Interview: Chef Wylie Dufresne on the State of American Dining, Reinventing the Wheel
Credit: Geeta Bansal
The man who ruffled New York diners feathers with an "everything bagel ice cream" is not a fan of the "molecular gastronomy" label. Wylie Dufresne, as I found during our conversation, is not shy to voice his opinions on other facets of the industry either. This chef with a knack for reinventing the wheel is constantly in search of answers to the why of cooking processes, not unlike Ferran Adria at El Bulli, constantly analyzing the variablesin cooking in search of practical knowledge. In the fast paced city of New York with diversity on its streets as well as in its cuisine, his progressive, techno-centric offerings were a perfect fit encapsulating the fusion of science and ingredients aided by the latest gizmos. Undoubtedly his wd~50 restaurant was way ahead of its time when it opened in 2003 and even though he rarely gets credit for it, Dufresne has exerted a tangible influence on cooking and plating in restaurants all over the world. I have seen plates as far away as Peru where his signature style has been replicated to the last flourish.
Dufresne is undoubtedly a member of the clique of modernist international chef stars and counts amongst friends the likes of Massimo Bottura, Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala, and David Chang among other famous names. In 2014, 28 of these chefs descended on wd~50 to surprise Dufresne with a Gelinaz organized situationist tribute dinner. Andrea Pettrini creative director of Cook It Raw, and godfather to the food world at large, is the founder of Gelinaz, described as a collective of cutting edge chefs. In recent years some of the wildest and most interesting food events across the globe have been the work of this collective. However, the famous Gelinaz chef was not on the roster, after the closing of his 70 seat wd~50 in 2014 due to lease issues.
The angst of walking away from a very successful and emblematic operation left a void not only for the chef and the team, but also his enthusiastic fans; however, New Yorkers have a knack for moving on and Dufresne will continue to confound and create. This New York native has lived the roles of a chef, restaurateur, and well-informed observer of the city's ever changing food-scape, and who better to shed light on the future of dining in the city than himself? The man who was a modernist chef before the term became part of the food conversation, believes equipment and technology have always been a part of a kitchen and are not a new phenomenon, so what is all the fuss about? We wish that some younger chefs thought things out before reaching for a sous-vide or Pacojet to stay current or trendy.
A fine dining experience during his final year at Colby College, Maine changed the direction of Dufresne's life. Dreams of cooking led him, Philosophy degree in hand, into the French Culinary Institute, and after culinary school, into the kitchens of famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. During his six year tenure he moved up to the coveted position of chef de cuisine at Vongerichten 's "Prime Steakhouse" in Las Vegas. Soon New York City beckoned and within the year he was back to join the "71 Clinton Fresh Food " kitchen. In 2001 Food and Wine magazine named him one of the country's ten best chefs and following that in 2003 he opened his wd~50 on Clinton Street. The highly successful restaurant earned a star in the Michelin guide and in 2010 he won the James Beard Foundations Best NYC chef having first being nominated as a Rising Star in 2000.
Observing the tall, long-haired, bespectacled Dufresne dressed in a mufti (Hawaiian shirt and shorts) heading my way in Mexico City for our meeting I could see why he had once harbored dreams of an athletic career. During our conversation Dufresne's wry sense of humor, and an almost imperceptible touch of bitterness behind his self deprecating humor, made for a very interesting conversation about what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business . Although he trained in classical French cuisine, the sake loving chef is known for thinking out of the box and it will be interesting to see what he pulls out of out of his hat for diners at his new location.
Centrifuges and immersion circulators cooking, aside we had some questions for him about his city and the future of dining there.
Geeta: What is status of American gastronomy these days, and what is going to change in cities like NYC?
Chef Dufresne: I think it's a very exciting time for America as there are a lot of restaurants doing great stuff all over the country including cities like Austin, Charleston, or Nashville. America is a huge country and a lot of international visitors don't get to all these cities. What the French or others are usually referring to are fine dining operations, and the average French or other international visitors are not experiencing or visiting Nashville or other culinary hubs. It's possible to get stuck in a time warp when you only focus on ten places, never venturing into the others since they are not as well-known.
We are also seeing restaurants change by their very nature because around the country we have the minimum wage going up, the tipping going away, and it's going to change everything. Even in NYC we are seeing a lot of middle class leaving because it's way too expensive to live here. There is a whole cross section of restaurants leaving certain areas because rents are too high. It will be interesting to see if we are going to go vertical like Tokyo or are we going to be able to go up from the ground floor because it's much more affordable to be on the second or third floor. It's going to take a big name chef to have the courage to take that step or start that trend. We don't know what we are going to have to do or if the government is going to subsidize landlords so that they can lower rents.
"It will be interesting to see if we are going to go vertical like Tokyo or are we going to be able to go up from the ground floor because it's much more affordable to be on the second or third floor." Do people want to come to New York to see drug stores and banks on every corner? Or visit restaurants and eat good food, and is the economy good for tourism? I don't know if that is going to happen or not but it's an interesting idea. We are losing a whole cross section of restaurants so it's uncertain what is going to happen in a city like NYC as I can only speak for my city. It's like the middle range of restaurants is gone and it's either a Chipotle or three star Michelin. It's a problem, because we don't have a lot of midrange restaurants. People still want to have places where they can spend money and have a great time.
We are seeing a shift in the kind of restaurants even the younger wealthier clients frequent like NoMad and get their fix. There is nothing wrong with that as those are great restaurants serving great food. We don't know what's going to happen Is there going to be a return to fine dining? Is there going to be a backlash? Some people are theorizing that there will be a backlash while others think there will be a return to fine dining which hasn't happened for a while. There are no new fine dining places emerging, so what are we going to do? Open up a place with a ten dollar price point? The middle used to be a good place to be and that zone is disappearing.
What is the impact of the sustainable, organic, local product conversation in our industry? Will it gain more momentum when even operations like Chipotle are using it as a marketing tool?
I think it's ironic that a selling point for a restaurant is that it is using good ingredients. That should never be the case that it should to come down to that as a marketing tool to say, "Come down to our restaurant because we use good ingredients!" The story shouldn't be don't go there because they don't use good stuff. You should be able to assume that at a certain price point all restaurants are using good ingredients.
Chipotle is a different story; it's a massive, giant operation. We also have the farm-to-table label which is misleading and it shouldn't be the case to say, "Come dine here because we are sourcing food responsibly." We should not have to specify that or we should not be going to restaurants X, Y, and Z if they are not using good stuff. You should have the right to presume until proven otherwise that these are responsibly sourced ingredients.
When I worked for Jean-Georges twenty years ago or even before that for Mario Batali, they would never talk about where the food came from. If you asked they would tell you of course but they did not say come dine here we use good products. It's a funny thing that it's become part of the conversation. They don't talk about it in Europe and you assume if you are going to a Michelin-starred restaurant they are using good ingredients, and they are.
The trend these days is to provide details on menus about ingredients and their origins. What is your opinion on this?
I am more interested in what you do with the food. To me shopping is great and important, but what you prepare and what the palate experiences is more important. People want to know that their food was treated responsibly and humanely and feel good and eat healthy, that's it. The talk about organic and all is very confusing to most of America as there is no real system for it as in does it mean anything, it doesn't have a governing body, there are no checks and balances in the U.S., and it's not as regulated as it could be. The restaurants we are talking about have all that information and will provide it if you ask for it. There is nothing wrong in being proud of getting good ingredients but sometimes it goes too far and becomes pretentious.
Do you as a well-known chef feel responsible for people who want to follow you or emulate you in their food or restaurant concept?
(Laughing) They are not following me, they are following people like Rene Redzepi or Massimo Bottura and I don't think anyone is looking at me. We were talking at Mesa Rotunda (Mexico City) about whether it is our role as chefs to get involved in the politics of food or not. I personally don't think it is always necessary.
How crucial is it to understand the workings, especially the business side, of a project before opening a restaurant?
First off it is a business and you have to keep that in mind, and considering I closed two restaurants within a six month period in 2015 I wouldn't say I am the best model to follow. Restaurants are often labors of love and we don't have patronage like they have in the arts and they don't pay for us to break even. At the end of the day you have to utilize the system well and get into it or else it will go away.
You have worked and owned restaurants in different parts of NYC. How important is the location to becoming a successful operation? In LA for example, Ludo Lefebvre's Trois Mec is hidden behind a pizza joint facade.
The location is a very important component and can make or break you. In the case of Trois Mec, look where he is located. It's a wonderful area right across from Nancy Silverton's Osteria and Mozza for one, and he is building his own little empire there now. LA is a much more spread out city while New York is very, very micro. People are not willing to travel in New York while in LA they are willing because you have to travel. I think LA has some really exciting food going on right now.