One of Our Most Influential Chefs on Life After WD-50, the State of Fine Dining, and Moving the Ball Forward
Photographs of Wylie Dufresne by Evan Sung
Wylie Dufresne is a chef in transition. As everybody reading this surely knows, he closed his landmark restaurant WD-50 after service on November 30, 2014, and continues on at his East Village restaurant Alder, which he launched in 2013. We’ve long been meaning to ask Wylie for an interview and he graciously agreed to one during the final days of WD-50, asking only that we wait until after the last dish had left the pass, and he and his team had cleared out of the space before we sat down. And so, this interview was conducted in two sessions at Alder, the first on December 22, and the follow-up on January 15; with Wylie’s blessing, I have spliced the interviews together. As a side note, there are not many chefs of Wylie’s stature who are as unassuming and generous as he is. We don’t know each other well, but during a busy and emotional time, he could not have been more accommodating in making himself available, not once, but twice — our great thanks to him for that.
Here’s Part 1 of our conversation, in which we discuss the last days of WD-50, as well as the first days of his career and the evolvement of his style:
Friedman: To start with the obvious, if I just throw it out there: Since you closed WD-50, how are you feeling? What are the emotions that you’re going through right now?
Dufresne: You know, I feel sad. We surrendered the keys on Friday, and we had an auction on Tuesday, which I was only there briefly for because I didn’t want to watch the stuff go.
Friedman: Had you always planned to leave the auction? Restaurateurs have told me that auctions are surprisingly emotional events for them.
Dufresne: I anticipated it being an emotional event and so I didn’t want to be there. And then a guy came up to me and said, “Chef, I’m a cook” or “I’m a chef” — I don’t remember. “You’re one of the reasons I do this. This is not a restaurant; this is a museum. I will bid on an item or two with the utmost respect for you.”
And it kind of hit me that I’ve got to go … you know, I have sort of been following Derek Jeter in his [retirement]… I watched how he did his thing. There were moments where he knew he was going to get choked up and didn’t necessarily want to do that in a public forum and so he kind of extricated himself from those moments. And I found myself having very similar experiences where I could see that I was going to get choked up so I just was, like, “You know what? I’m going to move on.”
I had my moment with the space all by myself after I turned the keys in. Everybody left and I just sat there on the street and had my final communion, whatever you want to call it. Said goodbye to my friend. And that was that.
Adios amigo….thank you !!! pic.twitter.com/iFONWQbxBD
— Wylie Dufresne (@wyliedufresne) December 20, 2014
I still feel emotional about it but, as my wife points out, it’s gone but the things that you’re emotional about remain. The things that mattered to you about that place don’t go away. But I guess, there’s a newness to that emotion… I’m grateful for all that that space has done for me, for the people I met, for what it allowed me to learn as a cook, for the people it allowed me to meet, for the food it allowed me to create. But all of that can still happen.
And I love Alder. Alder is a great place. Alder is a different place than WD-50 but Alder is a great restaurant doing great things. But I think the feelings that I’m feeling are probably fairly normal.
Friedman: Are there things that you find yourself thinking about as you reflect on WD-50 that surprise you?
Dufresne: I was packing furiously and going through all sorts of old stuff. It was fun to just come across this picture or that note or that recipe, and just go, “Oh, yeah. Where was I then? Who was working then?” The one thing I didn’t find that I wanted to, because I think it’s gone, was a postcard I got right after we opened from someone. I don’t remember all the specifics but I remember them referring to pork belly. We had pork belly on the opening menu. That was in 2003. Pork belly was having a real moment at that point. Places like Gramercy Tavern, Colicchio was doing his famous ‑‑
Friedman: Gramercy is the place I always think of where I first had pork belly.
Dufresne: So I was experimenting with pork belly. Somebody sent me a postcard and they talked about other things on the menu. “I can’t believe you’re serving pork belly; you’re never going to last. You’ll be lucky to be open in six months.” I thought, “Whoa. Jeez, that’s aggressive.” It was a completely hostile postcard. And it wasn’t someone saying, “I had a bad meal.” It wasn’t clear if they’d even been. It was just like ‑‑
Friedman: “You’re an idiot.”
Dufresne: I think it said, “What a joke.” I think, “What a joke,” was somewhere on there. I don’t think “idiot” was there.
Friedman: But that was the sentiment.
Dufresne: That was the sentiment, that you’re never going to make it. And I wish I could find that. I would put it in my cookbook.
Friedman: I’ve read at least one interview where you alluded to possibly reconstituting WD-50 in another place. Is that something you’re still thinking about?
Dufresne: You know, I have lots of ideas that I would like to explore that I think are viable concepts that I think New York would like. I think that the approach to WD-50 is a valid approach to cooking and can live on. I don’t know … fine dining in this city is an interesting subject and I’m not sure where we’re going with that. Everything’s cyclical so we will come back to it at some point, but right now nobody’s tossed their hat in the fine dining ring for a really long time … and this city’s got too many restaurants.
Friedman: I just said this to someone an hour ago. They were telling me how empty a supposedly hot restaurant was on a Saturday night and I said, “Because there’s too many restaurants.”
Dufresne: It’s a point of fact. But there’s not a lot of fine dining choices. And there have to be explanations for that because there’s plenty of people, there’s plenty of money in the city, but there’s not a lot of people that … you know, Jean Georges is bursting at the seams. Le Bernardin is as full as it can be. Masa’s doing just fine. Per Se does as many covers as it does or doesn’t want to. But we haven’t seen Paul Liebrandt do something fine-dining recently. WD-50 is closing. Betony is the only restaurant in recent memory that I can think of, of anybody wanting to do that… there’s just not that many. In the upper echelon for a city with 23,000 restaurants, there’s less than twenty up there, you know?
And on a side note, what’s always surprised me is that in a city with 23,000 restaurants that there was only one restaurant in the spirit of WD-50. I never thought we’d be the only game in town. I just thought we’d be one of a bunch of people. Not making the exact same thing, but using that approach, that is an approach that’s being explored at The Fat Duck and Mugaritz and at one point El Bulli, and now Noma which opened after WD-50 or right around the same time but has more come into its own the last five years, I’d say… there’s less restaurants in America cooking that way than there are in the town of San Sebastian.
Friedman: What do you call that style, personally? Do you even like to put a name to it?
Dufresne: I don’t care what you call it. You guys call it whatever you want.
Friedman: But do you call it anything? When you think of your food…
Dufresne: Modern American? Contemporary American? I like “avant‑garde” but there’s a weird word.
Friedman: When you group WD-50 in with those other places globally that you just named, you would call that avant‑garde?
Dufresne: I would call that a group of people that are trying to understand cooking better in order to make more informed decisions about how to cook food and then each of those restaurants is applying their own personal creativity to that knowledge in an effort to make their own unique dining experience… Contemporary Cooking? Modern Cooking? There isn’t a good name.
Friedman: When you said, “you guys,” I sense a frustration among chefs. It also came up when I interviewed Matt Lightner a while back. I’m writing a book about the American chefs of the ’70s and ’80s right now. And “California Cuisine” comes up, right? But that’s a journalistic construct. That name was imposed on chefs by others.
Dufresne: Correct, correct. It almost has to be because you guys need to put four walls around it to write about it.
Friemdman: But philosophically I’m wondering ‑‑
Dufresne: “Molecular gastronomy” is a horrible term.
Friedman: The more chefs I talk to, the more I feel like you guys, to generalize, don’t particularly like that people do that. You just come up and evolve and become who you become and then somebody tries to put you in a group.
Dufresne: We don’t spend as much time thinking about what to call ourselves. We’re thinking about the process.
Friedman: That’s what I’m trying to say.
Dufresne: Now, when I was younger I was much more pedantic and soap-box inclined and I would get up and beat my chest and stomp my feet. But I don’t care anymore. I don’t care what you call it as long as it’s not … molecular gastronomy didn’t work because (a) It didn’t sound delicious. It didn’t do anything to drive people to the restaurants. In fact, it drove people away. And it was inaccurate because it’s a school of scientific study. It’s the same thing as calling us biologists. We’re not biologists; we’re chefs. But molecular gastronomy is a field of scientific study. So at least California Cuisine is a new construct but to call us [molecular gastronomists] … that would be like calling us house painters. We’re not painting houses. We’re cooks.
So molecular gastronomy (a) wasn’t delicious; and (b) was inaccurate. It continues to do a disservice to the scientist and the chef because no scientist is a chef and no chef is a scientist. No matter how hard each of us relies on each other, we provide content and they provide answers. But it’s just a bad name. It used to bother me a lot more than it does now because now it’s finally becoming part of the zeitgeist or the conversation, so it’s not harmful anymore… but it’s a group of people that want to understand what they’re doing, want to continue to learn… It’s not about foam or gels or any of that.
Friemdan: These things that everyone used to latch onto as a shorthand.
Dufresne: Right. Those are the sidebars. It’s about knowledge. It’s about understanding what we do so that we can make better decisions. Understanding what’s happening to an egg when it cooks. And again, are we talking about in a pan or a pot of water, you know? Understanding what’s happening to an egg while it boils makes you realize that there isn’t one way to boil an egg, that there isn’t a right or a wrong way to boil an egg. There’s a more or less informed way to boil an egg. And so that’s all it is. Matt Lightner likes his egg cooked this way and I like my egg cooked that way. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, it’s just we understand the variables so we can change the outcome.
We can manipulate the outcome, which is all cooking has ever been is manipulating outcomes. The first guy to throw a spear at an animal and hold it over an open flame was manipulating the outcome. And that’s all we’re doing, to this day.
Friedman: Let’s talk for a minute about how you started down your path. When you started cooking, you got very plugged into Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his world, and then you started to develop your own style and your own interest. I associate you more now with the restaurants you were naming a few minutes ago than with Jean-Georges’ generation or style. When you think back, what first started you down this path toward being among that group?
Dufresne: I was just looking for answers to questions, and the traditional answers were inadequate … “Why are we doing it this way?” The answers are, “Because it works,” “Because that’s how we’ve always done it,” or my favorite, “Because I said so,” which are useful, particularly for a young cook who might be precocious and doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut… but those answers were ultimately unsatisfactory and so I had learned how to cook but I didn’t know why to cook.
Friedman: I watched your MAD talk from 2012, “Appetite for Knowledge.” It touched on a lot of this stuff. But I’m trying to understand the process. You were looking for answers to these questions out of a curiosity?
Dufresne: Yeah, because you do something ninety-nine times and it would work and on the hundredth time you’d get a different result and I’d wonder why.
Friedman: Right. But when I’ve heard you talk about this, you talk about things as basic as, “Why do we roast a chicken the way we do?”
Dufresne: Correct. Because there was no explanation. It was just how to do it, and the results were often great. And there’s a great irony that the greatest chefs in the world don’t know what they’re doing. We just don’t. Everybody gets mad and/or rolls their eyes when I say that. But it’s true. It’s true. Why are we doing this?
“I went to [a legendary French restaurant]. I had a great meal.” Of course you did. You had a great meal because people are good at it. Because cooks are … good at a pseudo‑scientific approach because you do the same thing over and over again … We know how to do things very well but we don’t really know why we’re making those choices other than we’re getting good results. But that knowledge is very hollow.
We’re getting good results. The steak is mid‑rare. The egg white is soft. But why? “Just don’t turn it up too high.” What the fuck does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything. What is too high? Can we just figure out the temperature? Well, it turns out that [many people] know what a degree of difference in the cooking you do to an egg white will do. They’re just not working in professional kitchens. That information is out there. So find it, take it, and learn from it and decide which way you want it. There’s no right or wrong way. It’s a more or less informed way. You know, the knock is always, “You’re taking the romance, the fun [out of cooking], you’re dehumanizing it.” Not at all. Because there’s no finite answer. There’s no right or wrong answer, so there’s still an opportunity for self‑expression.
Why wouldn’t you want to know more? I just don’t get that.
Whoever dies knowing the most wins, right?
Friedman: But can you connect the dots for me? You say you were looking for answers to questions and you give the example of why do you roast a chicken a certain way? But you weren’t taking that knowledge and using it to roast a chicken in a conventional, let’s say “bistro” fashion; you were developing this very distinct personal style.
Dufresne: Correct. I was applying my creativity to that knowledge, much like the group of chefs [I just named], in an effort to try to come up with a personal style. I love roast chicken and mashed potatoes, and my wife makes fun of me. She says, “Whenever you cook at home, you make French food. You make peasant French food. That’s all you want to do.” Because I love eating that stuff. But I couldn’t make that every day. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But I didn’t want to make that every day. And I sought out Jean-Georges because he was taking traditional French food and marching it down the road. The idea of taking the heavy creams and stocks and butters and sauces and replacing them with oils and juices was brilliant…
But it was in an effort to create a personal style and that’s what I wanted to do. I was living at home at the time when I was going to culinary school and I remember the moment, sitting in the living room, my mother was asleep, thinking, “What am I going to do? I don’t have a style but I want to find one. I want to figure out what that is.” I remember that moment, but it’s taken well over twenty years for me to begin to ‑‑
Friedman: So the science piece fed that development?
Friedman: Are the two inseparable? Talking to you, I perceive it as a bit of a double helix.
Dufresne: In a way, because not only did it give me answers to questions; it gave me understanding of things. It also introduced me to new people that were outside the industry, people that were thinking differently. It introduced me to new equipment, new ingredients that also allowed me to go, oh, well, that’s, you know, an immersion circulator.
Friedman: The umbrella all of this would fall under for me is “new possibilities.”
Dufresne: Sure, sure. I remember, we had a tartare technique that we came up with at WD-50 where we cooked the beef for a certain amount of time at a certain temperature and then we cooled it down and then we chopped it, and it was still red. Because I read in McGee that there was a way to cook meat and break down the fibers but still keep it pink because the hemoglobin, the blood, wasn’t getting to a high enough temperature to begin to oxidize.
And as I read that I thought, if the meat can be cooked but still red, that could be an interesting way to do a tartare. He made no mention in there of steak tartare but I just immediately thought… having an understanding of that particular property that meat had meant I could take a flavorful cut like hanger steak, which you can’t serve raw because it’s too tough, it’s too chewy. Maybe if you ground it, but that’s gross. So here I could cook hanger steak which has a lot of flavor, and I could chop it up and I could serve it as a tartare. Now, did I even care to tell people that it wasn’t raw? No. I didn’t need to tell people…
What got lost along the way was the idea that we were abandoning the past.
Friedman: You mean that’s a misunderstanding about this style of cuisine that happened along the way?
Dufresne: That’s a misunderstanding along the way, that we’re abandoning the cooking techniques. We’re never abandoning it. We’re building on it. I have always believed that those people still have to know how to roast a piece of meat. We’re not taking it away and saying, look, now you can put the chicken in a bag, cook it for blah, blah, blah, and all you’ve got to do now is put it in a pan and sear it and it’s amazing texturally. But you still have to know how to butcher that chicken, but you also have to know how to cook it from raw.
Tom Junod wrote a piece in Esquire this month; it’s basically an obituary of WD-50. And in it he talks about how he and a group of people were at dinner and they were eating a piece of beef and they thought all along that it was cooked sous vide, and finally hours after the meal, several glasses of sake at the bar later, I said, “No, we cooked that the old fashioned way.” But you would never know it, necessarily, because there was no gray end to end. And that’s hard. That’s really hard to do. But that’s cooking. And cooking is hard.
Friedman: But when you say you cook it the old fashioned way to me, that means it’s being cooked by a very experienced cook who has a degree of intuition, who just knows how to cook.
Dufresne: You have to have both.
Friedman: But with that piece of beef you’re talking about, that’s what you’re describing, no?
Dufresne: Yeah, but you also have to pay attention to the variables. You have to make sure that the pan’s not too hot. We’re putting it in a pan and searing it and then taking it out of the pan because that pan’s too hot, and we’re putting it in an oven on a rack and we’re just turning it on a rack. It’s a fucking pain in the ass and it’s meticulous, but it’s understanding the variables. You’re still taking an analytical approach to it. We’re not putting a thermometer in there ‑‑
Friedman: That’s what I’m saying.
Dufrense: ‑‑ and taking it to a specific internal temperature. We’re using some of this, still. But we’re building. We’re still using some of that approach. All of this is in addition to the existing tools. It’s not in place of. I mean nobody says throw out your food processor or throw out your blender, but they say get rid of your gram scale. Throw out your gram scale, get rid of your immersion circulator. But none of them are saying stop using measuring cups for making a cake. There’s an unfair criticism of what’s going on at times in our approach. But I want this to all be in addition to the existing tools in a cook’s battery. I want it to be an addition. I don’t want it to be a replacement.
Friedman: You said that a knock on this school of cooking is, “Oh, you’re taking the romance out of cooking.” The thing I was about to ask you, but I think you just answered it, was: You have, let’s call it, the “scientific” mindset. But is there not also a place for the “spiritual” mindset or the “human” mindset? You’re saying absolutely there is, to some extent? It has to be informed but ‑‑
Dufresne: For me. I’m not going to tell you or anyone else how to cook, but for me, if I don’t understand a little bit more about the goings on ‑‑ you know, we serve a burger here at the bar.
Friedman: The one you just introduced recently with the onion soup rings?
Dufresne: Yeah. The way we cook that burger, we cook it for four minutes flipping it every 30 seconds using a timer. And then we let it rest.
Friedman: You use a timer for the 30 seconds?
Dufresne: Well, you look at the timer but you know ‑‑
Friedman: I see: You’re tracking the time.
Dufresne: You’re tracking the four minutes. Then you let it rest for four minutes on a timer, then you melt the cheese and then you serve it to the customer. And we believe after several ‑‑
Friedman: Trial and error?
Dufresne: ‑‑ trial and error that that’s a really good burger. Now, again, there isn’t a probe in there taking the burger to [a specific temperature], but there’s a lot of analysis.
Friedman: Including, I assume, what temperature the meat’s at when you start that process.
Dufresne: [nods] It has to come right out of the fridge. It can’t sit on the counter because the gray will migrate in and you’ll get a burger that’s rare in the middle and gray on the outside. So we’re cooking a burger and we’re cooking it in a pretty simple traditional way but we’re trying to understand it a little bit better.
Friedman: Did you ever see the movie “The Fly”? The 1986 David Cronenberg one with Jeff Goldblum?
Friedman: This conversation reminds me of the scene where he teleports a steak. It looks great. But then he cooks it and Geena Davis takes a bite and it’s disgusting. And Goldblum has this epiphany that the machine is not “driven mad” by the flesh, that he has to teach the teleporter that missing piece, the human piece, right? Maybe that’s a very strange analogy or metaphor for this whole conversation, but it can’t just be one or the other. Does that make any sense?
Dufresne: That would have been an interesting piece of video to show those people that recreated the steak in the petri dish…
Kitchens and technology, or cooking and technology have been linked from the minute some guy was like, “I need a spear to get that animal because I can’t catch it so I need a tool. I can wait for lightning to strike the ground and for it to burn, but if I can figure out how to make fire, I’m way better off than just kind of hoping I might come across it.” So technology has always allowed us to cook things better. I mean, we realize that raw food is good, but early on we realized that cooking, drying, aging, preserving food meant we could move around with it, we could take it with us. We could kind of stay alive longer, we could grow as a species, as a clan, as a village.
So the relationship between the cook and technology has been going on forever so this is just what’s happening right now. But I mean, [one] doesn’t want to go shovel coal into the stove because it’s much easier and better to turn on the gas. Is that taking the romance out of it because you’re not bending over and working for it? I don’t think so. I don’t think that that argument is valid. I think that it’s uninformed to say that we’re not better off for some of this stuff.
Friedman: Moving the ball forward?
Dufresne: Yeah, yeah. You know, should I be, like, getting a piece of obsidian to cut my parsley? No, I want a knife. Someone’s going to have a hard time convincing me that technology and cooking, that technology is somehow bad.
Friedman: I hope I don’t seem like I’m saying that.
Dufresne: No, no, no. But I mean, Nona can’t make pasta without a rolling pin … It’s like people saying, “We should go back to the way we used to cook.” That’s just a random place in the chronological history of cooking. Are they talking about 1975, that we should go back to that time? Because that was super revolutionary at one point and that was super modern, and there were people saying we should go back to the way we did things before that.
So we should be aware of those techniques. We should be aware of our cultural history. We should understand that stuff but we shouldn’t stay there. We shouldn’t get stuck there.
[Editor’s note: Part 2 of our interview with Wylie Dufresne has been posted – we discuss his upcoming book, chef communities, and some of his specific fascinations.]