Wylie Dufresne looks like an aging refugee from Boney Legs Thompson and the Married Cousins Blues Review. But with output like Pickled Beef Tongue with Fried Mayonnaise and Carrot-Coconut Sunnyside-Up, you can be sure baby-backs and slaw are not on the menu. As chef and owner of wd~50 in New York, he is one of the more visible and celebrated chefs in the United States. Known for his innovative cuisine that incorporates the techniques of molecular gastronomy, he has won numerous awards, has more TV appearances than the Geico Gecko, and his restaurant gets the stamp of approval from Michelin, Guyot, and the New York Times as one of the best restaurants in New York City, the culinary capital of the U.S.
Yet, as this interview shows, he struggles to keep his business afloat.
In an interview last year, René Redzepi described how even though you’re working in one of the great cosmopolitan cities and are a respected and celebrated chef, you’re pretty much in your own little world, struggling to survive. Would you agree with that?
That’s accurate. Nine years into it.
Is it precarious?
Sure. Breaking even sucks! [laughs] That’s a hard way to make a living, because you’re not really making a living. You’re just skating by.
This is a testament to how conservative we are as a nation when it comes to what we eat, a conservatism perhaps born of inattention and habit, although there may be a more powerful constraint at work.
Not to bang on about the question of alienation and not being a safe restaurant, but I don’t think the majority of people go out to dinner hoping to see a chef express himself, and you probably have had to deal with that.
You raise a very good point. I don’t like the term “dinner as theater,” because that implies something thespian that I don’t want to tie into this, but there are plenty of times that people go out to dinner because they want to have an experience. There are, however, probably many more times that people go out to eat because it’s 7 o’clock and it’s time to eat.
Habits are important and food habits are among the most comforting habits we enact. Yet when practiced blindly they can be stultifying, making life less than it can be. Going out to eat “because it’s 7 o’clock and it’s time to eat” is a concession to boredom and ennui. When we seek out music or visual arts we expect artists to express themselves. But we prefer gelded chefs whose creativity is safely confined to minor variations on tradition.
It is as if expressive chefs, unlike musicians or painters, violate a more personal domain, a domain with its own rhythms and moods, over which we are more reluctant to cede control to a stranger.
This is an obstacle to the acceptance of culinary art as a genuine art.