Wylie Dufresne is the chef and owner of wd-50, a restaurant in Manhattan. Dufresne is a leading American proponent of molecular gastronomy, the movement to incorporate science and new techniques in the preparation and presentation of food.
Born in Providence, R.I. in 1970, Dufresne graduated from The French Culinary Institute in New York and also completed a B.A. in philosophy at Colby College. From 1994 through 1999, he worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where he was eventually named sous chef at Vongerichten's eponymous Jean Georges. In 1999, he left to become the first chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food. In April 2003, he opened wd~50 (named for the chef's initials and the street address) in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Dufresne was a James Beard Foundation nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2000 and chosen the same year by New York Magazine for their New York Awards. Food & Wine magazine named him one of 2001 America's Ten Best Chefs award and, in 2006, New York Magazine's Adam Platt placed wd-50 fourth in his list of New York's 101 best restaurants. He was awarded a star in Michelin's New York City Guide, from 2006 through 2010, and was nominated for Best Chef New York by the James Beard Foundation. wd-50 has also been recognized as one of the Top 10 Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants in the U.S. by GAYOT.com.
Question: How does a trend, like the recent craze for pork belly, begin and spread?
Wylie Dufresne: I mean, that’s a funny question or interesting question because it’s not as if suddenly 10 years ago pigs started having bellies and prior to that they didn’t have bellies and nobody ate them because you know we’ve been enjoying pigs and all of is parts for a long time. I mean bacon is not a new idea. And bacon has been beloved for as long as I can remember bacon.
But I think that, you know, trends come and go and we’re not gonna... we’re dealing with more or less a finite number of ingredients. We aren’t creating really with any sort of regularity, new foods to work with. And I think that as chefs, we kind of work our way around an animal and how and why suddenly you see pork belly on everyone’s menu, I can’t exactly explain other than it tastes good. But... or why it might be lamb spareribs the next month, or it might be duck tongues after that. And then we go back to veal sweetbreads or something. I think that a curious cook or a thoughtful cook is always sort of moving around and as economics become an issue, we look for cheaper, more affordable cuts that still offer a lot of flavor. And I think that there are also people... you know, there’s a trickle-down. There’s people looking for the—I don’t want to say the "new cut" because again, the animal has had that muscular structure for its whole life, but if we can sort of... with the help of our butchers look at the animal and think of a different way to form it or a different way to carve that bit out and use it, you will see that trickle down. I mean, you know TGI Friday’s now does, you know, flat iron beef. And that’s not something that you would have seen at TGI Friday’s if you know, chefs like myself hadn’t started using it as a delicious, cheap cut from the shoulder, you know, five, six, seven, years ago, but now it’s on TGI Friday’s menu. That’s part of the trickle down and that’s how it finds its way all over the place.
But I think again, that thoughtful cooks are looking at exploring the whole animal and so we move around and you use a cut for a while and you get tired of it, so you move to another cut. Why pork belly was so hot? You know, that’s a fair question I can’t answer, but I was probably as guilty as anyone else of cooking a lot of pork belly, you know, five, six years ago because I thought it was delicious. And for me, it was about how can we cook it in a different way that it hasn’t been cooked prior, or what techniques, modern techniques can we apply to it.
You know, we might get excited in a restaurant about an ingredient that’s new, but it’s new insofar as it’s new to us. It’s not a new ingredient; it didn’t just drop out of the sky. But it’s new to us so we get excited about it and so we work with it and try to put it through its paces and learn about it and understand it and then use it. And sometimes it does... another chef might get wind of it and—boom, boom, boom, boom—and there it goes.
Or we might... or I might hear from a friend, “Oh, check out the crab tails. These are pretty cool.” And you say, “Well what the hell’s a crab tail? I’ve never seen a crab tail?” And it’s not really the tail, but it’s this piece of meat that’s really interesting. And you know, unfortunately that was not something that found widespread appeal, but it was a really delicious piece of meat.
Question: Are there any food trends that you find uninspiring?
Wylie Dufresne: You know, I think "uninspiring" is a little harsh. I don’t, I don’t take maybe as negative a stance as that. But I think things like like “farm to table” are misleading. I think sometimes that becomes a pedestal or a soap box to get people into your restaurant, but is not... it’s almost empty in a way. I mean, my food comes from a farm and I serve it on a table.
You know, it’s not as if, what they’re trying to say is that not much is being done to it. But it’s not, it’s not to say... I think to use “farm to table” to imply that there’s something, that that equals quality is misleading because I think that if you need... there’s something wrong with needing to say, “Hey, we use good ingredients.” Because any chef—it should be understood that when you go to a restaurant of a certain caliber, it should be expected that chef X is using good ingredients. It should be a sounding board. “Hey, come here, we use good ingredients.” Well, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. “Come here, we use mediocre ingredients, but it’s cheaper.” Like that’s nuts!
I think you have a right as a diner to expect when you come to my restaurant that I’m using good ingredients, responsibly sourced. If you want to ask me about them, I’m happy to tell you, but the notion that “farm to table” somehow signifies I’m shopping well, or "responsibly," I think is unfair. Is almost... it’s like smoke and mirrors for the diner. It’s like false advertising because I’m at the green market every week buying things. And I have been, but I don’t stand up on it and say “Hey, come see really good vegetables at wd-50 because you should assume that we are using really good vegetables. So I think sometimes that notion is a little bit of a misnomer.
Recorded August 6, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller