Wylie Dufresne: Wisdom of a New York Chef

Chef Wylie Dufresne
Chef Wylie Dufresne

Last year I seemed to bump into Wylie Dufresne (one of my favorite people) all over the place in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, far from his NYC base. I ran into him again in Mexico City when he was in town for the Mesamerica-initiated Round Table along with Michel Bras from France, Lara Gilmore (wife of Massimo Bottura) and many other chefs, producers, and journalists. I have been a fan of this young chef since my first visit to wd~50 years ago when I remember being taken on a tour of the kitchen and his office down the stairs by Wiley. Extremely intelligent, sans any ego, and surprisingly unaware of his celebrity, we had an interesting conversation, a portion of which was also shared on The Daily Meal.

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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 variables  in 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 among 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 are the work of this collective though for the famous Gelinaz chef shuffle last July in the NYC version Dufresne was not on the roster, post the closing of his 70 seat wd~50 in 2014 due to lease issues and then in the tail end of 2015 his Alder restaurant.

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, but 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, restauranteur, and well-informed observer of the city’s ever changing foodscape, and who better to shed light on the future of dining in the city? The man who was a modernist chef before the term became part of the food conversation, believes equipment and technology have always been 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 post culinary school into the kitchens of famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten where 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 interchange about what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business these days. 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.

My Conversation with Wylie Dufresne

What is status of American gastronomy these days, and what is going to change in cities like NYC?

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.

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 Redonda (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.

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 very 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 diehard 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 programme, 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.

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