Interview: Chef Wylie Dufresne on the State of American Dining, Reinventing the Wheel
In recent years the restaurant business has acquired a glamorous image because of all the reality TV shows about food and cooking. What has been your experience?
When I started cooking, TV or reality show was not such a common phenomenon and I never planned to be on TV. It is undoubtedly very good exposure and helps bring in business and establish yourself, and I am grateful to TV shows for helping me during the difficult initial years at wd~50. There have been a couple of success stories out of Top Chef but other than that none of them have amounted to anything. Just like any other business it's not easy and has its ups and downs and the margins are very small in this business, and that is something to keep in mind. There are much better ways to make money.
Do you think this celebrity chef scenario has been beneficial, or has it had a negative impact on the industry?
I think it has done a lot to teach people, to increase their awareness of food, cooking, and ingredients. The advent of this food television has made average diners a lot smarter. Reality TV is one of the steps to this celebrity. This is a part of appealing to the younger generation and it's the quick route or fast track to reach them.
In conversations with people in the industry, I find that most of them would not want to have their kids follow them into the business. Why is that the case?
I was with Michel Bras earlier today who has passed on his business to his son but that is a unique story when you are just one restaurant in the countryside of France versus most restaurants in cities. In this industry with small margins and in this climate it is difficult to make those businesses stick and work. It's not all bad news because of course there are success stories and there are those who have done well.
Are these the concerns that are moving people away from the fine dining restaurants since the costs are lower and they can be more profitable?
I don't think it's just a function of the overhead. I think it's also a shift in diners tastes. People, especially the younger generation, want to eat differently. They don't have the same interest in luxury dining. That said, I can only speak about New York City and not other parts of the world or the country.
Do you believe that the younger dining public in our country perceives gastronomy differently than say France or Spain, where they might save five years for an opportunity to dine at an iconic restaurant like Troisgros, Bras, or Mugaritz?
Younger diners seem to have shorter attention spans and move on very fast to other experiences, not having long term loyalty or association as in days past. I think we are seeing a shift not only in the type of restaurants people want to eat in but in the dining clientele as well. In New York City especially there is a very different climate from when I started twenty years ago. Rents are going up, changes in the wages, especially hourly wages, the issue of tipping, and what is going to happen to that is unclear. We are in a moment in time where restaurants are going to be very different moving on. It's not clear yet which way they will go but they will change very soon.
With all the upcoming changes in the industry and the shortage of cooks these days, is it going to be difficult to function and maintain standards?
It's very difficult of course to be in the restaurant business and to own a restaurant in this climate. It is true there is a shortage of cooks around the country but interestingly enough there is a national movement to pay cooks more and it will be interesting to see if we encourage people to come back into the work place. Wages are getting better and maybe it will help to draw people back in.
Is the younger generation in the industry as industrious as the older generation in this field, which requires long hours and commitment?
No I don't think they want to work as hard and this is not a good business to be in when you think that way. It's what is referred to as the millennials who don't want work as hard as the previous generations. We will see what they are calling "Generation Z" will do.
As a die-hard New Yorker, do perceive a difference in the gastronomy between the two coasts of our country?
I don't see that, though I am not an expert on the West Coast. I have never been to Portland so I don't know about that, although San Francisco has some very good restaurants and it appears that the people in LA are more excited about dining out right now than those in other parts of the country.
You were with Jean-Georges when he opened his Trump Plaza flagship restaurant and did a stint at his Prime Steakhouse, also situated in a Las Vegas hotel. Did these experiences influence the decision to locate your next project in the AKA Wall Street Hotel?
Yes I was there when he opened it and it is successful, as are his other ventures all over the world. Vegas was a long time ago, at least 15 years ago, and now it's an entirely different place than it was fifteen years ago. I was there when it was in the process of transitioning into a more serious food town. As for my choice of location for my next restaurant, it was simply a good opportunity.
Is the concept or food going to be very different in your new restaurant from wd~50 and Alder? What is the restaurant decor and style going to be?
We are still working the concept out.There will be always some molecular cooking in my life but the concept will be fresh in the new project. We will be serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so we have to keep that in mind while I am designing it with some people and will have more information as we get closer to opening.
Is that your only future project ,or is Vegas on the horizon?
For now it is and as for Vegas there are no plans (laughing) not any that I am aware of. I do have very fond memories of my time there.
Do all the food events, congresses, and symposiums offer exposure for chefs, and do you travel to these events?
I used to travel but not so much now. I think now people are looking to chefs to make a difference in the talk about sustainability etc. and it's wonderful, but let's keep in mind that the relationship between chefs and the land has been around for a long time. Good chefs have always wanted that and good chefs of generations before me were targeting forging relationships with farmers. It's not a new thing but it's trending right now. All this talk of sustainable and local is cyclical as we have seen in the past. People are always obsessed with their health and doing well.
Do you think that chefs and restaurants will be catering to the health concerns of diners in the future, and are diners in New York demanding in this respect?
It's disappointing when people come to restaurants and want to change the food. Especially when you spend a lot of time creating and cooking and then a diner will say, "Can I have that dish but with the sauce from another dish" and it's frustrating. Some people think that since we are in the hospitality business we need to give them what they want. New Yorkers are very demanding customers. The thing is people feel that since they are spending money it they have the right to demand what they want. We have to do our best for our customers.
You were in Mexico City during the Latin America's 50 Best Awards and in 2016 the awards are moving to New York. Is that going to be beneficial and establish the city firmly as an international hub for gastronomy?
I am not sure who was specifically involved in moving 50 Best to New York. I don't know if looking back at 50 Best for however many years if it was beneficial for the restaurant business in the city of London or has helped put it on the map. The other question is if 50 Best has made those chefs who they are or have they made 50 Best what it is.
Do you think being on these lists helps bring in business?
Of course it does, in fact it brings in a tremendous amount of business. I think New York is a food city and I believe there is good food to be had in New York City whether other people know that internationally or not.
Part of the reason for that is New York is comfortable in its own skin while other cities are trying to make sure they are not forgotten or overlooked. Even ten years ago London was perceived as a wasteland when it came to food, and since London has gone to great lengths so that people are aware of its food and it does have some great food. London now has a wonderful food scene but I think NYC has a wonderful food scene, but New York is not as self promotional because it doesn't need to be.
What is special about New York City?
There are good things happening in New York making it a great food city, and what will happen with 50 Best and why they decided to come here I don't know but it will be interesting to see what happens. I am as curious to see as anyone else and obviously there were some politics involved in the move but we will see. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the chefs and restauranteurs from New York were involved in the move. Incidentally I was never on the list.
In many countries the tourism sector has joined hands with the hospitality industry to boost food related tourism, like in Mexico. Is that happening in the U.S.?
No we don't have that boost from the government. Spain and Scandinavia are the greatest examples of where it has helped the restaurant industry. It has been twenty years of this assistance to boost their status, but it doesn't happen here.
This past July during the Gelinaz! Shuffle, why were you not on the program, even though you collaborated with Massimo Bottura at Momofoku?
Yeah , I got sucked into that one at the last minute and it was a lot of fun. As for why I didn't cook myself, I wasn't asked to be a part of the swap .
Do you still you visit Spain often? Juan Mari Arzak talks very fondly of you and your visits.
I used to go to Spain every year for almost ten years but I haven't been back in the last five years. I love Juan Mari and San Sebastián and it is one of my favorite cities in the world. I have always loved what the Spanish are doing and their work approach. There are a lot of great restaurants there and Mugaritz is probably one of my favorites. Andoni Aduriz is a very smart guy.
How many chefs with multiple restaurants do you think still cook?
Not many! (laughing) We are a dying breed.
In France, younger chefs are opting for a simpler dining experience. Is that true for New York City too?
I don't see that as anything as new as they are making it sound. It seems like more of a marketing thing. Well-known chefs like Senderens did that years ago and a lot of chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants were doing it earlier too; in fact it was happening even ten years ago.
What about your family? This industry takes all your time, doesn't it?
I have two young kids, six and three, and I have a lot of time to spend with them these days and I am making good use of it.