Chef Wylie Dufresne wowed the culinary scene when he debuted wd-50 in New York’s Lower East Side in 2003. A decade later, the modernist whiz again is shaking things up with the opening of Alder, a more casual but no less inspired spot. We caught up with the James Beard Award-winning chef to find out more about Alder, his upcoming appearance at the New York City Wine & Food Festival and the ultimate chef library inside wd-50.
What will you be doing at the New York City Wine & Food Festival’s Best New Chefs 25th anniversary party?
We are going to be doing a soup from our past — a malted chestnut soup. It’s like a malted milkshake sort of thing. It’s really delicious. We’re still tweaking the garnish. In the last year, we’ve changed the format of wd-50. We are doing 12- and five-course menus. The five-course menu is from the vault — our classics menu, any dishes from our last five years. We wanted to do something from the vault.
Do you plan on hitting any other events at the festival?
I do like to see what people are up to. A highlight is what Bobby Flay’s burgers are like. I think his burgers are great. That was one of the first things I ate from one of the first fests I went to in Chelsea Market. I also like to walk around and hear what people say. It’s nice to talk to folks and hear the level of enthusiasm.
What can we expect for the fall at Alder?
We’re in a constant state of flux there. We just put some new dishes on the menu — corn on the cob roasted with popcorn butter and roasted chicken with black garlic buttermilk sauce. We get enthusiastic about fall. I love the end of summer and into fall, when you get summer vegetables and then early season root vegetables.
What’s your favorite dish at Alder?
They all speak to a time, a place and a moment. When we look back at dishes for the vault menu at wd-50, they make me think of chefs who are no longer there. Alder is so new, but there are a couple of dishes, like the rye pasta. There’s a video on website on how it’s made, and I remember the history of the dish. Then I think of the corn with the popcorn butter, and I think, “That’s fun, I wonder if anyone has done a corn-on-corn dish?” They all bring to mind good moments.
This year, you finally won a James Beard Award for best chef and wd-50 marks its 10th anniversary. Do you think modernist cuisine is here to stay?
I’ve always secretly thought it wasn’t going to go anywhere. I don’t know if my winning a James Beard Award says anything about it, but the crux of modernist cuisine is a deep interest in learning about the process of cooking, which ultimately is a science. It’s here to stay because it’s an aspect of learning. No one is prepared to say that learning is a fad. The sidebar is the gel and foams; some of the techniques that came out of the last decade from this renaissance of modernist cuisine will go away. The knowledge we gain from that process and how it’s getting integrated into daily learning won’t. That’s the value of the lineage of the modernist approach — it’s about helping any cook, whether it’s the bistro chef on the corner or someone doing something wildly avant-garde.
Why do you think people still haven’t fully embraced it?
People are critical of the sidebar things — they don’t like the foams, the texture of meat cooked sous vide. That’s fine, but there’s some element of a backlash where people say, “Wait a minute. We’re not ready for it.” It’s interesting to note that whatever moment people say we should go back to, at some point that was a modernist point as well. There’s always been a relationship between technology and the kitchen. Kitchens are a great place to see where we are as a people. In 10, 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll see what stuck and what didn’t. You always run the risk of running into unskilled or untrained cooks, and when they don’t do it well, they do a disservice to that movement. Bad food is bad food. If I tried to make authentic Mexican food for you, it would be bad. You wouldn’t say Mexican food is bad, but Wylie made bad food.
How do you keep things fresh at WD-50?
That’s my job, to keep the ball in motion. Today, I was at the store and saw three cookbooks: one was pastry book, others savory cookbooks. I thought, “I’ll bring it to the guys in wd-50 so they can read them, get inspired, spark an idea.” That’s a lot of my role: to build these teams of people and keep them enthusiastic. One way to do that is bringing information — new techniques and ideas — to them. We have over 300 cookbooks in the kitchen. We have our own library system with a form fill out. You can check out any of these 300-plus books, take one out at a time. The average cook may not be able to afford these — some are out of print.
Speaking of which, we heard you’re working on a book. What will it be about?
We’re still bouncing that ball around the room. We are working on it, and it will be a book about wd-50 in some capacity.
Do you have any travel plans for the fall?
I am going to Provincetown with family and friends. I’m looking forward to that. It will be a little crazy, but fun. This is our first time there. I’ve heard that Ceraldi is a spot that we shouldn’t miss. It’s from the former chef of Del Posto.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit in the past 10 years, mostly Spain because I have a love affair with the food there. I go to San Sebastián every year. Even though it’s good to go somewhere new, it’s also really nice to go somewhere that’s like home.
Photo Courtesy of Carly Otness-BFAnyc.com