Every summer since he was 11 years old Wylie Dufresne was surrounded by food. From the lobster shacks of Cape Cod, Mass., to formal dining rooms of Rhode Island, where he grew up, Dufresne worked in the food industry. But it was only during his senior year of college that "it clicked."
Like most young men he had dreamed about becoming a professional athlete, but he began to realize that his greatest gifts were in the kitchen, not on the baseball field.
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"I came to the realization that the joy, the rush, the excitement, the whole process of cooking was very similar to playing team sports. And [in] all of this -- all of the reactions, the emotions, the feelings I was having as I was getting to work really early, running around like a lunatic, which felt like practice, getting ready for dinner service, which felt like a game, working with a group of people towards a common goal -- there was a chef, or a coach," he said.
After finishing college Dufresne enrolled in the French Culinary Institute and then began working at JoJo, described by New York Magazine as a "glorified tearoom" where "chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten stunned gourmands with his herbal essences, vegetable sauces and gossamer desserts."
His relationship with Vongerichten would continue throughout his career.
After spending a few years at JoJo he worked at Jean Georges when it first opened, eventually becoming the sous chef.
"You can always tell a young cook from a more experienced cook," Dufresne said. "Their arms are all burned. There's Band-aids on all the fingers. You wake up and your hands are sore and your back is aching and all that. And imagine, again, much the same way any athlete feels after a long hard day's work. But again I can understand why someone would want to wake up on Monday morning after a day playing football on Sunday, you know, and be happy even though it hurt like hell. And maybe the first thing you had to do is grab a pack of ice. I can understand loving that. I get it."
Continuing to work for Vongerichten, Dufresne traveled to Las Vegas where he was promoted to chef de cuisine at Prime in the Bellagio. His next move brought him back to New York where he worked as first chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food where his father, Dewey, a restaurateur, was a partner.
Then, in April 2003 Dufresne partnered with Vongerichten to open wd~50, a name incorporating Dufresne's initials and the street address of the restaurant.
Staying Afloat in a Down Economy
As it has for most businesses, the recession has affected wd~50. It's a tough time to be a small-business owner. With eight years left on the lease Dufresne is hoping the restaurant will be able to ride out this economic downturn.
"We've had to make cutbacks," he said. "We've cut our days, our hours of operations back. We're back to five days a week, two days we're closed. In order to entice people in here we're offering what we call the Bacchus Bailout. Anybody that comes in and orders a tasting menu, any bottle on the wine list is half price, which I think is a fair deal. At this point there's bargains on that wine list that you'll never see again in my, or your, lifetime, certain wines that are out there that simply can't be had at this price point, which I think is a great thing to offer people."
The business side of running a restaurant isn't what typically draws most chefs into the profession, especially because, in the beginning there isn't much money to be made. But eventually, with success, Dufresne said, "you have to realize that yeah it's much more than -- I'm not responsible for this little cutting board anymore and my mise en place and making sure I'm set up for service. I'm responsible for, at this point, upwards of 30 people's lives, livelihoods. And I have to make sure that I meet the demands of all of those things."
In Dufresne's World, the Egg Rules
Eggs are Dufresne's favorite food, so most of his earliest food memories revolve around omelets, scrambled eggs and brunch.
CLICK HERE for Dufresne's imaginative take on three common egg dishes.
"Well eggs are delicious, aren't they? I don't need to explain that. I mean eggs are fantastic. That's -- to me it's implicit," he said. "I know there are a lot of people that find them weird and creepy and smelly and texturally unpleasant. But I love eggs."
Aside from the taste, Dufresne is drawn to the egg's structure, and the numerous textural possibilities.
"Every now and then I find a new approach to working with eggs and it's just really exciting. But at the end of the day it's the taste, and I just find them unbelievably delicious," he said. "From the standpoint of a chef I think that eggs are fascinating in terms of -- there's the classic French approach that there's a thousand ways to prepare an egg. Every pleat in a chef's taupe represents another technique that a chef is supposed to know about how to prepare an egg. They're just really, they're fascinating from a technical standpoint. The way an egg behaves and what you can do to an egg and the various textures you can get. The fact that there's two parts to it, basically the yolk and the white. It gives you an incredible repertoire of things to work with."
So when Dufresne is at home, he has eggs. Every Sunday he and his wife, who is expecting a baby daughter, eat at a diner near their home where he has an omelet (American cheese is his "vice") and she orders poached eggs.
Manipulating Ingredients Through Molecular Gastronomy
Dufresne's ability to find complexity in what appears to be the simplest of foods developed into a love of molecular gastronomy, a term that he admits he doesn't necessarily like because it "doesn't sound very delicious," but allows for innovative experimentation and creativity in the kitchen.
Dufresne's food has often been recognized for its "wow factor," something that challenges him to keep thinking up new, fresh ideas, not only for his staff and his customers, but for himself.
"While I love and I appreciate and I come from a school where it's all about repetition and doing something over and over again until it becomes rote -- and I do think that's an important foundation to establish -- I enjoy the creative aspect of my job at this point," he said.
"That creativity is probably the best aspect of my job. I mean aside from the people I do it with and the place I do it in which I feel very fortunate about. But the fact that it's always changing is really fun," he said.
Familiar, yet Unusual
Dufresne's strategy requires learning as much as he possibly can about each of his ingredients before manipulating them.
"I know five different ways to filet and cook a piece of fish, but I don't know why one is better than the other because I don't know what's happening to the fish as it's in the pan or as it's in the pot of water or the steamer or the oven. I didn't know so I began to ask questions: What's happening to the food as it's being cooked," he said. "And you want to take that knowledge, that newfound knowledge, apply my creativity to it, and hopefully come up with some contribution to this industry."
And that process, of taking a familiar food and turning it into something both recognizable and unusual, is what Dufresne thrives on.
"When we can learn about a food, something simple like a green bean or an egg or a piece of a fish, it sounds maybe obvious but there's a lot we don't know about these things. And as we learn more about them it becomes exciting because that's what we do," he said. "And it's fun to be able to see how that translates to a dish in front of a diner, and how that person can respond and be excited and enthusiastic and ultimately say, 'Wow, that was delicious and clever and new and totally familiar and all these things all at once, and I can't wait to come back.'"
The Myth of Sisyphus
Ever modest, Dufresne shies away from compliments and self-promotion. He acknowledges that his work is complicated and somewhat expensive, yes, but points out that molecular gastronomy is no more laborious than other cooking styles, for example, the slow food movement.
And while he says the life of a chef can be difficult, requiring an enormous amount of personal sacrifice, he doesn't dwell on that fact.
"You know it's like the myth of Sisyphus," he said. "He pushes the rock up the hill every day and then it rolls back down, but you have to imagine that that's an enjoyable process and then it's not so bad. And I think that that's a good way of looking it. Yeah, that way is hard but if we love what we do then it's not so hard."
He maintains that he's a chef because he's "not good at anything else." The physical nature of cooking appealed to him: "working with my hands, getting sweaty, feeling exhausted" but also the "never-ending cycle of education."
"I like the fact that I'm learning all the time. I'm learning some stuff that people knew a hundred years ago, but I'm also learning new things, and that's really exciting," he said.
Although he's been nominated for both for "Best Chef" in New York City and "Best New Restaurant" by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, he is hesitant to label himself a pioneer in molecular gastronomy.
"We're certainly probably one of the first people in America to embrace this approach, but we weren't the first to embrace it period. So I don't know. Like everybody I draw my inspiration from those that come before me. I stand on the shoulders of all those other people. And you know to me it all seems like a logical progression -- where we are and where we're going and where we've come from. It all makes sense."
Competing With Himself
The celebrity chef is a relatively new phenomenon, one that he's still trying to get used to.
"The industry seems so different than it was even 10 years ago … the attention it's getting … everyone wants to be a chef now," he said.
And as for the explosion of bloggers, some of whom are celebrities in their own right, don't get him started. He says he doesn't mind critiques in a respected publication, but when a faceless person criticizes his restaurant on the Internet, "it stings."
"I want to get rid of all the blogs. The fact that everyone can be a critic, I think, is unfortunate. And I think that it seems to be a popular medium for people to be a critic in. But again I suppose, at some point the rules of engagement were you knew you had to be ready for various media forms to come in and write about you and be critical of you," he said. "And that was OK because that was implicit and that was part of the game. And now anybody can get online and say anonymously that wd~50 sucks. That's frustrating, that's disappointing, but you move beyond it, you get -- I would say five years ago you would have literally had to tie me to this chair to keep me from ranting about it. But I've hopefully matured and gotten a little thicker skinned and don't worry about those people quite as much as I used to."
Dufresne prefers to focus on healthy competition -- with himself. His goal? To execute what wd~50 set out to do in the first place: utilizing cutting-edge techniques to create unique dishes in many different cuisines.
"A restaurant is a place where people go to eat, but above and beyond that it can be a thousand different iterations," he said. "And I think all of them are fantastic and great, but as long as a restaurant does a good job at whatever it is it aspires to be, that's what a good restaurant is."