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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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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David Kinch: The Toqueland Interview

The Manresa Chef on Staying Grounded, Writing His Book, Being the Subject Matter, and Quitting by Text

David Kinch.  (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

David Kinch. (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

From his restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California, David Kinch has evolved into one of the most celebrated chefs in the United States today.  The restaurant holds two Michelin stars, four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and David was recently nominated as Outstanding Chef (in the nation) by the James Beard Foundation. It’s a busy time for him:  although Manresa is his lone restaurant, he’s planning a bakery, published his first cookbook last fall, and, along with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, is the subject of the recent documentary The Farmer & The Chef.  David cooked for such influential chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Barry Wine, and consulted to the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, before moving to the Bay Area.  His first restaurant as chef-proprietor was Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which he opened in 1995 then sold in 2002, the year he opened Manresa.

I hadn’t met David before last November, when he granted me an interview for an upcoming book project. When we connected again last month for a follow up, I asked him if he’d submit himself to a Toqueland interview. Most of this dialogue took place over lunch at Zuni Café, with the remainder conducted by phone the following week.

TOQUELAND: You’ve got just the one restaurant. How tough is that to stick to these days? Do opportunities come your way? Do you constantly have to resist things in order to stay there?

KINCH: There are a lot of opportunities that come my way; none of them really interest me. There’s not one that is a slam dunk. Anything interesting, I’ll entertain. Is it harder just to do one restaurant? No. I like going to work. I like going to Manresa and doing what I do for fifty people a night.

I’ve never really cooked for more than 120 a night. Ever. I’ve never had any interest in it. That’s not why I’m in the business. I’ve always been interested in the bespoke nature of fine dining. I’ve worked in a couple of hotels. They weren’t for me. I don’t know how to do volume.

TOQUELAND: You’re not interested in it or you literally don’t know how to do it?… 

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Highwire Act

Le Cirque’s New Chef, Raphael Francois, on Moving to New York, Auditioning for the Job, and Pleasing All of the People, All of the Time

Le Cirque's new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January.  (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

Le Cirque’s new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January. (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

NEW YORK, NY — Just a few months ago, Chef Raphael Francois took on a task both flattering and perhaps unenviable when he assumed the toque at New York City’s storied Le Cirque restaurant.  Le Cirque, a New York institution with a rich heritage of great chefs including Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, Sottha Kuhn, and Sylvain Portay, has been engaged in a Sisyphean enterprise since being taken down (shockingly at the time) from four stars to three by Ruth Reichl in 1993.  Since then, in the Times‘ estimation, the restaurant has dipped down to two stars and back up to three during Frank Bruni’s tenure, then down to one star by Pete Wells in 2012.

With that backstory, there would be no shortage of pressure on whoever took over the kitchen next to restore at least some glory to the forty-year-old Le Cirque, and you could almost hear the thundering of white-horse hooves as Raphael arrived in New York City, most recently from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, where he earned two Michelin stars in 2011.  Raised in Belgium and France, Francois has cooked at Le Giverny in Tournai, Chateau du Mylord in Elezelles, Le Sea Grill in Brussels, and Four Seasons George V and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.  His working relationship with Hélène Darroze began in 2006 when Francois worked with her at her Restaurant Hélène Darroze, and several of her city-based projects.

We recently sat down with Chef Francois to discuss the unique nature of the task before him, and the delicate balancing act required in his position. (Two notes:  In the full-disclosure department, Le Cirque’s legendary ringmaster Sirio Maccioni, recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, graciously insisted we join him for dinner as his guests to try Chef Francois’ food; as the meal was gratis, we’ll refrain from detailed praise here and stick to the interview. Also, a special thanks to Toqueland pal Evan Sung for the images.)

TOQUELAND: Before you came here for this job, had you visited New York City much?

FRANCOIS: Yeah. I had to come to New York for a few events, so I came a couple of times.

TOQUELAND: Had you spent much leisure time here?… 

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Anthony Bourdain: The Toqueland Interview

The Kitchen Confider on Life-Changing Moments, the Nature of Fame, Meeting His Heroes, and New Projects

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

NEW YORK, NY — Where do you begin when it comes to Anthony Bourdain?  There are no shortage of options, but I’ll start here:  As far as I’m concerned, with Kitchen Confidential (2000) he more or less created the interest in chefs’ lives and the inner workings of professional kitchens that gave rise to the audience (at least in the United States) for everything from books by authors such as Gabrielle Hamilton and newcomers like Michael Gibney to shows like The Mind of a Chef (which he narrates) to myriad other toque-focused entertainments, this blog included.

All of which is to say, I was delighted and humbled that Tony — whom I’ve met a few times over the years — graciously accepted my invitation to do a Toqueland interview. We connected on Tuesday, two days after the wonderful Lyon episode of Parts Unknown debuted, and one day before he took off for China to film an upcoming installment. He’s a busy man, who in addition to all of the above, oversees his own line of books under the Ecco imprint and is developing a food hall in New York City, among many other endeavors.

The interview took place over a leisurely lunch at The Breslin during which we covered a wide range of topics.  He also casually gifted me some news about previously unannounced upcoming projects, featured in our dialogue, below.

I may run some other bits from our conversation next week, but for now, here’s the meat of it:

On How We Got to This Point

TOQUELAND:  OK, so you write, you’ve got the show, you’re developing a food market, oversee your own line of books, among other things you’re involved with in some way or another. And this all started with a New Yorker article that grew into a book.

BOURDAIN:  [laughs] Right.

TOQUELAND:  When you think back to when things started to snowball, what was the tipping point when you really started to understand that your life was beginning to mutate into what it’s become?

BOURDAIN:  About six months after Kitchen Confidential happened. I was on the best-seller list. I signed for the television series A Cook’s Tour.  People were calling and offering me all sorts of wonderful things. But I was still very much working under the assumption that it was all bullshit and it would all vaporize and that I should keep my day job.

TOQUELAND:  When you say “it’s all bullshit,” you mean you didn’t trust it?  Or you thought people were full of it?… 

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TALKING SHOP: Jody Williams (Buvette, New York City)

The Buvette Chef and Author on Her New Cookbook, Loving Vague Recipes, and Why Intentions Matter

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams’ new cookbook Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food (Grand Central Life & Style; $30) debuts today.  Written in collaboration with Julia Turshen and with an affectionate foreword by Mario Batali and exquisite photography by Gentl & Hyers, the book is a real charmer.  It shares not just a number of mostly simple and high-utility recipes fashioned after the European fare served up at Williams’ West Village restaurant, but also pantry notes and essays on savoring food and drink that help explain the mindset that makes Buvette such a respite from the madness of Manhattan.  With a recently opened Paris outpost and the mother ship on Grove street in a state of perpetual bustle, Jody’s pretty busy these days, but took time out last week to to sit at the long communal table just outside the kitchen door at Buvettte, and chat with us about her debut book.

TOQUELAND:  The book really conjures a sense of place and what this place is all about, largely through you just talking about the food. It’s transporting.  Was it a goal to create a mood as much as to share recipes?

WILLIAMS: I wish I was capable of consciously creating a mood. If there is a mood or a sense of place, it came out of this body of work subconsciously, and it makes sense for me that it would because the food that I’m cooking really is tied to a place.  It doesn’t really change much when I learn a dish in Rome or I learn a dish in France and I bring it back here and try and cook it. I love the culture.  I love the language.  I love where things are from. Maybe that’s why it feels that way.

How long had you had it in mind to do a book?  Is that something you’d always wanted to do? … 

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