One of Our Most Influential Chefs on Life After WD-50, the State of Fine Dining, and Moving the Ball Forward
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.
Adios amigo….thank you !!! pic.twitter.com/iFONWQbxBD
— Wylie Dufresne (@wyliedufresne) December 20, 2014
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?…