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Wylie Dufresne

Anne McBride - June 2014

Food Arts presents the June 2014 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Wylie Dufresne, the New York City chef acclaimed worldwide for his inventive, playful, and technically forward cuisine and boundary-pushing flavor combinations at wd~50. The extensive research and experimentation he conducts as part of his creative process have produced such never-before-seen dishes as shrimp noodles and scrambled egg ravioli (his passion for eggs is notorious), among a long list of constantly updated signature dishes.

“Wylie has been very important in de-provincializing American cuisine,” says Andrea Petrini, co–founder of Gelinaz!, the international culinary–performance organization that surprised Dufresne this past April, when 28 of the world’s leading chefs paid their own way to New York City to cook for him on the eve of his restaurant’s 11th anniversary. “Wylie was one of the first chefs to put the research, the experimental stuff, the laboratory, within the American debate. He’s 100 percent honest, true to his beliefs; he doesn’t play the game.”

Dufresne began working in restaurants when he was 11, earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Colby College in Maine, and followed that up with a culinary arts degree from The International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in New York City. He worked for Alfred Portale and then with Jean-Georges Vongerichten for five years. In 1999 he became the chef at the restaurant of his father, Dewey: 71 Clinton Fresh Food, on the Lower East Side, where he had grown up. There, his contemporary American cuisine was already bringing diners from all over to a part of town previously not known for fine dining, unquestionably establishing the solid restaurant scene of the neighborhood today.

In April 2003 Dufresne opened wd~50, just a few doors down on Clinton Street, where he earned a Michelin star, three stars from the New York Times, and the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef, New York City. It took 10 years for another restaurant to follow: Alder, a more casual version of wd~50 but with the same thinking and approach to food.

Dufresne’s stellar reputation among his peers comes in no small part from the learning and teaching he encourages in his kitchen. “If you worked there, you were expected to be able to process everything and explain it, which a lot of chefs are not used to; they can’t tell you the why,” says Rosio Sanchez, the pastry chef at Noma in Copenhagen who spent three years as pastry cook at wd~50. “He also teaches you to not be afraid to fail in whatever you’re trying. It’s an amazing place to be.”

“I want people who leave my kitchen to say, ‘My time at wd made me think,’” Dufresne says. “I want cooks to think about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it the way they’re doing it, whether they could do it better. I’m proud of the fact that at both restaurants, cooks can contribute.”

Dufresne is often called a chef’s chef—perhaps because of his refusal to compromise—he marks a commitment to his craft best understood by his peers. He’s a cerebral cook whose complex cuisine walks the line between geeky and fun. “I hope that we helped people understand a little bit more about what we do, that we created delicious food, a methodology that can endure, a place where continuing education can endure,” Dufresne says of what he hopes his legacy will be. “There’s an infinite amount to learn. I hope that we’ve added to the dialogue, that we’ve left it a little bit better than we found it.”