In the ever-evolving landscape of culinary arts, few figures stand as tall and influential as Chef Wylie Dufresne. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Dufresne began working in kitchens during his summers, taking on various roles from front-of-house to back-of-house tasks, experiencing everything from cleaning lobsters to waiting tables.
Despite initially dreaming of a career in sports, he discovered that the teamwork and dynamics of a kitchen mirrored the aspects he loved about team sports. This realization steered him towards pursuing a career in the restaurant industry.
He attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan while simultaneously working at the Gotham Bar and Grill's pastry kitchen. Following culinary school, Dufresne gained valuable experience working under renowned chefs such as Jean-Georges and Jean-Louis Palladin.
The pivotal moment in his career came with the opening of wd~50 back in 2003, a groundbreaking molecular gastronomy New American restaurant in Manhattan, New York. Dufresne has also explored the world of donuts with Du’s Donuts, and most recently, Stretch Pizza, each representing a new exploration of creativity for the chef.
Dufresne's contributions have not only earned him accolades, including James Beard Awards and Michelin Stars, but have also left an indelible mark on the evolution of modern gastronomy.
Here's a glimpse into the wisdom imparted by this culinary luminary during a fireside chat we had with Chef Wylie at the beginning of 2023.
The Intersection of Art and Commerce
During our interview, Dufresne acknowledged instances when his pursuit of artistic culinary expression might have overshadowed the pragmatic considerations of running a successful restaurant. The quest for finding the sweet spot where creativity meets profitability has been a continuous evolution for him.
Acknowledging his evolution and growth, Dufresne admits to learning from past decisions. With age and experience, he's moved towards a more thoughtful approach, aiming to bridge the gap between his artistic vision and the practical demands of the culinary industry.
"I would say that the thing I've struggled with the most is the intersection of art and commerce. I think that the best restaurateurs have done that. There were times when I had blinders on about trying to find that intersection. I don't regret deciding art over commerce, but I think that sometimes I did it to my own detriment. I wish that I had worked a little bit harder. A little bit more thoughtfully at trying to find a sweeter spot for those two."
The Realities of Fine Dining
Drawing parallels to the recent closure announcement of NOMA by Rene Redzepi, Dufresne shed light on the inherent challenges of sustaining fine dining establishments. The expense and exhaustion associated with high-end dining establishments pose significant hurdles in finding the delicate equilibrium between culinary innovation and financial sustainability.
"Restaurants are without question broken in many ways - about how they treat people and things like that. But they're also full of people who love every moment of it. And I think that that's not something that's often part of the conversation. And we can always, without question, do better. There are a thousand moments I wish I could have back. But there are 10,000 moments of, you know, joy and happiness and, I very much loved the process. The fact that I wasn't able to always find the intersection of art and commerce and some of that other stuff. But for me, I wasn't going to compromise. I wasn't going to do that."
Cultivating Creativity and Curiosity
Dufresne's philosophy centers around fostering an environment of curiosity rather than merely chasing creativity. He emphasized the importance of asking questions and encouraging everyone in the team to be part of the creative process. His belief in the power of curiosity as a catalyst for innovation is palpable.
"You can't plan to be creative, but you can plan for creativity. You can hunt for creativity and go after creativity. I know for a fact that a lot of my curiosity is part of finding your way to creativity. I think part of being creative is being curious. It comes from my parents and them encouraging me to ask questions.And so that is kind of in a nutshell what I do. I ask questions a lot. And we tried to set up a place that wasn't just for the cooks. It was for everybody that worked there. You know, if the dishwasher said, "Chef, I have an idea on how we can make this process better." Great. I want to hear it. I want to hear it."
The Collaborative Journey
His approach to building a culture of creativity revolved around inclusivity. At wd~50, Dufresne created a space where every team member had a voice, encouraging them to contribute ideas without fear of judgment. The collaborative nature of their brainstorming sessions birthed some of the most innovative culinary concepts.
"It starts with creating a place where people feel comfortable saying, "I have an idea" or "I have a question." It's really important to let everybody know. It's about trying to create a place where they feel encouraged, where they don't feel intimidated, where they can come and say, "Hey, I want to make bagel-flavored ice cream." Great. That sounds amazing. Why didn't I think of that? You know, go get some bagels. And then someone else says, "Hey, I got an idea. If we take the ice cream and we put it in a tiny little mold that's round, it'll look like a bagel." And you keep going until like six different people took an idea and marched it down a road and everybody."
Embracing Failures and Resurrections
Dufresne's willingness to embrace failure and recognize when an idea needs to be phased out speaks volumes about his commitment to constant evolution. His acknowledgment of having to "kill an idea" when it doesn't meet expectations demonstrates a balance between creative exploration and practicality.
"Sometimes you kill an idea and people go, "Why did you take that off the menu?” For us, it was the eggs benedict. It was a dish that we had on the menu that had every component of eggs benedict but inverted and turned on itself with the crux of it being deep-fried hollandaise. We built the dish around the hollandaise. And we made it for a really long time and I just got tired of making it. It felt like every night someone wanted me to play the song remains the same. I was like, "I just don't wanna play that song anymore." We took it off the menu and people freaked out.
I'm okay. with disappointing you, which is probably a mistake or a defect that I have, but I'm okay doing that. But it was more like people would come up to me and say, "You know, I came all the way from Australia and I really wanted to try that." And that worked, so I put it back on the menu. So I killed the idea and it was a bad idea. So I killed one of my children and I brought it back to life."
Wylie Dufresne's culinary journey exemplifies a quest for constant learning and innovation. His willingness to adapt, evolve, and strike a balance between artistic expression and commercial viability offers a treasure trove of insights for aspiring chefs and restaurateurs navigating the complex landscape of the culinary world.