NEW YORK, N.Y. - If the sky had been the limit, Wylie Dufresne says, he'd have become a professional baseball player.
And so it seems fortuitous, at least for foodies, that Dufresne by his own admission had no special baseball talent. Because if he'd become, say, a shortstop for the Yankees, no one ever would have gotten to taste creations like his eggs Benedict, with its futuristic cubes of fried hollandaise, or his rye pasta, evoking a deli sandwich in a pasta dish, or perhaps his current Brie ice cream, accompanied by pickled cherries and a Triscuit.
As it turned out, Dufresne, often called the "mad scientist" of the food world because of his boundary-stretching techniques, realized that working in a restaurant was akin to being on a baseball team. "There's really a lot of similarity, with the structure of the kitchen and the teamwork involved," Dufresne says.
At 44, he is one of New York's better-known chefs, famous for his take on so-called molecular gastronomy, an approach to cooking that involves transforming common ingredients into new shapes and textures, often via complex technology. But don't call it molecular gastronomy around Dufresne. He hates the term.
"Does it SOUND delicious?" he asks. "It sounds like people in lab coats electrocuting bunnies." Dufresne and his colleagues prefer "modernist cuisine."
Whatever you call it, it resulted in that startling version of eggs Benedict, a longtime favourite at wd-50, Dufresne's influential Lower East Side eatery that closed in November due to real estate issues. The dish, which looked like a modern painting, involved cooking egg yolks in plastic sleeves (like ice pops) and frying hollandaise into cubes, a process that used starch to prevent the eggs from scrambling.
"Wylie takes things like that eggs Benedict and completely rethinks them, giving them to us in another form that refers back to the original," says Colman Andrews, editorial director of the Daily Meal. The publication named wd-50 its 2014 restaurant of the year, noting wistfully that it was a "posthumous" designation. "He certainly has been an inspiration to many chefs."
Dufresne himself is at a sort of mini-crossroads. Wd-50 "went out with a bang," he says. "I'm very proud of what we did; I think we added to the dialogue." But of course it was sad. "A day doesn't go by when I don't think of it, especially the people," he says. "The city is now riddled with my former employees, as are restaurants around the world."
Dufresne has been mulling over a new location; in the meantime, he's working on his first cookbook, a history of wd-50. And of course he has Alder, his more casual East Village restaurant that just celebrated its second anniversary.
On a recent spring afternoon, Dufresne chatted with this reporter while his chef de cuisine, Ryan Henderson, worked on new ideas for the next night's Test Kitchen Tuesday, a temporary weekly event allowing diners to sample dishes in progress. Henderson came out with a plate of cumin-rubbed lamb belly, and the men discussed its virtues.
The next night, the lamb belly was indeed there, the small bites accompanied by cumin tofu, black garlic and grapefruit. There also was fish and chips made with hamachi and pea puree, followed by a tiny stack of pancakes — silver dollars, made of grilled octopus. Dessert looked like a wedge of Brie cheese, and it was — Brie transformed into smooth, tart ice cream.
The cost of the four-course menu was $50 — not bad, considering you pay almost that much at a Greek diner in Manhattan these days. (Alder has just announced it is moving to a $65 tasting menu, with both the silver dollars and the Brie ice cream making the cut.)
Working in the kitchen all evening was Dufresne, who says he does so five days a week, unlike some chef-owners who tend to spend much of their time out of the kitchen. That, Dufresne says, is one reason he doesn't have designs on a huge empire of restaurants. "I have a hard time seeing myself with 20 restaurants," he says. "I don't have 20 ideas."
Dufresne grew up in Manhattan, and sampled the food business during summer jobs with his restaurateur dad, Dewey. He went to Colby College in Maine, majoring in philosophy. Philosophy majors are not, traditionally, peppered with real-world job offers upon graduating, but Dufresne knew by then he was headed to the kitchen.
He studied at the French Culinary Institute, then found his way to the celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with whom he worked for more than five years, and whom he credits with inspiring his creativity. "Creativity is creativity," he says. "Jean-Georges took the fats and creams out of French cooking and turned them into juices."
Dufresne opened wd-50 in April 2003, his first venture as owner. "We had a 15-year lease, and we almost made it," he says.
Fellow chef David Chang, of the Momofuku restaurants, is among those who wax rhapsodic about wd-50.
"What Wylie did at wd-50 is set a new standard for cooking that inspired the industry," Chang says. "It wasn't about what ingredients they cooked with, it was why to cook something in the first place. Curiosity and education was the priority. They were fearless in finding the truth that mattered to them."
While some chefs eschew the "celebrity chef" phenomenon of recent years, Dufresne readily admits that his TV appearances — on "Top Chef," for example — boosted business at crucial times. "You have to find ways; you can't just expect people to come," he says. "If I hadn't been on 'Top Chef,' I probably wouldn't be here right now."
Besides, Dufresne adds, there's something satisfying about being at an airport, and having the TSA agent say, 'I saw you on 'Top Chef' today!'" Or when people in his restaurants ask to take photos with him.
"If that enhances their experience, why not?" he says. "It's icing on the cake. We should be grateful."