Big Think Interview With Wylie Dufresne

Question: What is molecular gastronomy?

Wylie Dufresne: Yeah, I would say that molecular gastronomy is a field of science.  I would, I would say that it’s probably lumped under chemistry, maybe.  Because cooking while it has certainly biology and some physics, it’s mostly chemistry.  But molecular gastronomy was a term coined by scientists to describe the work that they were doing in an effort to understand what’s happening to the food that we eat... or the food that we cook, I’m sorry.  What’s happening to food as we cook it... as we put it through a myriad of physical, mechanical processes.  

People like how Harold McGee and Nicholas Kurti... Nicholas Kurti is one of those scientists that coined the term along with Harold, Hervé This, and some other people. And I believe it was Kurti who famously said, “We know more about what’s going on, on the surface of the Moon than inside a soufflé."  And that’s—again I can’t weigh in on whether or not that’s true because I don’t know how much we know about either—but I think it was a group of people that were curious to understand what makes a soufflé rise, what are the mechanics.  What’s happening?  Let’s pick it apart and understand it.  And I think that a large number of chefs, certainly myself included, found that field of study not only very interesting, but useful.  

So we’ve been, for probably the last 15 years or so trying to avail ourselves to the information these people are generating along with generating our own, and other outside sources that are maybe not food scientists per se.  And take that information to use it to learn more about what we are doing, to understand how to cook, to understand what’s happening to food as we cook it in an effort, I think, to be better cooks

How much has molecular gastronomy taught us about food?

Wylie Dufresne: Well we have learned a lot.  I would say that in the last, the last 15 years, you know, plus or minus five, we’ve learned more about cooking than we have in the 15,000 prior... 15,000 years prior to that.  And I think that that makes... that’s exciting to me and I think that makes for an exciting time to be cooking for anyone for any curious cook.  For anyone who desires to understand more what’s happening to a chicken when you roast it or a vegetable when you blanch it, or a fish when you poach it, in an effort to cook it better and to cook it in a more informed way. Because, again, like taste, there is subjectivity in cooking as well.  And I think that that’s good because there is no right way necessarily to cook something, but understanding what’s happening to it, any given object while you’re cooking it, allows you to make an informed decision about how to cook it.  And again, I like the fact that there’s no right or wrong way to poach an egg, but knowing what’s happening to an egg as it goes from 60 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius helps you make the decisions about at what point you want to start or stop the cooking.  And that I find really, really very fascinating.  Because to me, knowing mechanically how to poach an egg, but not what’s happening to it while it’s poaching is almost an empty knowledge.  It’s not as useful as knowing, okay the egg white proteins are coagulating at this temperature and the yolks are coagulating at that temperature, and so I can control this or that.  And knowing the variables and understanding the variables I think makes anybody a better cook.

What are some examples of ways molecular gastronomy changed what we know about cooking?

Wylie Dufresne: There is vast sort of bodies of work that we have learned, but generally or specifically, you know, one of the famous misconceptions for years has been that searing a piece of steak, for instance, seals in the juices.  That’s how you keep your steak moist, your piece of meat moist by searing it on the outside, trapping the juices inside.  That was proven to be a fallacy by molecular gastronomy because, in fact, anytime you get something super hot, you actually begin to draw the moisture out of it rather than seal it in.  That was an early sort of wow moment I think for a lot of people.  And you still hear chefs today, unfortunately, mistakenly say, “Ah, we like to sear our steaks to seal in the juices and”...  I find myself feeling bad for them because that’s not… I understand the thought process, but it’s—it’s almost like the dark ages, in a way, that approach; that we’ve come so far in our understanding of cooking. 

I would say, for instance, what have we learned about eggs?  We’ve learned a tremendous amount about eggs.  I did not know when I started cooking that... and maybe because I never stopped to think about it, but nor was it part of my education at the time that an egg white and an egg yolk don’t cook—meaning the proteins don’t set at the same temperature.  Whites cook at a lower temperature, set at a lower temperature than yolks.  That to me is very interesting.  That has opened up, as an egg lover that has opened up sort of a world of possibilities, of applications.  

So, let’s say it’s 63 Celsius, if you want Fahrenheit, that’s 145 degrees Fahrenheit, for an egg white versus 65 Celsius, that’s about 150 Fahrenheit for a yolk in terms of cook times.  Now that only sounds like a couple of degrees, but with something very gentle, very... I guess gentle is a good word,  those couple of degrees make a big difference.  And that’s an interesting, I find, I think a very interesting byproduct of the work that molecular gastronomists are doing on any given subject.  

Green vegetables are something that fascinate chefs; the ability to keep vegetables green.  How do we keep them green?  What makes them green?  Why are they green?  And then that sort of army green.  Why do they go from bright vibrant electric green to army green, and how can we avoid that?  And that’s another element of molecular gastronomy, another by-product is that there’s a temperature range—chlorophyll is what makes vegetables green and there’s a temperature range that the chlorophyll will bleed out at.  And if you, if you go below, if you stay within that temperature range, you can fix the chlorophyll, for lack of a better term.  And when you... well no, I’m sorry.  That’s not right.  There’s a temperature range that will affect a vegetable’s ability to hold onto the chlorophyll, it will bleed out.  And so when you pass through that range, you want to pass through it quickly.  And that’s interesting.  Chlorophyll bleeds out at between 150 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit.  So you want to either be above the, or below that as quickly as possible.  You want to pass through that range.  

And some interesting experiments have been done where if you get a large pot of boiling water and you put, say broccoli in there, as long as you stay above 170, your broccoli will be green for days.  And that it will no longer be something you want to eat, but that’s useful information in terms of understanding how to make sure your vegetables are bright.  Again, as a new parent feeding my daughter you know, Gerber green beans.  They clearly did not use that temperature range as a gauge and you get this really grey, stinky green bean that is a crime against vegetables.  So that’s another thing that I think is useful to the chef and understanding what’s happening to the chlorophyll in order to keep the vegetable bright and vibrant.  And then we’re still probably going to learn more about the nutritive value and how that’s associated with the color.  

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.  

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.

Question: Is there a method behind your madness when it comes to experimentation?

Wylie Dufresne: one of the things that we like to do, one of the formats that we play with a lot and I think successfully is, we will take something very familiar and serve it in an unfamiliar way.  But then we will take things unfamiliar and serve them in familiar ways because I think taking something unfamiliar and serving it in an unfamiliar way is maybe... you run the risk of asking too much of people, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.  But I still think, as a society... people are beginning to see that dining, eating can be an art form, but it’s not—it’s still not sky’s the limit, no holds barred all the time with eating as it is with other art forms like painting, sculpture.  There it’s "Go wherever you want and we’ll decide there."  But it’s still eating.  People still... you have to eat, you don’t have to paint, you don’t have to do these other things.  

And so I think there’s still a large number of people that eating is about sustenance and it’s not about a creative process or anything like that.  So, that being said, we like to, I think, a very successful way of delivering food in the restaurant is something familiar like eggs benedict.  We will take that apart and serve it to you in a way that does not resemble the eggs benedict of your childhood or of Sunday brunch or of whatever your particular memory of eggs benedict is, but when you eat it, you can still be transported; it's still all the flavors that, it still taps the memory of eggs benedict, but we serve it in an unfamiliar way.  We break it down, we deep fry the Hollandaise, we poach an egg yolk and shape it, restructure it in another way, we do a lot of things, but when you eat it, you go" Ah, I’m still having eggs benedict." I can still—the taste is linked to memory and that usually makes—often makes for a successful dish.  When you eat something and have it tap a memory, as long as that memory is positive, then you can... that’s a good for us to serve you.  

But then if we take a combination of things, for instance, again, a dish that we’re going to put on the menu today is... it’s going to be veal brisket with honeydew melon, ricotta cheese, block olives, and green tomatoes.  And those are flavors that probably don’t sound... they might sound disparate to some people.  Why do I want olives with my melon?  Why Ricotta and green tomatoes, well that doesn’t sound... to me that doesn’t sound crazy but there are elements to that dish that maybe don’t sound like they are going to go together, but we’re not going to present it in a very... We’re going to present it in a way that’s going to make it seem friendly, going to make you want to interact with it in a nice way.  It’s gonna... it’s not going to be intimidating and I don’t... And again, I’m  hesitant to use these words because I don’t want to challenge – sound like I’m challenging people.  But I think, for instance, another dish that we do is, is we have a wall-eyed pike that we serve with mashed potatoes, yeast, zucchini, and nasturtiums.  And again, mashed potatoes flavored with yeast is something that probably at first glance you’d think, they taste funky.  They taste like they’re off. Because yeast has that, that funk, that yeastiness to it that is what makes beer so delicious and bread so wonderful.  But it also is something that is approaching an off note.  

But when you have a piece of fish with mashed potatoes and a vegetable and a sauce, then you’re using a framework that's familiar to people, but we’re delivering flavors that are a little unfamiliar, or a lot unfamiliar, but we’re presenting it in a way that is familiar.  That people can sort of say, "Ah, okay, I can see my mashed potato pile, I see my fish, I see my pile of vegetables.  Okay, I get it."  And then as they begin to eat it, our hope is that someone would say, "Oh, wow!  Yeast, that’s that never would have—I didn’t think of that."  Or "Wow!  Nasturtium, that’s interesting.  I don’t even know what that is.  And how did... what? I don’t understand how they cook this fish, but the texture is fabulous.  And you know, some people don’t even notice that, but for those that do, we have found that those are successful ways of delivering food to people.  Familiar things in unfamiliar ways.  And unfamiliar things in familiar ways.  

What’s with all the foam?

Wylie Dufresne: Well, without foam there’d be no bread, there’d be no ice cream, there’d be no cappuccino. Let’s see, what else is foam? The cushion I’m sitting on is a foam.  There’s a lot of foams that have been around long before the sort of the "foam movement" and therefore the "anti-foam movement."  I think that people have a responsibility if they’re going to criticize something to understand the past, the present, and then the, you know, hopefully a little bit of the future and people attacking foam is a little bit misguided.  I think that it was an easy thing to latch onto because some chefs and myself included recognized that taking heavy things, for instance, and lightening them and then presenting them that way in some ways can make them... was another way to eat it, another way to experience it, but also made it more pleasant.  I mean, I think that that’s what, that’s the joy in a cappuccino is that you have milk, which is heavy, fatty, rich.  I mean, up until recently, you only had full fat milk.  So, a cappuccino was made with full fat milk.  And in my mind a proper cappuccino still is made with full fat milk.  But by frothing it up, you lighten it and it makes it feel less heavy, less weighty.  So what’s bad about that?  You’re eating something rich whether it’s butter... a butter-based sauce or a Foie gras or any number of rich luxurious things, but you’re having it in this very light ethereal delicate way.  I think that that’s a nice juxtaposition in many ways.  

But like anything, when done poorly, it's easy to attack and I think... again, I think that for as many people that were making foams, well, properly, there were many more that were doing it improperly and that didn’t help.  And I also think that as much as people cry out for something new, you give them something new and then they lash out against it for being new and being different.  

But foam has been around for a long time.  You’re not going to get a lot of people that don’t like ice cream, that are anti-ice cream other than the healthful... the unhealthfulness of it.  But who’s going to say—and ice cream is a foam I’m sorry to say, and it’s not going anywhere.  Bread is a foam and is one of—is a universal food that virtually every culture has figured out how to make, but it’s a foam.  

So I think that people criticizing foam, and I know that they are using foam to mean that little frothy bit, and if that little frothy bit on something isn’t made right, it can be kind of watery and weepy.  But I just feel like that was an easy one. You know, we chefs almost put a target on our back when we decided to embrace that notion.  But I still find it very interesting that you can whip something, lighten something, put is on a plate and eat it because I think that engaging something in a new way, whether it be vinegar or butter or a flavor, but encountering it in a new form is often very exciting to me.  And foam was something that a lot of people played with and I just think that people went after it unnecessarily.

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.  

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.  

What country is the new culinary hot spot?

Wylie Dufresne: I would certainly say that Scandinavia is enjoying a well-deserved moment.  There are many chefs in Scandinavia right now that are doing some very, very interesting things.  Again, they’re introducing us, the world, the culinary world, to a whole new group of ingredients that we're unfamiliar with.  They’re exposing us to an approach, to a style of cooking that I think is... has been around for a long time, but we’re seeing it come back into vogue.  I think they’re doing some really good people, like René Redzepi, and Ulla Ruden, and Matthias Dahlgren and I mean the list goes on and on and on.  There’s a tremendous number of people in Scandinavia that are doing fantastic, fantastic stuff over there.   

And it’s good technique mixed with good ingredients mixed with a curiosity that’s yielding some delicious, fantastic food and I think that it’s really an exciting moment for that part of the world, and I think that that’s part of the natural sort of evolution of things.  We get excited about one place and then we get excited about another place.  

I also think Japan... I find Japan endlessly fascinating.  Part of that is because they have been so, so good at keeping us out and not letting us in, but now they’ve really... there’s a push right now to get Japanese food and culture, certainly here in America, in Europe, but even in New York, there’s a lot of people that are saying, Japanese people that are saying, look at what we are doing.  And it’s fascinating and it’s really interesting.  I find the Japanese approach to cooking to be endlessly interesting.  You know, we certainly haven’t heard the last of Spain and I don’t thing anyone should ever forget about France because France still has a pretty good track record.

Recorded August 6, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

A conversation with the chef.

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