Wylie Dufresne: The Toqueland Interview, Part 1

One of Our Most Influential Chefs on Life After WD-50, the State of Fine Dining, and Moving the Ball Forward

Wylie Dufresne, outside Alder restaurant. December 22, 2014. (photo by Evan Sung)

Wylie Dufresne, outside Alder restaurant. December 22, 2014. (photo by Evan Sung)

Photographs of Wylie Dufresne by Evan Sung

Wylie Dufresne is a chef in transition. As everybody reading this surely knows, he closed his landmark restaurant WD-50 after service on November 30, 2014, and continues on at his East Village restaurant Alder, which he launched in 2013. We’ve long been meaning to ask Wylie for an interview and he graciously agreed to one during the final days of WD-50, asking only that we wait until after the last dish had left the pass, and he and his team had cleared out of the space before we sat down.  And so, this interview was conducted in two sessions at Alder, the first on December 22, and the follow-up on January 15; with Wylie’s blessing, I have spliced the interviews together. As a side note, there are not many chefs of Wylie’s stature who are as unassuming and generous as he is. We don’t know each other well, but during a busy and emotional time, he could not have been more accommodating in making himself available, not once, but twice — our great thanks to him for that.

Here’s Part 1 of our conversation, in which we discuss the last days of WD-50, as well as the first days of his career and the evolvement of his style:

Friedman: To start with the obvious, if I just throw it out there: Since you closed WD-50, how are you feeling? What are the emotions that you’re going through right now?

Dufresne: You know, I feel sad. We surrendered the keys on Friday, and we had an auction on Tuesday, which I was only there briefly for because I didn’t want to watch the stuff go.

Friedman: Had you always planned to leave the auction? Restaurateurs have told me that auctions are surprisingly emotional events for them.

Dufresne: I anticipated it being an emotional event and so I didn’t want to be there. And then a guy came up to me and said, “Chef, I’m a cook” or “I’m a chef” — I don’t remember. “You’re one of the reasons I do this. This is not a restaurant; this is a museum. I will bid on an item or two with the utmost respect for you.”

And it kind of hit me that I’ve got to go … you know, I have sort of been following Derek Jeter in his [retirement]… I watched how he did his thing. There were moments where he knew he was going to get choked up and didn’t necessarily want to do that in a public forum and so he kind of extricated himself from those moments. And I found myself having very similar experiences where I could see that I was going to get choked up so I just was, like, “You know what? I’m going to move on.”

I had my moment with the space all by myself after I turned the keys in. Everybody left and I just sat there on the street and had my final communion, whatever you want to call it. Said goodbye to my friend. And that was that.

I still feel emotional about it but, as my wife points out, it’s gone but the things that you’re emotional about remain. The things that mattered to you about that place don’t go away. But I guess, there’s a newness to that emotion… I’m grateful for all that that space has done for me, for the people I met, for what it allowed me to learn as a cook, for the people it allowed me to meet, for the food it allowed me to create. But all of that can still happen.

And I love Alder. Alder is a great place. Alder is a different place than WD-50 but Alder is a great restaurant doing great things. But I think the feelings that I’m feeling are probably fairly normal.

Friedman: Are there things that you find yourself thinking about as you reflect on WD-50 that surprise you?… 

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Talking Shop: Kevin and Alex Pemoulie (Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ)

The Couple Behind  Thirty Acres Discuss Their Pending Shift to a Tasting Menu Format, Operating a Restaurant in Jersey City, and Culinary Inspirations

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Kevin and Alex Pemoulie, with daughter Viv, at Thirty Acres. (photo by Lauren Bloomberg)

[Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to welcome guest poster Lauren Bloomberg to Toqueland. Not sure how much or how often she may drop in but her first piece for us is a timely visit with Kevin and Alex Pemoulie of Jersey City’s Thirty Acres, that Lauren serendipitously had booked before the this week’s testing-menu news broke. Enjoy! – A.F.]

There are many things to consider when deciding whether to leave the non-creature comforts of a Manhattan apartment to jump the river to Jersey City. The most important in my mind: the quality of local restaurants. Which is why, upon taking an apartment-search break to dine at Thirty Acres, my-bullish-on-Jersey City husband questioned, “Can we still move here or have you blown your load?”

Thirty Acres is the first love child of Kevin and Alex Pemoulie, Momofuku alums (he was chef de cuisine at Noodle Bar and she ran financial operations). The second is their new daughter Viv (“seven months old is still new”) who joined us for a sunny afternoon chat about the restaurant scene in Jersey City, their inspirations (Paris and cookbooks that aren’t “self-strokey”), and the tasting-menu-only format they will debut on February 5th.

Bloomberg: You’ve been open for almost three years…what’s different now from when you opened three years ago?

Alex: Well, for one, we got our liquor license. We opened BYOB, which was a new experience for us.

Kevin: The menu hasn’t gotten a ton larger but, it’s definitely gotten more focused. And now we’re moving into a very different menu. I think that the comfort level of operating a restaurant, it’s not easy now, but it’s more comfortable. Alex and I mark opening day as one of the top three worst days of our life. It got easier but opening day, week, month were really tough.

Alex: Staffing has always been difficult. You know, there’s always a lot of turnover in restaurants and with a restaurant this size, it requires that we have a small staff; it’s felt a lot more–when somebody leaves that’s a third of your staff. The staff that we have now we are really comfortable with and they’re all really skilled and know the way we do things and it’s a good team.

Bloomberg: Coming from Manhattan, are there different challenges to finding staff in Jersey City?

Kevin: I don’t think so. It’s very hard to find anyone, both front and back of the house, with the certain skill set that you’re looking for. Momofuku certainly got enough attention to draw resumes, good or bad. I think the difference is that we maybe get more people just responding to Craigslist, but quality-wise it’s pretty much the same…. 

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Talking Shop: Jesse Schenker (Recette and The Gander, NYC)

The Chef and Author of All or Nothing Talks Addiction in the World of Professional Cooking, Running Multiple Kitchens, and Work Ethic

Jesse Schenker, in the private dining room at The Gander (photo by Evan Sung)

Jesse Schenker, in the private dining room at The Gander (photo by Evan Sung)

 Photographs by Evan Sung

It’s been a busy year for chef Jesse Schenker. His West Village jewel box Recette recently turned five years old, last spring he debuted The Gander in Chelsea, and fall saw the publication of his first book, All or Nothing:  One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme.  The book is a staggeringly revealing, first-person account of Schenker’s years-long tussle with addiction, one which saw him toggle between pro kitchens and the streets, rehab, and jail. It also, not incidentally, recounts his culinary development, and the steps that led to his success in the high-stakes world of New York City restaurants and in his personal life (he’s happily married with two young children). We recently sat down with him at The Gander to discuss the book, addiction and the pro kitchen, and how he’s adjusting to life with two restaurants.

Friedman: The kind of stuff you talk about in this book, in this very revealing way, a lot of people don’t want to talk about. They certainly don’t want to talk about themselves doing it or having done it. At the same time, it’s often what publishers want from people.  You clearly had no problem doing it. But it didn’t seem crass or commercial to me. I don’t know if it’s the right word, but to me it has the tone of almost a confessional ‑‑ it’s very soul‑bearing. It seemed to me that you must have wanted to do it. But I’m wondering why. Was it for yourself? Did you think it would help other people?

Schenker: A hundred percent. Both. Ultimately, for me, the first thing that I thought of, and I still think of to this day, and I’m going to quote it. I’m not going to get into the whole AA literature, but “you can’t keep what you have unless you give it away.” That’s the truth.

Friedman: Which means what to you?

Schenker: Which means I need to show people… Ultimately I was an anxious kid. I self‑medicated, so I got hooked on drugs because I was trying to numb my feelings…  You know the saying, “I’m going out of my mind?” You’re not going out of your mind, you’re actually going in your mind…. 

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That’s a Wrap!

As the Kitchen Closes for 2014, a Look Back at Our Favorite Posts

Dear Toqueland readers,

I’m writing to you from a rented house on the outskirts of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where my family and I are winding down the year. Before the ball drops, I wanted to take a moment to thank you for reading this site — whether you are a regular subscriber, occasional visitor, or found your way here once or twice thanks to some love from one of the major food blogs or via social media. However you came to Toqueland, I’m grateful for your attention and hope something of value greeted you whenever you’ve dropped by.

Running a site like this is mostly a blessing, but also a curse: One wants to post all the time, but contracted (i.e., paid) work and personal commitments must come first. So I find myself constantly wishing I were able to share something every day, if not several times a day.  The result is often dissatisfaction, sometimes even anxiety. But I recently glanced over the last twelve months’ worth of posts and find that it’s actually been a rather productive year on Toqueland.  With that in mind, I wanted to briefly consolidate my favorite posts in one place; I thought it might be a good way for causal readers to catch up on anything you might have missed and for regulars to have one last look at a piece or two before they fade into the past. (I’d also shamelessly suggest that if you have friends you’d like to turn on to Toqueland, this post would be a good way to do it.)

With that, and with my thanks for your readership, here are the highlights of our 2014:

Anthony Bourdain: The Toqueland Interview

“I wrote an article wanting to sell it for $100 to the New York Press.”… 

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TALKING SHOP: Scott Bryan, The Milling Room, NYC

Veteran Chef Scott Bryan chats about The Milling Room, the Upper West Side, and the Nexus of Art and Cooking

Scott Bryan, The Milling Room. December 2014.  (Photo by Evan Sung)

Scott Bryan at The Milling Room’s Tavern oven. December 2014. (Photo by Evan Sung)

[Editor’s Note: My great thanks to good friend, photographer Evan Sung, who recently and graciously offered to help me class up the joint with photographs to accompany some interviews and articles on Toqueland. This marks our first collaboration here. -AF]

Chef Scott Bryan has been a fixture in the New York dining scene for a few decades, most prominently at Veritas, where he was the opening chef and earned three stars from the New York Times, and then at Apiary, where he cooked for the past five years. He was a Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef in 1996, and has honchoed kitchens at restaurants such as Alison on Dominick Street, Luma, and Indigo. A native of Boston, Scott trained under Bob Kinkead, and worked in many great New York kitchens early in his career, including Bouley, Le Bernardin, and Gotham Bar and Grill, as well as at Joyce Goldstein’s Square One in San Francisco. Earlier this year, he was briefly the chef at Bacchanal, then joined forces with restaurateur Luis Gonzalez at The Milling Room on the Upper West Side in September.  The restaurant is divided into a Tavern room and bar up front, and an enormous dining room in the back (some may remember it as the former home of Main Street, then Calle Ocho, before it became Corvo Bianco). Scott and I sat down recently to discuss how he got here, his plans for the restaurant, and related issues.

FRIEDMAN: It’s been a pretty active year for you; you left Apiary then did Bacchanal and now you’re here. How did this come about?

BRYAN: This came about because I basically worked on Bacchanal for, like, two years, talking about doing that venture … I never signed off on the kitchen there which was tiny, way too small. And so I knew it wasn’t going to work once I was there.  After about a month there I called Maestro, Alfred Erlich, and I said, “This isn’t going to work; do you know anyone looking for a chef?” And he goes, “Well, this place uptown, the old Corvo Bianco space. The guy Luis [Gonzalez] is looking. They’re going to close. The chef they hired didn’t work out.” So I met with him a few times and we decided to go from there … I was sort of hesitant about taking the job up here because I never worked on the Upper West Side and I know it’s a tough place … but I said, “Fuck it. Why not?”

FRIEDMAN: What’s the reputation of this neighborhood among chefs?

BRYAN: Upper West Side is considered a wasteland…. 

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Dispatches: Growing Chefs

American Food Pioneer Larry Forgione Schools a New Generation at the Culinary Institute of America

Larry Forgione in St. Helena, California. (photo courtesy Culinary Institute of America)

Larry Forgione in St. Helena, California. (photo courtesy Culinary Institute of America)

Thanksgiving, one of the most American of holidays, seems the perfect time to share a story I’ve been sitting on for a little while, about what American food pioneer Larry Forgione has been up to the past couple of years.

Historically speaking, Larry’s a titan. But he’s been without a restaurant in a major city for quite some time, so isn’t as well known to younger chefs and culinary enthusiasts as he once was, or should be. But if you care about food, especially American food, you really ought to know about the man, because he belongs on the same pedestal as contemporaries Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower, and the rest of the gang he came up with in the 1970s and 1980s.

Larry was the first prominent chef to emerge from Buzzy O’Keefe’s The River Café (which later provided a runway for Charles Palmer and David Burke, among others), before opening his own restaurant, An American Place, in Manhattan in 1983. During his heyday, Larry made several essential, abiding contributions to our national restaurant landscape. Foremost among these was the development of a repertoire that was achieved in part by mining under-appreciated regional dishes from across the USA, at times actually working in tandem with James Beard. (On occasion, the two would leaf through books together in the library at Beard’s house on West 12th Street.) At a time when journalists categorized a wide range of styles under the umbrella “New American Cuisine,” Larry was actually cooking American food, elevating it with world-class technique.

His other crowning legacy was establishing a network of purveyors that was sorely lacking on the East Coast in the mid-to-late 1970s, when he returned from cooking at London’s Connaught Hotel and began plying his trade in New York City, first at Regine’s, then at River Café; the lengths to which he went to procure superlative ingredients would floor today’s chefs, for whom any edible esoterica is just mouse-click away. (The victory lap was his menu, which–as Gael Greene once wrote–included “farm, ranch and geographical credits for every periwinkle and prawn.”) He simply couldn’t understand why a chef in New York City didn’t have access to the same great ingredients he’d cooked with in London, and which his grandmother grew on her farm in Eastern Long Island, which he visited on weekends and summers in his youth.

Here’s a snippet of Larry back in the day; if you think “farm-to-table” is a newish concept, pay close attention to his comments, uttered three decades ago, starting at the one-minute mark:… 

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Ruminations: Secret Handshake

On the Occasion of Spoon and Stable’s Opening, Some Thoughts on the Fellowship of Chefs

Spoon Kitchen Crew

Celebrating Spoon and Stable, November 13, 2014. Front row, from left: George Serra (in blue zip-up sweater), Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, and Thomas Keller. (photograph copyright 2014 by Bob Grimes)

Thomas Keller–attired in his preferred civilian ensemble of black turtleneck, sport coat, and jeans–entered the open kitchen at Spoon and Stable, Gavin Kaysen’s brand new Minneapolis restaurant, during a pre-opening party last Thursday night, and shook hands with every cook on the line.  To casual observers, if they noticed at all, it probably didn’t seem like much — a friendly, supportive greeting from one of Gavin’s mentors, who also happens to be one of the most acclaimed chefs in the world.

But to anybody familiar with kitchens of a certain caliber, and their history, those handshakes had great significance. At Keller’s restaurants, chefs, cooks, and commis “shake in” and “shake out” with each other every day. It’s such an ingrained aspect of life within the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group that former French Laundry chef de cuisine Timothy Hollingsworth once told me that if a member of his brigade failed to make the rounds at night’s end, he’d phone that person up the next morning to ask if he or she was upset about something.

This is not unique to Keller’s restaurants–the ritual of shaking hands with one’s colleagues is a sign of mutual respect, and respect for the work at hand, that is observed at great restaurants all over the world, including Cafe Boulud, where Gavin was executive chef before decamping for Minneapolis back in the spring.  And shaking hands in another chef’s kitchen … well, that’s a special sign of respect and solidarity all its own.  I don’t know Thomas’s inspiration for doing it, and I was trying not to bug people with journalistic questions the other night, but one of his heroes, the great French chef Paul Bocuse, famously did just that, frequently making a beeline for the kitchen when visiting a restaurant, even sometimes entering via the service entrance rather than the front door.  Many who cooked at Le Cirque in the 1980s vividly recall Bocuse’s frequent visits decades back, and the thrill of shaking hands with him.

… 

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Depictions: Prune

Gabrielle Hamilton Has Written a Masterpiece. Here’s Hoping Everybody Learns from It.

DEPICTIONS: PRUNE

Gabrielle Hamilton’s new Prune is a cookbook that doubles as a Joycean depiction of life in a professional kitchen.

I returned home from a trip last week to find a copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune waiting for me, sent along by an editor we have in common.  I was wiped from traveling and took a cursory glance at it.

My initial reaction was confusion and disappointment. There was no flap or cover copy to explain the concept; no foreword by one of the author’s pals; no introduction by Gabrielle herself. After the title page and table of contents, I was suddenly, jarringly, looking at the first recipe, a recipe that had no headnote and was rendered in nondescript type art directed to look like a sparse notebook page. I leafed ahead.  None of the recipes had headnotes. And the third recipe had no method (i.e., instructions), just a roster of ingredients. There were notes and corrections hand-scrawled around the margins and between the lines, binder holes “punched” down toward the spine’s crevice (not really, but the images look impressively real), and facsimiles of Post-Its, mostly indicating how to scale a recipe up or down, on some of the pages. It seemed a little crazy and unthought-out to me. I shook my head, set it aside, and went on with my night.

Saturday morning, I found myself alone with the book and a cup of coffee at my dining room table. During that meditative early-morning time, I decided to give it another look.  It wasn’t long before I realized that my initial reaction could not have been further off the mark. As far as I’m concerned, Prune is a masterwork. More than that, it’s the book, or a version of the book, a great many of us–independent authors, chef-authors and their collaborators alike–wish we could write, but which most editors would never buy into. If they did, their publishers would probably override them. If that didn’t kill it, well, there’s always the sales and marketing crew to squelch the impulse to break the mold. The reason is simple: there’s a deep-seated belief in American publishing that a cookbook must adhere to certain conventions or readers will not be able to use it. Put another way, there’s an assumption that many people who cook in this country are culinary imbeciles, incapable of figuring anything out for themselves, and in need of every teaspoon, temperature, time, and taste-cue to be explicitly spelled out for them. … 

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Milestones: The Easterner

Jeremiah Tower Discusses His New Role as Chef of Tavern on the Green and Personal and Professional History with New York City

Jeremiah Tower, far from NYC in Playa del Carmen, 2009 (photo courtesy Jeremiah Tower)

Jeremiah Tower, far from NYC in Playa del Carmen, 2009 (photo courtesy Jeremiah Tower)

The Big News in Gotham this week is that Jeremiah Tower, the legendary chef behind Stars, and onetime Chez Panisse toque, has taken over the kitchen at Tavern on the Green, following Katy Sparks’ unfortunate departure in September, on the heels of no-star reviews from both the New York Times and New York Magazine. Tower, who hasn’t been a regular presence in a major American restaurant since departing Stars in 1999, has been living in Mexico for nearly a decade, but has nevertheless remained in the news: Most recently, he was a featured speaker at the MAD conference, and Anthony Bourdain and Zero Point Zero are currently producing a documentary about him. As I’ve been in regular touch with him in connection with my forthcoming book about the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, I caught wind of this development shortly before he and Tavern owners Jim Caiola and David Salama announced their new collaboration, and am pleased to be able to share this interview:

Friedman:  Obviously, most people connect you and your career with California. You also, though, have a long history with New York City, having started life on the East Coast, even though you never cooked here professionally. Can you take us through that a little bit?

Tower:  When I first saw New York it was eating at wonderful restaurants like the old Luchow’s and ‘21’ and stuff like that where my parents would go. And then, when I was in college, they lived in Brooklyn Heights in General Livingston’s old farmhouse, so Gage and Tollner and that kind of New York restaurant was what I remembered. And then all through college they lived there and in graduate school they lived there, and then back to Connecticut. So, I’m a New Englander. All my family is from New England. I was seen as a Californian, but between Boston and New York, I always felt like an Easterner, as some people in Berkeley would be happy to tell you. (laughs)

Friedman: You made some legendary visits to New York City in the 1980s, these nights when you would go on dine‑arounds. What was a typical visit to the city like for you during that time?

Tower: A visit to the city was usually around some special event, especially CityMeals on Wheels at Rockefeller Center. And I would always bring four people and about two thousand pounds of luggage so that we could make a huge display of ourselves. And then we’d get a limo and go and visit ten of the hot new restaurants, spending twenty minutes in each one, so that we would go back to San Francisco exhausted but inspired. New York was the inspiration…. 

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Farm Boy

Ryan Tate, formerly of Savoy and Le Restaurant, May Have Found Finally the Perfect Home at Blenheim

Ryan Tate, in the kitchen at Blenheim (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Ryan Tate, in the kitchen at Blenheim (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK CITY — Chefs’ professional fates can turn in an instant. A restaurant’s shuttering can leave them scrounging for work; a sudden opening or bit of serendipity can prove the first step in a new chapter.

Case in point: Ryan Tate, who honchoed the kitchen at the recently departed Le Restaurant in Tribeca, where he served a daily set tasting menu and garnered stars (one from Michelin, two from the New York Times), experienced both ends of that equation. Le Restaurant’s demise was of the slow, painful variety: Perched on the fringe of Tribeca, despite critical attention (among others, Gael Greene also found much to like there), Tate and owner Kyle Wittels (the two also collaborated on the restaurant’s adjacent sister business, the marketplace and cafe All Good Things), never quite found the customer mass required to keep the joint open.  And so, as June crawled to a close, they made the painful decision to shut it down, and Tate was soon to be a gun for hire … but before he’d served his last meal, another door had opened.

Maybe it was karma: Tate had been committed to cook at Pig Mountain–the upstate “pig roast and veggie fest”–later this month, but with no benefactor, he would have had to go out of pocket for ingredients and transportation, and wasn’t in a position to shell out the necessary coin. So he did the responsible thing and called producer Heather Carlucci to explain the situation as soon as possible.  The call set off a domino effect:  Carlucci told him that the chef of Blenheim had just left two days earlier, at which point Tate called former colleague Jonathan Russell, who happened to be the beverage director at the West Village establishment.  (Talk about quick twists of fate: original chef Justin Hilbert was out of Blenheim in a New York minute, owing to what the owners termed “irreconcilable differences.” The shift forced the restaurant to temporarily close after less than a month in business.)

Within hours, Tate was on the phone with Blenheim co-owner Morten Sohlberg, who also owns Blenheim Hill Farm, which supplies the restaurant with a steady flow of fresh ingredients, and Smörgås Chef restaurants with his wife and partner Min Ye. Continuing the real life fast forward, Sohlberg and Ye dined at Le Restaurant that very night. It was the second to last service, with a scant six souls in the dining room, two in the kitchen, and a solitary server soldiering back and forth between them.  But the couple were able to see past the funereal setting and were blissed out by the food.  … 

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