Modern American

Wylie Dufresne offers avant-garde cuisine for all. His restaurant wd~50 may be closing later this year but its legacy will endure, while New York gastropub Alder is thriving. He tells Jackie Mitchell how experimenting keeps him fresh

Wylie Dufresne, 44, acclaimed American chef, recently celebrated the first anniversary of his gastropub Alder in New York’s East Village, and also the 11th anniversary of his wd~50 restaurant in Clinton Street, New York. Those celebrations became somewhat subdued in early June however when Dufresne announced that wd~50 would be closing on 30 November because developer Icon Realty Management is planning to put up a new building on the site. “It’s a real estate thing,” the chef told The New York Times on 10 June. Dufresne put a brave face on the news, telling the paper that he planned to “eventually move his vision to a different location in the city, although he had no specific spots in mind”.

When I spoke to Dufresne, before the announcement was made, he was keen to draw a distinction between his two culinary offerings in NYC. For him, the difference between the two restaurants is that wd~50 is the mother ship, “but the idea behind Alder was to take a lot of wd~50 and distill it down or deliver it in a different format. Alder is at a lower price point and more conducive to popping in for a bite and a drink. At Alder, you can order small plates or hunker down and have a big meal.”

Dufresne has forged a reputation for avant-garde cuisine and this is reflected in the menus for both restaurants, although he is reluctant to name signature dishes, “as we don’t want to get typecast”.

He acknowledges there are dishes over the years that have resonated with people. These include eggs Benedict from wd~50 – slow cooked egg yolks with deep-fried hollandaise and Canadian bacon crisps, and foie gras with anchovy – “which was very polarising. It received a lot of attention and ink. Ultimately everyone has their own idea of what comes to mind when they think of wd~50 or of me as a chef. I would rather be known for an approach than a particular dish.”

He describes his style of cooking as modern American food. “We’re cooking what we believe to be delicious food using our geography, personal history, memories and even our sense of humour.”

Dufresne experiments with new culinary methods such as trying to find a new way to scramble an egg by piercing its shell with a needle and cooking it inside so when the egg is cracked open, it comes out scrambled and ready to eat.

“No, we have not successfully been able to scramble egg in its shell yet,” he says. “Often that’s the case – we try something, it doesn’t work so we put it on the shelf, then revisit the idea later. We have a new perspective and as a result, we can sometimes achieve success, but not always. We’ve been trying to create hot ice cream for 10 years.”

Experimenting with new dishes is part of both restaurants’ everyday process, whether it’s just talking about it, researching online or in books or the actual act of experimenting in the kitchen.

“There are people at both restaurants whose job it is to do that – starting with the chefs and working its way down the ladder,” adds Dufresne. “When thinking of a new dish, it can sometimes start with a piece of equipment, an ingredient, a seasonal change or an idea from one of our cooks.”

Dufresne balances his time between both restaurants, although he says it’s not something he’s necessarily mastered yet, “but I do communicate with both teams on a regular basis,” he says. “As far as cooking goes, I have a regular schedule and I spend specific days at each of my restaurants, but it can, and does, change.”

Mentoring his staff is vitally important not only because it is rewarding, “but also it is to your advantage to help people who work for you excel at their jobs,” he says. “Our tradition is to take new people and show them our style of cooking and bring them along on this journey. We want to give everyone the necessary tools to succeed both here at our restaurant and also for when they go on to other restaurants and endeavours.”

Dufresne didn’t always want to be a chef. Both his parents cooked and after they divorced, he spent his time between them. “They both enjoy cooking and I’ve taken a great deal away from time spent with each of them in the kitchen,” he says. “As a young man I really loved sports. At a certain point though, I realised I was never going to be an athlete, but I found when I did spend time in the kitchen that it felt much like a sport to me.

“Cooking is a team sport. You need each player to do their part. You prep – which is like practice. You are on your feet and sweating. Cooking is a very physical endeavour. And then it’s game time, time to serve the food to the masses.”

After completing a BA in philosophy at Colby College, Maine, he returned to New York and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. His first professional cooking job was at JoJo, run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten whom he describes as his greatest influence.

“I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to him for the impact he’s had on me and continues to have, both as a mentor and now, as a friend.”

In 1998, he became chef de cuisine of Prime Steakhouse, part of the Jean-Georges group, at Bellagio, Las Vegas. “It was and still is the largest space I’ve ever overseen,” he says. “So there was a double learning curve – being in charge of a huge staff and it being an ‘away’ game. I still have friends from that era.”

On his return to New York he worked at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, a 30-seat restaurant, before opening wd~50 in April 2003 with partners Jean-Georges and Phil Suarez. In 2006 it received a Michelin star which it has retained every year since.

“The Michelin guide is part of the group (including New York Times and New York magazine) that helps drive traffic to your restaurant,” he says. “It’s also rewarding when the efforts of the team can be acknowledged. When Michelin says you are worthy of some sort of recognition, that is really great.” While wd~50 restaurant in Clinton Street may be moving on, Dufresne’s own culinary legacy remains firmly in place.



What dish are you working on?

“We are always working on things, dishes, ideas. I can’t ever say that this is the one thing we are working on now, because it is an ongoing process.”


How do you relax?

“I like to sneak away to the movies. I find spending time with my wife and two daughters very relaxing. We try to get out to our home in Connecticut as often as possible and enjoy the country.”


You’ve appeared on TV shows Top Chef and Iron Chef America. Would you like to do more TV?

“Sure! You can actually catch me on the new show Beat Bobby Flay as a judge.”


Do you have plans to write a book on your restaurant’s story?

We’re working on a book and the exact details are still being developed. The book will certainly be about wd~50.


What is there left for you to achieve?

“I am very happy with the way Alder has come along so far, but there are other ideas in my head and I’d like to see these happen. I’ve long believed our approach to cooking is not limited to fine dining. I think there is room for it in every dining stratum, from super-cheap and cheerful all the way up to Michelin-star dining.”

Jackie Mitchell

Photograph Daniel Krieger

More Relevant

View More