15 Questions with Wylie Dufresne

While you may not be able to get fried mayonnaise or meat glue pasta from HUHDS, “Science and Cooking” guest ...

While you may not be able to get fried mayonnaise or meat glue pasta from HUHDS, “Science and Cooking” guest lecturer Wylie Dufresne counts them among his avant-garde culinary repertoire. The chef and owner of wd~50 in New York City talked to FM about his journey from philosophy student to top chef, and why you shouldn’t call him a “molecular gastronomist.”

1. Fifteen Minutes: What similarities do you see between the kitchen and the classroom?

Wylie Dufresne: I think the classroom comes into the kitchen insofar as it takes research and experimentation to understand what happens to food as it’s cooked. There’s been a relationship between the scientific or academic community and the culinary community for a long, long time. We’re trying to exploit that relationship...in the hopes of being better cooks.

2. FM: You’ve spoken out against the term “molecular gastronomy” to describe your cuisine. How would you choose to describe it?

WD: I think that it’s an unfair term, because it’s a term that refers to the work that scientists do. It also doesn’t sound delicious. The term has been so widely used at this point that I think it might be time to just stop fighting it. I don’t think it’s a term that I like—I mean, “modern cuisine,” “contemporary cuisine,” “modern American cuisine” [are] better. The fact that the term is associated with us, and it does bring to mind a certain type of cooking—it serves a purpose. I just think it’s an unfair term.

3. FM:  You mentioned the term “modern American cuisine.” Do you think that this more scientific method of cooking will become the norm?

WD: The method is about education, and I don’t think that education will ever disappear. I think that it’s entirely possible that some of the things that people associate with this type of cooking may come and may go—the foams, the gels, the what have you—those are sort of the sidebar, but what’s behind that is a search for information.

4. FM: You’ve built a reputation on several hard-to-replicate signature dishes, such as fried mayonnaise, slow-poached eggs and meat glue pasta. Did these get you interested in science-based cooking?

WD: I would like to stay away from the term “signature dish”, because it sort of implies that you’re stuck somewhere and you’ve stopped moving forward. We have a dish that’s been on the menu since the day we opened, and it doesn’t mean any less to me than the dish that’s going to go on the menu tomorrow. I like to think that the sum is more than the parts.

5. FM: You have a bachelor’s from Colby. How did that translate into becoming a chef?

WD: Sixteen years of formal education certainly gave me an appreciation for an approach to learning that’s probably not typical of the average kitchen, but more than anything I learned how to learn. I learned how to take information and process it and get the most out of it, and once I found a subject that really spoke to me—I mean, I enjoyed being a philosophy student, but cooking speaks to me more—I had the tools necessary to dive headfirst into it and begin to extract information very effectively.

6. FM: Do you have any advice for students looking to eat better in the dining halls?

WD:  I haven’t been in a college dining hall since I graduated in 1992—that’s a while ago. I think that you can probably still eat pretty well if memory serves. I think it’s just about making good choices. I’m not ready to get up on my soapbox and start talking about meal reform in institutions, but I would imagine that there’s good food to be had. But I’ve never eaten in any of the dining halls at Harvard.

7. FM: When did you decide to become a chef?

WD: I was working a summer job before my senior year of college in Providence, Rhode Island. I was working at Al Forno’s. That summer is a time in one’s life when you’re supposed to decide what you want to be, and I had never really done anything that spoke to me the way that summer experience did. In a perfect world, if I were bigger, faster, stronger, I would have liked to have been a professional athlete. But that was never in the cards, so I gave up that dream. But I realized that there were a lot of similarities between a kitchen and a team. That summer really solidified that for me and that’s when I said, I haven’t felt as excited about anything since I played sports, so I decided that I would give it a shot. And then after I finished my year of college I went to cooking school and never looked back.

8. FM: You’ve worked in several of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. Would you count him as a mentor?

WD: Yes, definitely. Early on, Jean Georges had a very deep influence on my style of cooking, and I spent my formative years with him. So he was a mentor, and is a friend to this day.

9. FM: How has your cooking changed since then?

WD: I think I’ve learned more. A lot. I’ve begun to understand the process more, and I think I’ve just begun to find my style and to find the voice of the restaurant. The individual has come out more over the years. Early on all you do is replicate what you know because you’re still in the process of defining who you are. I’ve hopefully moved past that at some point and begun to find my own style.

10. FM: You’ve also participated in a number of extracurricular activities outside of your kitchen—“Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” “Top Chef Masters”—which of these experiences has been the most rewarding?

WD: I think that they’re all fun. “Iron Chef” is fun because it’s a competition and I like competition. “Top Chef” is fun because it’s also a competition. I’ve been on both sides—both a contestant and a judge, and they’re all good opportunities to expose yourself, to open yourself up to a wider market, to drive people to the restaurant, and that’s good. They allow us to reach people in ways that we wouldn’t be able to reach on our own.

11. FM: How much of your time do you spend actually in the kitchen?

WD:  I spend most of my time in the kitchen; I try to do the administrative stuff in the kitchen as much as possible so I can stay there. I work a 12-hour day here, and I try to be in the kitchen for as much of that as possible.

12. FM: How do you go about creating a new menu item?

WD: Out of a lot of trial and error—which is mostly error or failures—comes a lot of learning and a lot of knowledge. In the process of trying to create something we may never get to that dish on the menu, but we’ll learn a lot along the way, and maybe even a new dish will come out of it. It’s a very organic process where there’s a lot of discussion, a lot of sharing of ideas, and a lot of trial and error. Creativity is not linear; you can’t just sit down and say, “Today I’m going to be creative.”

13. FM: Has this trial-and-error method ever led to any major kitchen calamities?

WD: I don’t know how much you cook, but there are always calamities in the kitchen. There’s lots of high stress, sharp knives, boiling oil. There’s a low-level constant state of calamity—look at the average cook’s hands and arms, and you can see that calamity is around every corner.

14. FM: What’s in your refrigerator at home?

WD: I don’t cook too much at home. It would be nice if I cooked more. I’m sure my wife and child would appreciate that, but as it stands, most of what’s in my refrigerator was put there by my wife.

15. FM: What do you eat on your off days?

WD: It’s more about who I eat with than what I eat. As long as I can eat with my family I can eat just about anything. If I can spend my days off with my wife and daughter, I’ll eat cardboard if I have to.