The Road to the Beards: Wylie Dufresne

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picture-14Last week, the Feed commenced our series of interviews with the 2009 Best Chef NYC James Beard award nominees. Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune) dropped a few f-bombs (along with some rather enlightening discourse) and Gabriel Kreuther (The Modern) spanked Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post. What juicy bits loom in this next installment—a convo with the superbly long-winded Wylie Dusfresne (wd~50)? Read on to find out.

How does the prestige of a Beard Award compare to a Michelin ranking or a StarChefs award?
I'm extremely proud of the Michelin star that we've had for four years now, and that's been great for us. Any award is nice because it's recognition for what the team is doing. I get a lot of recognition on my own, but when we get a Michelin star it's recognition of the work that everybody else is doing. It's a way of somebody externally saying, "This whole operation is a success," and that's nice for the people that are involved. A StarChefs award? Ahh, it is what it is. Again, it's nice to be acknowledged by anybody who appreciates what you're doing.

(Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell)
(Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell)

I think a Beard Award is also a nice acknowledgment. I've been nominated five times over the course of my career, and while I haven't won yet, it's still nice to be acknowledged. The Michelin is great because it puts bodies in the seats—I don't see a big return in my business from a StarChefs award. And I've never won a Beard Award so I don't know how that will affect business. But anything that can draw attention to the restaurant and bring people in is obviously good. In these tough times, I think we all need whatever help we can get in terms of a booster shot in the arm for business. So even if the nomination brings people in without the win, then I think it's great.

What do you think of the competition?
Well, you know. I haven't gone to Vegas to check the line, because I'd be curious to know what the odds are on everybody. I certainly have to believe—in my mind—that Terrance Brennan is the favorite; just because of sheer amount of time and position. I don't know how many times he's been nominated but certainly he's been nominated a number of times, and he's been around longer than any of the other nominees. [By] virtue of all of those things, he would be my odds-on favorite.

And then, it's always tough to compete with the Union Square Hospitality Group and they have two guys in the mix. And you know, they're popular—and rightfully so, deservedly so—for the good work that Danny and his people have done for the last 20 years in New York City. You know...that may work in my favor, or it may work against me. You know, those that want to support Danny and his people may split their votes between Gabriel and Michael and that might give either myself or Gabrielle a shot, but I kind of see Terrance as the favorite.

This is your third time being nominated for Best Chef NYC in as many years. Is this the year? And is there anything that you've done specifically in the past year that warrants your nomination?
I'm proud of everything...you know, there's roughly 35 people that work for me and I'm proud of the work they do every day. And like I said, I think it would be a great recognition for all of their hard work and efforts if we take home a Beard Award. I don't think there's anybody that believes that—yeah, you get named best chef in New York or best chef in the country or whatever—that it isn't really a team effort. I think it would be a nice recognition for past and present wd-50 employees.

How long has this award been a goal for you?
When it became a possibility of getting a Michelin star, that was something that I set my sights on. When I first started cooking I didn't think that they were gonna come to the U.S. and so I had dreams of maybe sometime, at some point going abroad and trying to earn Michelin stars abroad. And then once it became a possibility here in the U.S., I guess I had aspirations of at some point trying to achieve a couple of 'em.

But with regards to the Beard Award, I don't remember a moment saying, "Oh, you know, I gotta make sure that I win best chef here, or best chef there." At one point I was nominated as a rising star and it was kind of out of the blue. It wasn't expected and I got excited and enthusiastic about that, and while I didn't win I felt like the right guy won at the time. Again, this is the third year in a row I'm nominated in this category and it's exciting and it would be great, but again I gotta believe that Terrance Brennan is the odds-on favorite.

We read an article by Grant Achatz about this year's Madrid Fusion and how he had concerns that molecular gastronomy is in danger of becoming redundant. What's your take?
I don't know that one person's comment suddenly starts a landslide of warning signs that this style, or this approach to cooking is on its way out. This approach to cooking is about education; it's about learning about food. In the last ten years we've learned more about the processes that are involved in cooking than we knew for a long time prior to that. And I think that the greatest thing to come out of this whole movement is an increased level of education about food and how it behaves when you poach an egg or saut a piece of fish or blanch a vegetable. I don't think that anybody would say that education or learning is a fad and is on its way out.

Now we can talk about whether within the styles...if people are going to continue to dehydrate things or make gels or foams—that may come and go. But the knowledge and the learning that's come out of it is not going to go anywhere. There's information that we've learned that's just as useful to the bistro chef who wants to make a nice roast chicken with proper mashed potatoes and a good sauce as there is someone who wants to make food like myself or Grant or whomever.

How has your cooking evolved from your days as part of the Jean-Georges empire, to 71 Clinton, wd~50, and how does it continue to evolve?
I've learned a lot. You know, there're different phases to a cook's career. I think the first, probably, ten years of your career are spent just learning how to cook—following the classics, the basics, learning the fundamentals. And then when you get to a point after that, you begin to identify your own style and begin to discover your own voice. That journey was begun at 71 [Clinton Fresh Food], or maybe even a little under Jean-Georges, because he encouraged people to think, and then was further developed at 71 and I think is a continuing process here [at wd-50]. To me it all seems like a natural evolution...I guess maybe to an outsider it could seem like a departure from 71 to here, but to me it feels natural.

What is the best compliment and worst insult you've ever received from a customer?
I'd say the best compliment is that it's delicious, you know? Ultimately that's what it's about. "It tasted great and I wasn't expecting it to" or "I wasn't sure if it would taste great." I mean, that's what we do, we make food that has to taste good. So, when you can put a smile on someone's face it ultimately starts in their stomach. No matter how clever an idea may be, if it doesn't taste good then it's just a clever idea.

The worst criticism? I had a woman come up to me not long ago and tell me that my waiter was an asshole...and that's not a good thing. That's a pretty strong criticism. Again, anytime anyone has a bad experience...you know, we have yet to have someone say, "Waiter, there's a bug in my soup" or anything like that.... If someone's willing to try one of my ideas, I'm willing to accept that there are going to be a certain number of people that just don't like it. But when someone says something to the effect of "your waiter is an asshole" and then storms out the door, that's actually a bigger violation, I think, than, "I didn't like the way that tasted." Because if you don't like the way that tasted it doesn't mean you had a bad experience, but if you say the waiter is an asshole then you had a bad experience and that's pretty black and white.

Being such a specialized restaurant, have you seen a severe drop in patronage due to the economy?
Well, I think that there are plenty of restaurants that are doing worse than us—obviously there are some that have closed—and I'm sure that there are some restaurants that are doing better than us. We're kind of breaking even at the moment, and I feel like breaking even in this economy is a good thing. I'd love for us to be as busy as we were last summer, but I just don't see it right now. We're hangin' tough, and we're all hoping the change in weather is going to bring people out. And there does seem to be an improved mood. I think everybody's relieved to be done with taxes and spring is coming out—I mean, we're packed tonight, I know that.

You're a noted lover of eggs. Let's say you're not cooking them—who makes your favorite egg dish in the city?
Who makes my favorite egg dish? Eggs are a comfort food for me, and part of that is going with my wife on Sundays to have brunch at the diner near our house. Would I say it's a phenomenal rendition of eggs? No, but it's a diner. It's a New York diner, which is a dying type of restaurant...and it's Sunday brunch with my wife, which is a great moment. It involves, you know an omelet and some home fries and some buttered rye toast, and that too is a-okay with me. So like anybody it's associated with various memories, but that's my go-to thing. But you know, inevitably, I think a lot of people are working with eggs in the city and doing great stuff. Most people tend to do them for breakfast, or for lunch or for brunch and I don't get out very much during that time, but we're always trying to do fun stuff with eggs. But when I'm not cooking them for myself, it'd be the diner.

[Eds note: Mr. Dusfresne passionately, unbendingly refused to reveal the name of this vaunted diner.]

Speaking of eggs, did you ever give a final word on the Marcel Vigneron "egg" recipe theft?
You're not gonna find it. I mean, Marcel said what he had to say on the matter. It's pretty much water under the bridge at this point—diggin' up old stuff.

2009 is shaping up to be the year of the banh mi. Off the top of your head, how might you execute your own take on this newly popularized dish?
On a banh mi? You know, I might stay away from that, because that's not my area...and like you said, it seems to be kind of oversaturated. We don't typically work off the top of our heads, that's part of our problem is that if someone said "we need you to make a banh mi" it'd probably take us a month to work on it and then get back to 'em. But you know, I always like to think that there's a room for an egg somewhere—so maybe a banh mi could use an egg. But you know, I'm not famous for my adhesion to tradition. But I like a banh mi. There's nothing wrong with it.—Zachary Feldman

See all Road to the Beards interviews here.

Tickets are still available to the May 4 James Beard Award gala. Click here for details.

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