You could hear Les Claypool's bass outside of 50 Clinton Street, on New York's Lower East Side, even in the midst of a dreary afternoon rainstorm and with a jammed up line of frustrated cabs just steps from the doorway. Inside the address, there was an empty dining room, but in the back, a brigade of chefs worked as if the restaurant were full, preparing for the following evening's service while blasting tunes from someone's iPod. They played mostly Primus and Bloc Party.
The booth in the back — the one closest to wd-50's open kitchen — is where the restaurant's chef Wylie Dufresne met me for an interview. Here, in part one of the conversation (part two here), Dufresne discusses how he's matured, whether or not he worries about alienating diners with his progressive cooking, and the fact that he's still struggling to survive after nine years in business.
Do you or have you ever worried about alienating people with your cooking?
Doesn't every restaurant run that risk, where it might not be for you, depending on your mood or mindset? But granted, there are some places that are safer than others. I don't like to use the word "safe," since that implies that this restaurant is risky or dangerous, which it isn't. We're trying to express ourselves the same way every chef or artist or person doing something creative is trying to express themselves. And you know, there's more mainstream food and then there's food that's more like this [laughs].
Do you think about it, though?
I don't let that trouble me. I don't think about whom I'm alienating or not. We've been here almost nine years, and I've changed and matured and grown up and become more comfortable in my own skin. Lots of things have happened to me, and therefore to the restaurant.
What do you mean?
You know, I'm not standing on the soapbox and stomping my feet as much as I used to, but I never really was worried about alienating people. I've always taken a more optimistic approach: if you do something good, eventually there's going to be enough people to appreciate it.
The bottom line is that I've always believed that whatever we've done, regardless of how we've done it, has tasted good. That's the bottom line. You have to get past all that stuff and figure out, "Did that taste good?" I'd say that everything we've offered people — for the most part — has been delicious. I mean, I can step back nine years later and say, "That was a clunker," but everything I've put on the menu I've stood behind. I've never said, "That's not very good, let's put it on there." That is the crazy approach.
Would it be wrong to say it can be hit or miss?
Yeah, it can be hit or miss. To be honest, you have to look back and say, "That was not a great dish." But my evaluation of it comes from a different perspective than from you, the diner — technique-wise or balance-wise or this or that.
I can go downstairs and look at the list of every dish we've put up and go through them. I think it's important for anyone who is artistic to look back on their body of work and be critical. Maybe the Beatles can look back and say everything was perfect, but we've come up with hundreds and hundreds of dishes, and anyone who is honest with themselves has to realize that every single one wasn't an absolute, unequivocal home run.
Was every one the eggs benedict? No. You know, for the most part, I stand behind it. I don't want to say "for the most part," actually, because that sounds wishy-washy. I firmly believe it. My name's on the fucking door, you know what I mean?
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.
It's our job as a restaurant to decide if it's four guys in bonus season who want steak and red wine — and I'll want to provide that opportunity for them. I'm a businessman, too. I'm not a non-profit, I'm not the Guggenheim, and I'm not putting out stuff and saying, "Like it or don't like it." People are paying, so it's a balance. It's the restaurant's job to know that you're with your girlfriend, are in a celebratory mood, and want to do a tasting menu and have the full expression of what we can do. Or if you just want to eat.
As a restaurant, you have to navigate the full spectrum of customer relations. That's where I rely on my front of house critically to make a quick and abrupt evaluation of a table. We can accommodate both and everything in between. In my youth, I would have been like, "Fuck those people with laptops at the table that don't want to experience what I'm up to. I spent a lot of time getting to this place." Like I said, I think I've grown and matured and realized that you have to try to cater to all those people as best you can. I mean, if those four bankers come and enjoy their steak and red wine, odds are they'll spread good word of mouth. We're actually expanding our horizons by not putting on the blinders.
Is there anything you won't do?
I will try to accommodate you, but I have drawn my line in the sand before. You can't come here and say, "I would like to order a salad." Can they have a plate of steamed vegetables? That's a little harder to say "no" to, since we have vegetables, but we don't have salad. You know, I'm not going to fight someone if they just want a bowl of the bok choy that comes with a dish. You're biting off your nose to spite your face, and I'm trying to avoid that.
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.
Can you talk more about that?
It takes a lot of bodies to do what we do. It takes a lot of hands. I can control a lot of my cost, but my labor is a hard one. If we were full to the brim every night, seven days a week, 365 days a year, then maybe it wouldn't be so hard. But we have ups and downs, just like everybody. Like now, it's a tough time.
Yeah, it's precarious, sure, but I feel fortunate. I don't want to paint the picture of "poor me." I have a great office, I have great people that work with me, I have the respect of my peers, I have a fairly successful reputation, my name's in boldface on Eater now, and the restaurant holds a Michelin star and three New York Times stars. Little by little, I'm crossing things off the bucket list.
[Photo: Travis Huggett]