Five Questions with Wylie Dufresne
The James Beard Award-winning, Michelin-starred chef Wylie Dufresne is known as the leading proponent of modernist gastronomy in America. He is the chef and owner of Du’s Donuts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the former chef and owner of the wd~50 and Alder restaurants in Manhattan. He recently debuted his first cookbook, wd~50: The Cookbook.
1. You’re a chef that exists right at the intersection of technology, science and culture. What led you to go from cooking with Jean-Georges in the late 90’s to reinventing the food experience?
“Reinventing the food experience”: those are your words—not mine. At that time, Jean Georges was doing something no one else was doing: taking classic french food and lightening it up considerably while integrating Asian influence into it. Seeing that someone could take an existing cuisine, or cuisine in general, and be part of marching it forward—that was very interesting to me. The traditional approach to cooking is about how to do things, but it hasn’t always been about “Why?” Answers you’d get would typically be, “Because that’s how we always have,” or, my least favorite, “Because that’s what I told you to do.” Following the rules will yield a designed result, but not a transference of knowledge. Knowing how, but not why, makes knowledge hollow or empty. I am looking for an ongoing, never-ending culinary education.
2. Speaking of education, where’d you learn about science?
A lot of it is self-taught, and a lot of it is developing relationships with people who know a lot about science. Once you go down the How and the Why road, you also have to ask, What is cooking? It’s biology, it’s science, it’s physics, its chemistry. There are a lot of people out there, not necessarily chefs, who have known that for decades. The inventor Clarence Birdseye knew more about freezing food in 1920 than you or I know today—but luckily, what he knew is accessible. So it’s about going out there and finding information that’s already there, plus a lot of trial and error. There’s no prior art in deep frying mayonnaise.
3. What inspires you?
Inspiration comes from all sorts of places. It comes from your team and who you surround yourself with. I think it’s important to build a team that isn’t necessarily a group of “Yes” men and women; you need to be around people who feel like they have a voice. Inspiration can come from how the snow is falling, from a book I am reading, or it could come from a conversation—either with yourself or other people. The inception point is haphazard, but the process once the idea is out there is very methodical.
4. We often say our members are at the top of their game intellectually while staring into an abyss as entrepreneurs—the bottom can fall out at any moment. Do you have any advice for this crowd?
Well, yeah – the last two restaurants that I operated are closed, and not because they were financial sinkholes. There is meant to be, particularly with restaurants, an intersection of art and commerce—and it’s not necessarily something I’ve mastered. I’m trying to find the balance – you can’t just do one or the other. It’s not just about making money, but doing something with artistic merit.
5. Do your dishes go through a prototype phase?
What is one, whether it’s at wd~50, Alder, or Du’s Donuts, that you’ve revisited and reworked time and time again? That’s easy: the donut. We’ve changed the recipe over 40 times since we started; it’s a constant effort to make it better. But I could tell you hundreds of things. Chefs will say that as soon as a dish is perfect, it’s time to take it off the menu. But I’m not going to take the donut off the menu. It’s the only thing on the menu.
This interview was originally published in Tech Fancy Issue 4: Free Lunch.