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Wylie Dufresne: ‘Delicious Is The Most Important Thing’ And How To Not Stab Yourself

This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Wylie Dufresne on the state of celebrity chefdom, his new East Village neighborhood hang, Alder, and how awesome it was to be on Treme. The unsurprising theme of our short interview was what an all-out nice guy Dufresne is — how modest, and generally excited he is about where he’s been able to go in his career. He refuses to engage with me on the “Molecular Gastronomy” debate, and gives near-constant props to some of his peers in the game, even celebrating those who’ve become media moguls by now.

In the Q&A below, Wylie talks about his creative process, including the birth stories of a couple Alder dishes, mentions time and again that he values the taste of his food above all the hype in the world, and shares a few ‘scared shitless in the kitchen’ moments. If his goal is to have Alder be the round-the-way restaurant you just want to stop in for an easy bite, well, I can’t think of any chef who’d make a better neighbor.

The Braiser: You’ve opened a couple restaurants, received James Beard nominations and a Michelin star. You were on Top Chef Masters, Treme, and have even been shouted out by The Simpsons – did anything in particular stand out as the moment you felt you’d ‘made it’?

Wylie Dufresne: For me it’s all been about the restaurant. I always wanted to have a restaurant; I always wanted to be a chef in a restaurant. All that other stuff is great, and it’s a great honor — or a series of honors — or a great acknowledgement.

For me, I really wanted to have a restaurant that I could be proud of, to have the respect of my peers, and that a few people would show up and eat on occasion. That, for me, was the goal. So when I sat in the kitchen all by myself one night at wd-50, I don’t remember if it was the day before or the day after it opened, somewhere around that point, that’s when I sort of felt like ‘Wow, this is really happening.’

The rest has been a wonderful ride that I feel fortunate to be on. But I don’t really have a moment where I’m like ‘Wow, I’ve made it,’ you know? Getting married, having two kids, those are milestones that I think are on a different level for me.

TB: Going back to ‘sitting in the kitchen’, could you talk to me a little bit about this weird world of ‘Celebrity Chefdom’? Because I feel like the sort of dank, reclusive life in the back of a kitchen is so opposed to all the media attention and spotlight.

WD: Well I mean, I don’t know if I, technically, am a celebrity chef. I’m no Bobby Flay, I’m no Emeril, I’m no, I don’t know what you call people like Rachael Ray even. I have a certain amount, I suppose, of notoriety because of the opportunities that I’ve been afforded. I feel lucky. Those things are great because they put people in the seats, which is great because wd~50 has not always been wildly popular. So the opportunity to use other forms of media to drive people to the restaurant, I feel grateful for and appreciative of.

The celebrity chef thing, it’s a little weird, you know? It’s not why I got into it. I think that there are certain people that have decided that that’s what they’re looking for and I think that there are young people today that just simply get into it so that they can become celebrity chefs. But it was never an end game for me, it was a by-product that was very helpful at times, but was never the sole intention.

TB: Do you think that celebrity in and of itself is a challenge to chefs who actually want to be chefs?

WD: I’m not judging anybody…I think people pick the path that they ultimately believe works for them and I think that that’s fine. Emeril Lagasse or Mario Batali, those guys worked for 25 years anonymously before it all happened. They didn’t skip any steps; I have no beef with those guys. Working in a kitchen is hard, hard work, and to ultimately get that reward after all the work that they’ve put in, I don’t see that as objectionable.

I went to Po when Mario was back there working his tail off, and running Commander’s Palace is no easy gig. I think that anyone should walk a mile in their shoes, and I think that those guys have all earned it. Whether its Jean-Gorges [Vongerichten] or Daniel [Boulud] or any of those guys above me that have toiled away for so long, I’m happy to see them finally get something. I think that it’s more than well deserved.

TB: Bringing us back to your new baby, the Alder website says that the menu: “Takes familiar dishes and flavor combinations and presents them in a unique style.” When you’re riffing on a classic dish in that way, do you start with an ingredient that you’re excited to play with, or do you start with a classic dish that you want to reinvent?

WD: It can go either way. Sometimes you start with flavors, and you start to build and you end up at a classic. Or sometimes you start with a classic. Sometimes you start with a technique. Creativity is never linear, it’s not like ‘Today let’s sit down and be creative’. I think that that’s an important exercise for people.

You don’t always know how or when lighting’s gonna strike. I try to talk to the guys about being prepared for when it does hit you, to know how to grab it and get a hold of it. It can be an idea that one guy has and another person changes, or it can be something that started in the dessert station that moves on to the savory side. It could be a seasonal change, it could be just that we’re excited about this particular fish coming around…it happens a lot of different ways. I’m more interested that it happens ultimately, than how it happens.

TB: Do any of the items on Alder’s menu have a particularly interesting birth story?

WD: Yeah, I think that there are lots of them. The Caesar Nigiri was our sous chef Ryan Henderson. We tried several guys out for the job and when he came around — we made everybody cook food for us just to see where they were at — he had an idea for a Caesar Nigiri. It’s not the exact way he presented it to us now on the menu, myself and John Bignelli, the executive chef, and Ryan, we’ve all worked on making it better. It was a dish that got him a job, so that’s kind of a good story.

The Rye Pasta, another one that started with Ryan, is something that ultimately became to me, I don’t want to say a “love letter”, but a nod to the neighborhood and to the fact that we’re right across the street from the former 2nd Avenue Deli. And wd~50 is right down the street from Katz’s. Pastrami on rye with pickled green tomatoes was something that resonated for me as a kid. We started talking about a dish, and then we built on it: It didn’t originally have pickled green tomatoes and it didn’t have this, and it didn’t have that, and it didn’t have a piece of actual pastrami in the bottom of the bowl, but as we began to taste it and try it and tweak it; we started to draw on old memories and geography and nostalgia.

TB: The Nigiri was a dish that got Ryan his job, was there ever a dish that got you a job?

WD: That’s a good question, I don’t know. I was lucky, I think, insofar as all the jobs I’ve had I didn’t have to do that. I didn’t have to cook and prepare something for anybody. When I worked for Jean-Georges I didn’t have to try out, I mean, I had to try out for the position, but I didn’t have to try out by cooking anything. That’s not something I think of as a part of the French protocol.

TB: At wd~50 you have your $90 and $155 tasting menus, whereas Alder is being touted for its affordability and neighborhood accessibility. Can you talk a little bit about making that switch?

WD: I wanted to take a lot of the things that we learned: the techniques, technology, the knowledge and experience that we’ve had at wd~50, and apply it and deliver it in a more accessible way. Accessible in virtually every sense of the word accessible is what I wanted to do.

TB: Can you expand on the different ways that it is accessible?

WD: Well, Alder is easier to get to, it’s not as much of a commitment financially. It’s not as much of a commitment from a food standpoint, you can come in just for a snack or a bite. You can do that at the bar at wd~50, you still have that option, but generally speaking it’s a tasting menu restaurant. Whereas Alder is easier to find, easier to get to, it’s less of a commitment on a number of levels. That was one of my hopes for Alder, that it not be as much of a destination. Do you know what I mean?

I hope it’s the kind of thing where you go ‘Oh wow I was in there the other day and I just had a delicious glass of wine, and I had the pigs in a blanket, and it was really fun. I can’t wait to go back and maybe try a few more things.’ Or ‘I can’t wait to go back with five other people and sit down and have half the menu.’ You could sort of roll up your sleeves and go at it from any number of angles…it’s just more accessible.

I understand that it’s expensive to eat at wd~50 too, it’s not inexpensive. But there’s also a lot more involved in the preparation of food at wd~50 versus the food here at Alder.

TB: Speaking of the complexity in your food, in the great ‘molecular gastronomy’ debate, you’ve said that you don’t think the term makes cuisine sound appealing. But you’re definitely known for pulling out some of what author John Lanchester called “scientific party tricks”. How do you walk the line between your particular technique, keeping yourself interested in the process, and creating food that is not alienating?

WD: I find it to be a very satisfying process, to be a part of some kind of creative endeavor. I think that that is a very fulfilling aspect of my job, the ability to be creative and to work with other people who are creative to create a creative environment, or an environment that encourages and fosters it. For us it’s all about, ‘Is this delicious? Does this taste good?’ That’s the first thing. ‘How is this? Do you like it? Does it taste good?’ ‘Yes, it tastes great.’ ‘Well ok, then we can do some more with that if it tastes good.’ That’s the first thing, the taste.

The idea of food being alienating is a terrible thing. I would hope that there’s nothing alienating about my food at any point. I think if you eat good food, you’re eating good food. If the food tastes good and that’s the starting point, from there you can start to think about it on other levels. But I don’t like the idea, notionally, of it being alienating. That’s not what I’m looking for.

TB: Do you think that happens sometimes when people get carried away, with the foams, and the weird presentations, and that might be why molecular gastronomy is so divisive?

WD: I don’t think its fair for me to speak about other chefs, but I hope that we don’t get carried away. I think over the years our food has gotten better and we’ve matured and maybe we’re less, I don’t want to say showy, but it’s less about ‘hey, look what we can do!’ than maybe it was at one point. But I don’t think that I should be speaking to other chefs, about if they’re misusing it, that’s not fair.

TB: Speaking of how you’ve matured over the years, wd~50 turns ten next week…

WD: Yes, the same day that Alder turns ten days. So there’s some irony there.

TB: What do you think Wylie just opening wd~50 would think of Wylie at Alder?

WD: I would say in some sense it’s a return to, maybe not a return, but I have very fond memories of my time at 71 Clinton and before that at JoJo’s under Jean-Georges, and Alder is more of a restaurant harkening back to those experiences that were part of the formative early years in my career that I have incredibly fond memories of. I think, again, that if it tastes good, then it tastes good. I would hope that Wylie would come here and go ‘Wow, that’s clever and that’s delicious’. Or, ‘that’s delicious and clever.’ Again, delicious is the most important thing.

TB: Have there been any major surprises in your career in the ten years since opening up wd~50?

WD: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to do the whole TV thing when I opened up wd~50. None of that existed, Top Chef wasn’t around, we were still watching Rocco doing The Restaurant back then. To get back to the notion of celebrity chefdom, it didn’t really exist that much when I got started at wd~50. You were reading about chefs in the paper, but you weren’t seeing them on TV, or seeing international things. But again, I think that’s the function of extremely hard work by a group of people, the notion of working hard ultimately paying off. It seems like the scales of justice are in balance.

TB: You crossed into scripted TV with Treme last year. What was that like?

WD: That’s another crazy, surprising thing, seeing yourself on TV; I never expected that. It’s weird enough to go on a reality show and play yourself, but to be on an actual drama and they say ‘Okay, can you just act like yourself?’ Well, I suppose I can. You just gave me a sweater to wear that I never would have worn, but that’s a different story. It was fun because it’s a group of my friends, and my peers. Some people that I used to work for are on that show, and some people that I admired as a young kid were on that show. Getting to meet your heroes and your idols, that’s been a great luxury for me. A lot of the people I now know and consider my friends, I never thought I would have the opportunity to meet. I have their cookbooks on my wall and I think ‘wow that’s an amazing person and accomplishment’ and then getting to meet them or work with them or dine at their restaurant has been really special. I feel very fortunate.

TB: Can we expect any upcoming Treme cameos?

WD: Oh, I can’t talk about that sort of thing…

TB: Fine. I guess we’ll just have to watch.

WD: There you go…

TB: Okay, I know you’re short on time so I’m just going to shoot some rapid-fire questions your way. Have you ever been scared shitless in a kitchen?

WD: Yeah, of course I have.

I’ve hurt myself pretty badly; I almost cut my finger off with the slicer before, that scared me shitless. I put a knife into the palm of my hand, that surprised me and scared me shitless. Heston Blumenthal and Ferrán Adria showed up for dinner on the same night unexpectedly, that scared me shitless.

TB: What were you making when you stabbed yourself?

WD: I was trying to get an avocado apart and the pit split and the knife went into the palm of my hand.

TB: You know, I’m afraid of that every time I go for an avocado pit…

WD: : Well, hold it with a towel that will prevent it from happening.

TB: What is the most basic thing that you think every chef needs to know?

WD: There’s the pat answer: how to season your food.

TB: How about one piece of advice you wish you had gotten as a younger chef?

WD: [Laughs] Sleep more!

TB: Are you sleeping more now?

WD: No, I’m sleeping less than ever. Sleeping less than ever with a new restaurant, a couple of kids, a beautiful wife, and all the other things…but you know, that’s ok. It’s what you sign up for, right?

TB: You’re an admitted comic nerd, and have spoken at Comic-Con. If you could be any superhero — real or imagined — what would it be?

WD: I had a long-standing love affair with Spider Man, but I think that ultimately the one that I thought was the coolest of them all was Wolverine. If I had bones that wouldn’t break, that would be awesome. And if I had a healing power, I could have given that avocado the finger. Just the idea of like, given how many times I’ve hurt myself from the elbow down, the notion of being able to have it all healed would be wonderful. I’ve never really broken a bone, I’ll probably break one tonight now that I’ve said that. The Adamantium was more of a cool thing rather than something I would have benefited from, it’s a pretty neat power. I also kind of liked his ability to just not give a shit what other people thought about him. That’s commendable.

TB: …and definitely comes in handy in your industry.

WD: Yeah, the guy had a thick skin.

TB: Is there anything else that you would want The Braiser’s readers to know about you, or Alder, or what’s happening in your life right now?

WD: No, just that I hope that they’ll come and give us a try.

TB: If the early lines outside are any indication, they already are!

WD: Well, yeah. Come on…Carbone’s probably got the same line, and Lafayette opens in two weeks right? By then we’ll be old news.

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