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.
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."