"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.'"
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."
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.