Like the interior of the dining room—a carefully designed mesh of metal, glass, and reclaimed wood—the food at WD-50 is “a mixture of old, salvaged concepts and new ideas integrated together,” says the restaurant's chef, Wylie Dufresne. Part of the vanguard of chefs serving a hi-tech style of cuisine often referred to as “molecular gastronomy,” Dufresne eschews the term, preferring to refer to his food as “modern American.”
"When I opened WD-50 seven years ago, my goal was to create a restaurant where I could continue my education," Dufresne says. His thirst for knowledge coupled with the mindset that there is no idea not worth exploring has led to some of the most innovative—and delicious—dishes on WD-50’s varied menu. “Learning classical French cuisine is a good starting point for a chef,” says Dufresne, who was trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, “but it’s not an ending point. I realized that with my own restaurant I could continue my education indefinitely.”
“I’ve always had questions, and over the years, I’ve discovered that often the best answers have to come from a field outside of classical cuisine," he says. Scientists working for industrial food-production companies have spent countless dollars on research developing modern gelling agents that allow for unprecedented control of texture or uniformity over a broad temperature range. The key is the willingness to separate these technologies from the world of processed foods and apply them to a single chef’s vision.
The results can be stunning: brightly colored sauces that hold together impossibly well on the plate; popcorn-flavored pudding as light on the palate as its real-life counterpart; layers of tender fried-chicken pressed and fused together into a single, tender piece of meat; peanut butter solidified and rolled into al dente tagliatelle.
“I try to instill a sense of discovery into each dish, engaging [diners] with things they might not notice on first glance but that become clear as they eat the dish.”
Oftentimes, inspiration for a dish will come from a single concept. Dufresne thought to himself, “Can I figure out a way to deep-fry hollandaise?” The problem was, hollandaise, a notoriously fickle sauce of butter and egg yolks, turns into scrambled eggs when overheated. In this case, the key to success lay not in modern techniques but in making a conceptual leap. “I realized that classical pastry cream is essentially a sweet hollandaise that’s heat-stabilized with starch,” Dufresne says. Adding starch allows it to remain stable even at the extreme temperatures in a deep-fryer.
“From there, the question is, what do you do with fried hollandaise?” The answer was obvious: eggs Benedict. Dufresne’s version involves a cylinder of egg yolk cooked in a water bath until it achieves a fudgelike consistency, hot hollandaise that gushes out of a shell of fried English muffin crumbs, and Canadian bacon served in paper-thin crisps. “All the elements are there, so it evokes the emotions involved with eggs Benedict—whatever those may be to you—while at the same time, it’s something completely new.”
As he talks, he reaches over to a table and grabs a notebook with the title “Ideas #9” scribbled on top. The pages are crammed with scribbles, diagrams, lists. “We catalog every idea every cook has ever had,” Dufresne says. “I see the kitchen as a social experiment. The perfect creative environment where people are free to think.” He likens the effect to a “sea of ideas” in which his role is that of conductor—to coax, guide, and shape those ideas into finished dishes. “Every single cook who has ever worked in this kitchen can say, ‘I’ve left my fingerprint here,’ or ‘that’s my signature there.’”
While there is no shortage of accolades for the creative flavor combinations (try parsley with bitters, or scallops with pine needles) or whimsical techniques (aerated foie gras, or soft scrambled eggs encased in egg yolks) that this type of recipe-development process has produced, there has been recent backlash from sections of the public that perceive this type of food as too modern, intellectual, cold, or disconnected from the earth. It’s a perception that has culminated in a wave of new restaurants offering food in a simpler, more rustic style. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding our techniques.”
“It’s not just tricks or smoke and mirrors. We start with the exact same high-quality ingredients that the so-called ‘ingredient-based,’ back-to-basics restaurants use. Our method is to discover as much as we can about those ingredients. We know more about eggs now than we did seven years ago—and we’re not supposed to use that knowledge?” he asks, likening it to a backlash against scientific education. “Would anybody suggest that we stop science right now? Stop teaching kids new things in school?”
He goes on: “If we’re going to reject innovation, reject modern techniques in cooking, reject change, then how far back do we go? Do we throw out our blenders? Baking powder? Our microwaves?” To his point, many techniques that were considered cutting edge when the restaurant first opened—cooking vacuum-sealed meat in a water bath, for example—have since become part of the accepted canon and are used at nearly every high-end restaurant in the country. “Remember,” he says, pointing out the arbitrariness of drawing technological lines in the sand, “even the oven was brand new at one point.”