The Chef on His Upcoming Book, Generation Next, Flirting with the Mainstream, and Formal Education in the Kitchen
Photographs by Evan Sung
We’re delighted to share Part 2 of our extensive interview with Wylie Dufresne, conducted shortly after WD-50’s closing last month. If you missed Part 1, you might want to read that before continuing below…
On Finding Your Own
Friedman: We’ve mentioned a couple of chef communities that have sprung up over the years ‑‑ nouvelle cuisine and California cuisine and New American Cuisine–and you have mentioned your contemporaries. As these movements have happened over the years, the people who fall within each group always seem find each other from coast to coast, and now internationally. Do you remember as you were becoming more known, how you first started to connect with these people and feeling like you were part of this group? Do you have a memory of that coalescing?
Dufresne: I think it probably to a certain extent started around … you know, the aughts were a time when this food conference notion blew up. I was early on the Spain train, and stayed on it for a really long time. When I was at 71 [Clinton Fresh Food] I went on a trip. They may still do it today, I don’t know, but back then ‑‑ we’re talking somewhere around 2000, ’99 — the Spanish government was trying to promote Spain as a culinary destination, like a lot of governments still do today, not including ours, of course; they get behind their chefs and put a lot of money into them in an effort to generate tourist dollars.
Friedman: There’s also often a national pride in that culinary tradition.
Dufresne: Correct. Which is sorely lacking in our country, probably due to size, it’d be almost impossible… And so I went on a trip. I’m not even sure how I got invited, but it was awesome… It was Paul Kahan, it was Michael Schlow, it was Gabrielle Hamilton, it was Susan Goin. I knew who all of them were. I was a fan of them all, kind of surprised that I was included in the list because I felt like I was a rung or two below them, easily, on the ladder, [and I] admired them.
And we went on this trip and we went all over Spain: El Bulli, San Sebastian, Arzak, the Navarra region. I unfortunately had to cut my part of the trip short because I was in a wedding so I missed the part in San Sebastian where they took the group to the gastronomic societies, which I would have loved to have gone to.
But going to Arzak, going to El Bulli at that point was like, whoa! I, at 71, had begun to sort of develop my own style and my own approach, and went there and saw how these people were thinking freely. And it was incredibly liberating. Before that I had my parents who always encouraged me to be a free thinker, and I had JG [Jean-Georges Vongerichten] who was very much, I think, a creative chef. But here were people that were encouraging taking the model, the existing sort-of dining formats, and destroying them. It was really eye opening.
And so I got excited about Spain and started going back to Spain every year for something like twelve years…
I didn’t even know what these food congresses were. They were already pretty big in Spain but they didn’t have a huge international presence. And so I was there and continued to go to that one. And it’s at those congresses you start to meet. Then I went to Madrid Fusion, got to speak at Madrid Fusion the next year, and there I met Heston Blumenthal. Got to meet Chris Young who was instrumental in modernist cuisine. He’s become a very good personal friend…
And I started to see those congresses as instrumental or integral in my personal growth. So I have notebook upon notebook of just going to these congresses and sitting in the audience and watching what these chefs would do. And invariably they’d be going out afterwards, having dinner and rubbing elbows. That’s where I began to meet those guys. And I would say that, for me, that’s where we began.
On Generations of Chefs
Friedman: You’re in your forties.
Friedman: Again, you’ve named these people that you consider to be on a similar track to you ‑‑
Dufresne: Sure. Contemporaries.
Friedman: What you do continues to seem cutting edge and of the moment, but I wonder, at your age, are there gradations that somebody like me, who’s not a chef, who doesn’t function in your inner world, might not see? Do you perceive a next wave coming up behind you that’s the current equivalent of what you were maybe fifteen years? Not in an at-odds way, but is there a stylistic or philosophical breakpoint?
Dufresne: I’m going to have to stick to New York because that’s where I am and that’s where I feel comfortable weighing in. There’s a great interest in ethnic cooking in a way that… when I was a young cook there was an interest in ethnic food but it would be for staff meal, would be for going after work, you know, going to New York Noodletown or Wo Hop. And now we’re putting that food on the table and praising it. I think that guys like Danny [Bowien] or Alex [Stupak] … there seems to be a great interest in taking ethnic foods and playing with them and in really fun, interesting and creative ways.
I don’t know. I want to believe that we, whoever we are, have helped people. When people say what is it that you want anyone to say about their time at WD-50 that’s worked for you, what do you want? What do you hope? If Andrew Friedman was to interview Bob who used to work for me, what do I hope Bob will say? All I hope Bob will say, literally, is, “It made me think.” Well, what does that mean? It means whatever it means. It made me think in whichever direction it caused Bob to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I have a question.” That’s what I want.
… See, I’m not like Chang, I’m not like Danny. I’m not like the Torrisi guys. I’m not even like Stupak because these guys are all using — well, not Alex because he’s not Mexican but he’s chosen the food of Mexico; he’s deeply passionate about it and figuring out a way to take it and make it his own the way Chang is taking Korean food and making it his own, Danny’s taking Chinese food and making it his own, the Torrisi boys are taking Italian-American food and making it their own.
I don’t have any childhood culinary … I don’t have any deep specific ethnic things that I riff off of. I’m coming from a slightly different attitude. But that is the style I see right now is people taking these ethnic foods and sort of having at it, having their way with them. And I believe that in the process of doing that they’re asking some questions. I know today’s diner is more informed and more educated than ever, so at some point today’s cook has to be as well in order to keep pace with the diner…
So the desire to learn and understand, I think, to answer your question sort of circuitously, is going to endure. And right now I feel like it’s taking some interesting ethnic forms. We’re seeing people understand what al pastor means. And how can I be authentic and how can I have fun with it? What is Szechuan cooking and how can I understand it and how can I take authentic Szechuan cooking and all these kitschy, goofy Chinese-American notions and bring them together and make really good Chinese food but deliver it in a kitschy way?
We’re seeing great stuff. We’re seeing the Italian-American kids, you know, take red sauce, ideas, but make really good red sauce and walk that notion down the road. And that’s any of us would hope is that we were walking ideas down the road, making them a little bit better and making them our own.
What to Expect from the WD-50 Cookbook
Friedman: You’re doing a book for Anthony Bourdain’s line of books at Ecco.
Friedman: It’s billed as a cookbook?
Dufresne: Well, it’s a book with recipes. I don’t know how Merriam-Webster defines cookbook. You’re the first person to bring that up. One will be able to cook from it.
Friedman: That’s one thing I mean. But one of the things that comes up when someone who cooks at a certain level in a publishing industry that these days is not doing great across the board, generally speaking, is you know, “dumbing it down.” Publishers always pick some Midwestern town and say, “How’s someone in so-and-so going to make this dish?” Is this something that you guys are worrying about as you do your book or are you presenting a document of the food that we know as Wylie Dufresne food, WD-50-style food?
Dufresne: This is the story of WD-50. This is the arc. This is, you know, not the entire arc because it would have to be a phone book, but this is, to an extent, the arc that WD-50 has taken. It will involve stories and recipes from past, present ‑‑ and I can’t say future because it’s closed. And it will have lots of images to that effect. That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really thought about it, if it technically … what is the definition of a cookbook?
Friedman: I guess I meant more is it going to be this pure expression of what you did ‑‑
Dufresne: Correct, yes.
Friedman: Without trying to go through what to me is usually a silly exercise of making what a guy like you does into, in some way, “everyday food.”
Dufresne: No, nope. That wasn’t of interest to me, and fortunately that was okay with the people at Echo that we wanted to do it this way because it would have never happened which would have been a shame. For a long time I was kind of agnostic on a cookbook ‑‑ although I love cookbooks; I have almost 2000. But I was kind of agnostic on my own, but I’m glad particularly now that it’s gone that there’s, fifty recipes, images that will be representative of a great concept ideology.
Friedman: Where are you in the process?
Dufresne: We’re soon to be handing in most of our work. [Reminder: The bulk of this interview was recorded in late December.]
Friemdan: So you’re going to publish sometime in 2016, I would guess?
Dufresne: I’m not in a position to answer that question because I don’t make those decisions and I don’t want to give misinformation.
Friedman: Do you have a title?
Dufresne: It’s going to be something with “WD-50” in it.
Of WD and Mickey D’s
Friedman: In interviews with you and articles about you, you’ve displayed an interest, or a fascination, or maybe an amused fascination, at certain elements of mass‑produced food. You’ve talked about Clarence Birdseye in more than one interview.
Friedman: And also, I don’t know if it was tongue in cheek or not, but in one interview you referred to the introduction of your fried mayonnaise and you said, “I thought that McDonald’s was going to come snap this up.” Was that a joke?
Dufresne: I bought a red and yellow phone because I thought they would call. No, I honestly did think that that might be something that people … I was naive to think that I somehow had the sole, the exclusive on that.
Now, I will say very recently I noticed that TGI Friday’s is now serving fried condiments, there might even be a fried mayo, which I take some sort of personal satisfaction in.
Friedman: You say that seriously?
Dufresne: Yeah, sure. If I’ve somehow trickled my way into that mainstream, that’s kind of cool… It was a clever idea but like a lot of things, the hard part is the idea. Oftentimes the execution is not the difficult part… I naively thought that they might come to me and say, “Will you please show us how to do this?” Now of course many years later it’s like, “It’s fucking McDonald’s. They have the infrastructure. If they want a fried … they know how to ‑‑ I mean, come on. Don’t kid yourself, Wylie.”
Along the way we did a lot of work with [candy company] Mars and I was very fortunate to meet some really smart, clever people that helped us a lot early on at WD-50. And one of them said to me, “We can do so many cool things.”
Friedman: Because they have an R and D facility and team?
Dufresne: Because they’re constantly trying stuff. Yes, this was like a Delta Force within Mars that was often saddled with coming up with cool stuff.
Friedman: This is like M in the James Bond movies.
Dufresne: Kind of, to the extent that they wouldn’t even tell me what exactly they did …
But for a long time I’ve been fascinated with how do you make a Dorito? How do they make Coca Cola? What is Coca Cola? What are the flavors in Coca Cola? You know, to the extent that you can find online the secret, you know, neroli oil and this and that, we tried to just make Coca Cola syrup thinking wouldn’t it be cool? Not to make our own Coca Cola but what could you do with those flavors once you knew what they were? How could you then use them in other ways?
We never went anywhere with that particular project, but we have pages of stuff on Coca Cola. But you know, the process of how Doritos [are made]. How food manufacturing works, candy technology, cereal technology …
Friedman: I mentioned the Birdseye example.
Dufresne: Well, just how you freeze and thaw food and have it be good is interesting. There’s a lot of bad frozen food, but there’s ‑‑ again, understanding what’s there so that you could just even understand how to freeze things better. I mean, here’s a guy who, again, in 1919 or whatever, knew more about it than you and I do today, still to this day. And what can I learn from that?
… I’m not saying that we should start eating frozen food, but some food is better frozen. I mean, the fact that people like Birdseye’s guarantee that your corn and your peas are two hours from plant to frozen means that you’re never going to get better. Going to the farmers’ market to buy peas is a mistake. You’re not really experiencing what a pea is on a level. You’re experiencing the process, but you’re never going to get the flavor of a pea unless you’ve picked it off the plant.
Friedman: Because so much of the sugar is converted to starch at that point.
Dufresne: Yeah, yeah. I had an argument with one of my cooks a long time ago: “I can’t believe we’re using frozen corn. What am I doing here? Why are you using frozen corn?” I said, “Because it’s so sweet. Because it’s so good.” Pea soup: You schlep yourself over to the Union Square Greenmarket at six in the morning. You want to buy some English peas and you want to get some sugar snaps because then you can make it a little sweeter, and you go home and you shuck them and you blanch them and you blend them and food mill them and whatever the hell else you’re going to do, you can’t possibly tell me that that’s more sweet pea flavor than a bag of frozen peas blended with some water. It’s not better. [Working with frozen peas] is a shitload less work.
But there is somebody realizing that there’s an upside to freezing food. There isn’t an upside to freezing all food. But the best sushi in the world is all frozen. And it’s actually making it safer. We’re killing bacteria.
Friedman: Just to clarify, you’re talking the fact that it’s flash frozen right when it’s caught.
Dufresne: Right. But it’s frozen. I would argue that taking corn or peas within two hours and having it frozen is close to flash freezing a vegetable. So you’re not getting the texture. The texture of a frozen pea is atrocious. So if you want to bite a pea, if you want to put your teeth through a pea ‑‑ and I get that because that’s another way to engage a vegetable that you miss. Frozen carrots? Awful, you know? But for certain things …
But I’m also curious to understand. I’ve been fascinated with cereal since I was a kid. I’m not a big candy guy, but candy technology is incredible. It’s incredible how they do stuff, what they can do.
Friedman: Do you feel that this interest you have in all these different areas is unusual for a chef of your stature? Do you hear other chefs talking about it this way?
Dufresne: I think people are curious; where their curiosities lie are different, but I would like to believe that it’s one of the things that separates us from primates, isn’t it? Our curiosity?
Friedman: Yes, but I mean when you talk about these things, are people surprised to hear you talk about it?
Dufresne: Some people are disappointed, probably. Some people are surprised, maybe. Go buy a box of Shredded Wheat. How the fuck do they make Shredded Wheat? Look at it. It’s like an SOS pad. It’s like this dense, woven ‑‑ there has to be a machine, obviously. There aren’t elves kneading the ‑‑ it’s not like making puff pastry which is also really cool. But I want to see that. Because what if I could make a root shredded wheat or sweet potato shredded wheat or what if you could do that with potatoes?
… Commercial food manufacturing isn’t always using the finest of ingredients. It isn’t always the healthiest thing in the world for you. But from a “how did they do it” standpoint, it’s fascinating. And so I’m curious to know how we can take some of that technology, some of that information and use it on a micro scale. I don’t know anything about making things shelf‑stable. I don’t know how you make a Twinkie last longer than, you know, strontium or whatever. But I think it’s kind of cool, how did they get the cream in the middle of a Twinkie. That’s kind of neat, the same way ‑‑ is it like filling an eclair? You know, at its heart a sponge cake with a pastry cream is not a horrible idea. It’s just maybe somewhere along the way that the ingredients that make up a Twinkie can get a little bit alarming.
On Chefs and Formal Education
Friedman: When I first came to eat at Alder, I was perusing the website and then subsequently I looked at it again, and I looked through the WD-50 site – reading the bios of your team. Cooking is a career, to just generalize a little bit, that attracts a lot of people who are not very compatible with formal education.
Dufresne: I would disagree with that.
Friedman: You would disagree with that?
Dufresne: Well, it attracts. Okay. Maybe it does attract.
Friedman: Well, personally, I’m struck how many chefs and cooks of all generations tell me they were either diagnosed or undiagnosed ADD or dyslexics, or who for whatever reason couldn’t stand being in school. It’s a bit of an overgeneralization. But putting that aside, what really struck me was that you’ve got a very traditionally well educated group of people across the board working for you.
Dufresne: We had an incredibly high number of people at WD-50 that were formally educated. At one point we had a ton of cooks that had college degrees. That might be reflective of my approach.
Friedman: Is it a deliberate thing on your part? Is it something that you respond to in people? Do you think it’s meaningful from a creative standpoint to have a background in other areas? Or is it just something that you almost find out after you’ve hired people, almost like a huge coincidence?
Dufresne: I don’t think that it’s something that I ever looked for in people but I think that it’s an interesting time because there’s a lot more restaurants than when I got started. There’s a lot more cooks than when I got started…
I was not the greatest student along the way. What I got out of sixteen years, or whatever it is, of formal education was that I learned how to learn. I needed to find a subject and I found my subject in the kitchen. So when I found what I wanted to do, I was almost instantly able to apply something that I had been trained to do for many years, which was to just begin to understand it, disseminate, ask questions, learn about it. So I learned how to learn and I just needed to find a subject that I could then really delve into…
So I guess for me I found that I could apply this sort of academic nature, this analytical nature the same way as a philosophy student or an English student or whatever I studied in high school, college, et cetera. I could be analytical and academic about it but it just involved cooking.
So why is it that my approach appealed to those few academics that were out there as well, or some of them? I don’t have the answer to that but we found each other. And at one point [or another] throughout the years there have always been a lot of formally educated people that have found their way to me.
Friedman: Does this come up as a topic of conversation in your restaurants?
Dufresne: Yeah, yeah. People wonder why [we] get so many of them. Part of it is a reputation that I have. So when those people are looking for restaurants to go work at, maybe they’re thinking, “I might have some sympatico with a guy like that because I, too, was a philosophy major or I, too, went to college.” I don’t know. Maybe it was just the thought that my approach might be different or might be better suited to them.
But again, I’d like to point out that I was part of a group of people around the world that were applying this academic curiosity, that I wasn’t by any means unique. But I guess you’re right. There’s a lot of people over the years that have been formally educated that worked for me…
That’s not a requirement. I haven’t sought those people out… I mean, I think it’s nice. I think to me it’s more about the attitude that you bring, not necessarily what’s on the paper that you’re holding when you show up.