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A Walk on the Wild Side with Dufresne and Mason of wd-50

by Matt DeLucia

Wylie DuFresne

Watching Wylie DuFresne and Sam Mason work, they may at first glance seem to be a coupling of incongruous personalities as they both hustle around their various kitchen stations at Dufresne’s wd~50 restaurant. Mr. Dufresne conveys a sort of brainy hippie look, like a guy you might see on the Discovery Channel when the interview of some unknown genius from MIT or NASA is stitched into a scientific storyline. He’s the owner and the chef, but he’s also far from being a coach walking the sidelines. Watching him through the large square doorway that exhibits the kitchen’s workings like a culinary Imax screen, he works the sauté pans on his enormous Bonnet stove and finishes dishes side by side with his crew. His wild brown hair provides a conspicuous presence to his restaurant’s customers, who often glance back during their meal to take in a moment of the kitchen’s theatrics. Mr. Mason, tall and bearded with tattooed arms and a devilish smile, would be a shoe-in at a tough biker bar or an exclusive nightclub, but he seems almost like an outsider working the pastry section of the restaurant. But like most first impressions, what we see initially is a thinly glazed layer brushed upon the surface, its complexity concealed beneath it. Not unlike wd~50’s colorful dishes, both chefs are unique, yet they share some common history together. Dufresne was born in Providence, and Mason went to culinary school there. They met in Las Vegas and both spent time there, but each was somehow drawn back to New York before they found their true career destination. They both share a deep passion for change, for what’s new, for never compromising the integrity of what they plate for their customers. While their time together at wd~50 is coming to an end, it was indeed fitting that these two innovators launched their careers together at this lovely spot in a still-emerging neighborhood in the Lower East side of Manhattan.

The designation of “innovator” seems to be thrown around quite a lot these days, a sad development for a term of respect that should be used as sparingly as possible. Followers of fine cuisine tend to lean toward a more classic interpretation of this revered title, reserving it for that special breed of artist who cares enough about their craft to spend a considerable portion of their lives learning the basics and mastering their craft’s fundamentals. Only then can they become empowered to twist the rules, becoming free to do things differently and apply their own personal style. If they push themselves long and hard enough, they soon “stumble” upon something special, perhaps even making a discovery that eventually becomes a ubiquitous facet of everyday life. Voilà! – innovation. There are a few names that come to mind when applying this label of innovator to chefs in the modern era. Names like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, David Bouley, and Thomas Keller would certainly be on the top tier of any such list. Not only are these chefs still in the creative prime of their careers, they have also influenced thousands of younger culinary artists. Many of these emerging chefs are bravely tossing aside old rules and pre-conceived notions, and delighting food lovers in the process. While some of these “food innovators” are combining unique ingredients and applying traditional techniques to them, others decide to go a step further, using new technologies to create ingredients that had never existed before. This successful blending of science and culinary art has already spawned many careers, and certainly the most visible practitioner of this blend of innovation is Wylie DuFresne.

NYRI: What are the benefits of blending science and culinary art?

Wylie: Cooking is chemistry and probably some biology and maybe a little bit of physics. So trying to understand what’s happening when we cook has led us toward a more scientific approach because we need an explanation from the science community to tell us what’s happening when we cook and there isn’t even a lot of explanation. There’s validity in all this science. Some people say molecular gastronomy is just a trend, but there are people who are interested in what’s happening, there are people who are curious, and so you have to turn to the scientific community to get those answers and from there as we interact with people in the scientific community we’re turned on to new equipment, new technology. The equipment is new in our world, it’s not new equipment really, nor is the technology necessarily new. A lot of the work that we do is research that has been done already in the industrial field or commercial field, and finding its way into private, free standing restaurants. It’s that thirst for answers that has led me toward this approach. I’m constantly trying to figure out what’s happening when I cook an egg, what’s happening when I poach a fish, what’s happening when I roast a chicken. We know from repetition that you get good results if you turn the bird, it used to be common knowledge that if you sear a piece of meat at high heat you are sealing in the juices and it turns out that’s not in fact the case. Learning all these bits of information has made us more informed, making us better cooks. We then apply our creativity to that knowledge and come up with new things, new ideas, new applications, new techniques.”

NYRI: Are you experimenting more with new equipment or more with new techniques?

Wylie: Equipment is expensive and we’re not making money hand over fist here so we don’t have a lot of equipment. I would say ingredients - a lot of the gums that we have allow us to do a lot of interesting things like the squeeze bottle and how that whole thing works. How is something that in the bottle is a paste, and in the bowl is firm? That’s a neat little bit of science there. We have a lot of things like that but we don’t have a whole lot of equipment. Even things like freeze dried products we get elsewhere because while we’re in the process of getting a freeze dryer here, they’re expensive and take up a lot of space. But the introduction of things like liquid nitrogen into the kitchen or freeze dried products into the kitchen - freeze drying is not necessarily a new thing but you didn’t see it being used, it’s in Lucky Charms cereal but it’s not in fine dining restaurants, but now you’ll find it. We’ve used it any number of ways, the fruits, the vegetables, we use a lot of freeze-dried products. Sam uses it on his corn bread ice cream. We play with it a lot because it’s an interesting texture and a way of capturing flavor.

NYRI: You worked with Jean-Georges for 6 years, tell me what you learned from him in all those years mentoring with him?

Wylie: He taught me so many things, but the thing that stays with me the most is his respect for simplicity; basically it’s an Asian sentiment. Never to overcrowd a plate and to limit the number of elements in a dish, it means that a dish has to work and there is no way of camouflaging a weak dish. If you utilize this approach, it has to work on its own terms.

NYRI: When do you think you first became interested in approaching cooking as more of a science?

Wylie: I was always somebody who was curious about things, but I would say in 1999 when I was the chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food my curiosity about the science of cooking began to grow. It took me a while after all those years of formal education to want to approach it. I also spent eight years apprenticed to learning how to cook; it was only after I learned how that I began to question why. I knew how to cook in the European tradition, but then I began to ask, “why do I do it this way?” I had Harold McGee’s book for a long time before I ever really delved into it. That was probably in 1999.

NYRI: Has your cuisine evolved and matured over the past 3 years since you’ve opened wd~50?

Wylie: I hope it’s been evolving all along. I was responsible for the daily specials at Jean Georges and I always tried to push things even back then. I suppose the big difference is in the fact that I’m slowly becoming more knowledgeable about the science aspect. I’m a cook, not a scientist, but I’m starting to understand more and becoming better at applying that knowledge to our dishes.

NYRI: What techniques do you think you have been influential in bringing to the culinary world?

Wylie: I think we’ve done some interesting things with the enzyme transglutaminase and with functional hydrocolloids. We’ve also been working, along with food scientists, on formalizing food safety in sous vide and its applications in a restaurant environment. I hope we’ve helped to encourage independent thinkers to take risks as those in the previous generation have done for us. Our desire at wd~50 to be better informed in our approach to cooking and to apply it creatively is something I would hope will have some sort of legacy.

NYRI: What new compounds do you see being used more and more in your restaurant?

Wylie: It’s hard to be specific as there is a vast array of things out there; there are over 20 hydrocolloids alone. What’s really heartening is the relationship we’ve fostered with food scientists as well as with big commercial food manufacturers; it’s a symbiotic relationship that allows us to become more informed and hopefully will help them find applications for the mass market using these compounds.

NYRI: Do you see the future direction of this neighborhood as moving in a positive direction?

Wylie: You can go in almost every direction and see a hotel being built or condos or whatever they’re going to be, whether they are going to be tall buildings, which you don’t normally see in this part of town. I think that is going to certainly contribute to changing the neighborhood and changing the nature of the people that live in this neighborhood but that’s the story of this neighborhood, this neighborhood has been many things, it was a huge Irish community, it was a huge Jewish community, now it’s a Latin and Hispanic community, and it’s changing again, it has gone through several changes. It is one of the oldest parts of New York, but I think that the influx of businesses is good for business. I know that there are certain people that feel like they’re being displaced and I’m sorry for that. I think that there’s a natural sort of ebb and flow to Manhattan, it’s a finite amount of space and neighborhoods change and move and where I live now on 14th Street, I’ve lived for 8 years and it’s not the same from when I moved in 8 years ago. It’s changing but I think change is good, I’m all for change.

NYRI:Would you ever consider a different space?

Wylie: This space works very well for us, we’re not lacking in space. This is a pretty big kitchen for the amount of dining space we have. The pastry kitchen is downstairs, the prep kitchen is downstairs, the work room, the private dining room, the wine cellar. But I wouldn’t want 50 more seats because that would be a nightmare.

NYRI: Do you have any goals for wd~50?

Wylie: Well, I have general goals, and I have specific goals. I’d like to paint this wall, and I’d also like to get more plateware. I’d also like to be able to have a fulltime research and development space. I have enough space here to do it in house but I would like to be able to afford full time R&D, because I think that would allow us to make more progress quicker. I think that is probably our biggest stumbling block, it takes time to research stuff.

NYRI: Do you have a cookbook planned in your future?

Wylie: I think that some day I would like to do that but I don’t think I have enough to say just yet so I want to wait until I have more to say and I feel like I can sell a book. I can probably come up with 150 recipes, that’s not the issue, but I would want it to be something - a contribution in some way. I think that just putting a book out there with my picture in it and some pretty photos might not really be contributing in a way that I would like to contribute, so I’m waiting until I have more to say; then I’ll do a book. But it’s not in the immediate future.

Although Mason is a James Beard-nominated pastry chef, he’s applied many savory techniques to his dishes, and many times his ideas and Dufresne’s are shared and cross-pollinated, to the point where a diner is not always sure if a dish in their tasting menu is a dessert or not. “We have our hand in each other’s pots quite often,” says Mason. “I think the savory here has taken on quite a bit of the dessert applications. That’s the problem with most restaurants, chefs and pastry chefs might not share three words a day. You eat dinner, have this great meal and then you see this total switch when you go into the dessert. We wanted wd~50 to be seamless, like you’re not really sure. Wylie will throw in some sweet things in the middle and I put so much salt in the end that the mentality doesn’t really change.”

Mason gleaned much of his savory skills early in his career when he worked in Las Vegas for his friend and mentor Jean-Louis Palladin, who passed away in 2001 from lung cancer. Palladin taught Mason the type of skills that aren’t part of most Culinary school’s curriculum.

“He took me under his wing. The restaurant would just be in the shits and he’d say, “Let’s go,” and we’d jump into his Mercedes and just drive to LA, and we’d do a dinner out there and stay at the Beverly Wiltshire. My girlfriend and his girlfriend were the same age and best friends so we would just leave and stay in resorts.He was so not caught up in being this superstar famous chef, even though he was, and he’d give you the shirt off his back. When he entered a room you just knew. He’d just come in with his big thick glasses, and he’d be the last guy at the last table, shoes off, drinking a great bottle of port and laughing with the whole kitchen crew around him. He woke up every day at 7 o’clock in the morning in Vegas, read French newspapers at Starbucks, come in to work and we would work all day long until midnight and then he’d make dinner for his girlfriend and my girlfriend and we’d sit in the dining room until four in the morning, just drinking port, and finally I’d say, “I’ve got to go home.” He’d be in the next day up at 7, reading newspapers, “Hi, guys.” He was 65 years old; he smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day and worked like crazy. He never stopped. Every day he lived life like that. He bought that Mercedes just because it was the most comfortable car he could find and he beat it up. I was on the phone with him one day and he said ‘I just knocked the side view mirror off on a pole or something.’ I don’t think he ever even got it fixed. He’d rent cars at airports, and he’d tell his sous chef “I’m running late, I’m just going to leave the car in the parking lot, you pick it up, take it back to the rental place,” You would go there, and you’d find the car, and you could see that he just ran away from the car and threw the keys at it because he realized he had the keys in his hand. He just threw them back and the keys are lying right next to the car. When I used to borrow his cars, I’d stop at the tollbooth and open up the drawer and he would have 8 paychecks in there he hadn’t cashed yet. He didn’t care, he just lived for the day, nothing really meant anything to him except for the food. Like when you watched him cook, when you watch Jean-Louis stir a pot of risotto, he would get so close to the risotto that he would see every grain of rice, and when you ate his food you felt that he made it.”

While Mason was in Vegas living and learning from one of the greatest chefs, DuFresne’s was wrapping up his 6-year tenure with another great master, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with a brief stint as chef de cuisine at Vongerichten’s Prime in The Bellagio hotel. They met at a blackjack table at a casino near the Bellagio, became friends, then worked together briefly before DuFresne left for New York to open 71 Clinton with his father. They had always talked about working together, and in 2003 when Dufresne was ready to strike out on his own with wd~50, Mason became his choice to be head pastry chef.

Between his time in Las Vegas and starting with wd~50, Mason had two very rocky jobs with two chefs not known for being easy people to work with, Rocco DeSpirito at Union Pacific and Paul Liebrandt at Atlas. Things were just starting to do downhill for Rocco while Mason was at UP, and Palladin tried to talk Mason out of making the move.

“He tried to talk me out of going to Rocco and I said ‘I think it’s going to be good for me,’ Palladin was getting to wrap up New York City because it just wasn’t working out, and I didn’t really want to end up back in Vegas. But he told me exactly how it was going to end up, and it did.”

Mason’s year and a half at Atlas was in the midst of an incredibly creative environment, but sometimes one-sided innovation without collaboration can be a difficult environment in which to work.

“Liebrandt is one of the most competent chefs going right now. I don’t know if that exists, but it was maybe too creative of an atmosphere and it just never quite clicked. Working for him as a sous chef must be a nightmare, he’s one of those guys that has so many ideas that he never quite grounds himself to one idea, he’s just on to the next one It’s impossible, you can’t really keep up. If you thought you were keeping up with him, he’ll throw a monkey wrench in it.”

The camaraderie that Mason experienced with Palladin but was missing at Union Pacific and Atlas almost pushed Mason out of the restaurant business altogether. He rediscovered that collaborative, family-oriented feeling with DuFresne at wd~50, and after staying for over 3 years it was finally time for him to move on to something of his own, a dream that had been put off for far to long. “I told everybody Wiley would be the last person I would ever work for and it’s true, I finally got my own place.”

Mason will be opening an as-yet unnamed eating and drinking establishment this fall, one block west of Broadway on Broome Street. “It’ll be 80 percent desserts, 20 percent small savory plates, and a lounge downstairs with just the most elaborate cocktail scenario that New York has probably ever seen; Liquid Nitrogen in random combinations.”

“All the entrees are based in dessert techniques, and the components are savory from a dessert perspective. The ingredients might come from a random flavor, like there is going to be a lot of chocolate on the savory menu because I feel chocolate lends itself to savory applications more than dessert. Chocolate, eel, and watermelon, smoked eel and chocolate, I think they go hand in hand. That’s going to be fun for me I think.”

It’s not a new thing anymore to open a dessert restaurant, but I’m going to go ahead and open a big one. I have 50 seats and then I’m going to serve liquor. The upstairs will be restaurant and a little lounge area in the front, but downstairs we are also going to serve food until upwards of 3 o’clock in the morning. But I really want its integrity to stay intact. When you get in uncomfortable positions, it’s hard to enjoy food.”

Mason will be finishing up at WD-50 this summer, and will help to train his successor, who has yet to be hired. It shouldn’t be hard though, considering the positively-charged environment that Dufresne has fostered there. And the collaboration is the thing that Mason will miss the most.

“I sometimes worry that when I get away from here it’s going to be a little bit more difficult. I’m bringing a little crew that is a good sounding board for me, but I’m going to miss this one because it’s not only a sounding board, it’s seeing Wiley produce things and getting ideas, and I won’t have that. I’m going to have to start reading a lot more books, start going out to dinner a little bit more, which is difficult when I’m so pressed for time. I hope it doesn’t suffer, but I also have volumes of ideas so they’ll pacify me for some time.”

Another fascinating, colorful creation that will be leaving WD-50 has nothing to do with food, but luckily Mason is willing to share the recipe.

“I got mine five years ago and I have been trying to get Johnny (Iuzinni) to get a tattoo for a long time. He finally came up with an idea for one about a year ago and I made him go see my guy, so we have the same tattoo artist. His name is Chris O’Donnell, he is at New York Adorned. I got this a long time ago but now you can’t get an appointment with this guy for a year and a half. He is one of the best guys going, I lucked out. I finally got Johnny to get down there, and he did a good job.”

No word on when Wylie will be making an appointment with O’Donnell, but if he ever does the tattoo design will hopefully be as innovative as his cuisine.

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