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: What percentage of your food experiments ends up tasting good?
Wylie Dufresne: Well luckily, as we mentioned earlier, taste is subjective. So I could lie and say they all taste good. But you know, people ask us that a lot, what is our percentage of success and failure? And that’s not a statistic that we keep. But maybe we should because so many people have been asking what percentage. And so, I can sort of guesstimate, but failure is an interesting term because, for instance, we’ve been trying for seven and a half years to make hot ice cream. Ice cream that eats the same way ice cream does cold, but is thermally hot, as a concept. We’ve been trying to do that.
We’ve never succeeded in... I mean I’d have to go back and look, but there’s probably close to 50 iterations, experiments that... none of which have yielded a successful result, but many things have come out of those failures. So, does that get chalked up each time as a failure or does a failure that leads to a new idea, a new success really count as a failure? And I guess the philosophy major in me kind of isn’t so concerned with quantifying it specifically, because I see the glass is half-full even with a failure. But we certain fail more than we succeed, I think, but we’ve also gotten better at the process. And we’ve also learned more. We know more today than we did yesterday, than we did last week, than we did five years ago.
And so that allows us, in some respects, to be more effective in our experimentation because we’ve probably gotten better at shaving off 20% of failures and getting closer to succeeding sooner.
But I can’t tell you how... you know, a percentage because at the end of the day, I don’t know that that’s... I mean, some might argue that it’s useful, but it’s not really useful in my mind right now.
Question: If marijuana were legalized, would you consider experimenting with it?
Wylie Dufresne: Well, it’s very food-friendly, let’s say that. It’s very food-friendly on a number of levels. So, there is, I think... there are people right now exploiting its relationship to the cookie or the brownie or, you know, things like that. And it would be very conducive to ice cream.
Question: At what point does it become experimentation for experimentation's sake, or is that an important part of innovation?
Wylie Dufresne: Both. I think that, yes, you have to experiment for experimentation's sake. I mean, wasn’t the guy that speared that animal and held it over a fire experimenting? I mean, he didn’t know that it was going to taste delicious. He didn’t know that roasting that piece of meat was good. And how that person even got there I’m not entirely sure. But that was a very successful experiment. And thank God that somebody did it.
I mean, why can’t I... if I’m serving you food that isn’t spoiled, then why can’t I play with it? What says that I can’t, or shouldn’t play with it. To play with it and to learn more about it because in playing with it, I’m going to learn something if I have my eyes open and my mind open. There’s no way I can’t play with my food and not learn something.
And so I see... I see nothing but good coming out of playing with my food because I’m gonna learn something. And I understand that, as I mentioned earlier, not everybody comes to the dinner table at 7:00 saying, "Let’s see what’s going on here." Sometimes... I mean, I run a business and I know that four guys from Wall Street show up during, you know, bonus season and they want to buy some big burly red wine. They want to have some steak and they want to laugh and make noise and be rambunctious and celebrate their success. They don’t necessarily want to pay attention to their food. But I want to take their money and give them a good meal, but if... four other people want to come at 7:00 and have the tasting menu and say, "Geez, let's see what’s going on here." I think that my responsibility is to meet both of those people wherever they want to be met. Not to force it upon them necessarily, but to understand what the diner... where the diner wants to go and to meet that person at that expectation level. But, I don’t see why I can’t go a little bit further. You’re not going to get a steak and mashed potatoes at wd-50. You might get steak and you might get mashed potatoes, but what we do with them will probably be a little left or right of center.
Recorded August 6, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com