Dufresne’s challenging fare — like octopus confit with sunflower seeds and a sunchoke purée, or his wild interpretation of eggs benedict that included pieces of poached egg, bite-sized cubes of muffin-encrusted hollandaise, and chips of crisped Canadian bacon — drew the attention and admiration of fellow titans of the industry, as well as aspiring young chefs who wanted to know what the next step in cutting-edge, groundbreaking American food looked and tasted like. At least, that was the case until Dufresne was forced to shutter the establishment on November 30, 2014, due to a real estate deal whose construction would make operating the kitchen to his standards impossible. This is our first Restaurant of the Year award, then, to be given — regrettably — posthumously.
Still, wd~50’s pioneering gastronomic legacy lives on, and most likely will for years to come. Many well-known and respected chefs harbor a deep respect for Dufresne and his former establishment, like chef David Chang of East Village neighbor Momofuku, who told The Daily Meal, “How and what Wylie did set a new standard for cooking that became the catalyst for everyone else. It wasn't so much what they cooked, but that they were the first to ask why to cook something and how they could make it better. Serious education became a priority and you couldn't say that about most places anywhere. They were fearless in finding the truth that mattered to them."
Dufresne had always envisioned education as the backbone of wd~50. “My goal was to make it a place for everybody to continue their culinary education,” he explained. When he opened the restaurant, “It was a very loose idea at the time, and it became more refined over the years; I’m glad to stay I think that we achieved that goal.” It is the scientific information and new techniques discovered and refined during the educational process that will be the lasting influence of the establishment, because, as the chef pointed out, “It’s made inroads throughout the industry, and the modern information is being used by just about everyone… [wd~50] wasn’t about the foams and the airs, it was about the information.”
Luckily, the closing of wd~50 doesn't mean the disappearance of Dufresne entirely; in 2013 he opened Alder, also on the Lower East Side, which has a more casual feel. The chef has other ideas he’d like to pursue in the future as well, as he shared that he and his team “Are keeping our eyes down the road. My intention is not to go back to owning a single restaurant.” Although he didn’t divulge any details, we anticipate further greatness and innovation from the talented, passionate, and visionary chef.