In part two of our interview with Wylie Dufresne (part one here), the chef continues to think back and look ahead: he describes how New York has never fully embraced his restaurant, explains his goals for wd-50, and quietly but assuredly declares that he's ready to expand and to write a cookbook.
How would you assess how New York has approached this restaurant? I'd argue that a place like this, for whatever reasons, has a harder time surviving here than it would in another big, cosmopolitan food town.
I would agree with that 100 per cent.
Why do you think so?
I think it's because New Yorkers are used to getting exactly what they want, and I don't think you always get exactly what you want here. There's flexibility and there's give, but like I said, you can't come here and say, "I want a salad, some steamed veggies, and I've got to be out of here in 45 minutes." I'm getting better at finding that middle ground, though, like I described.
However, I will say that when I started this restaurant, I thought New York was going to say that, "We as a city not only need one restaurant like this, but many." There are tiny cities in other countries that have a half dozen restaurants in a similar style. Not similar food exactly, but similar aspirations and inspirations. I thought New York would say, "We're a world class food city, so we have to have that, too."
New York is tough. There is a reason they say if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, and all that other bullshit. This city makes you work for it and really earn it.
I've been successful here and feel very proud of what we've done and continue to do, and I don't have any real regrets. I think we've made a contribution to the city and to the world. We've left our mark. That was my goal: to contribute to this industry. We've left a body of work behind — we're not done yet — but I can close tomorrow and look back and realize we've had a positive effect. We've contributed to the information that's out there, the styles of cooking, helping put America on the map.
To circle back, though, I thought there would be a bunch of chefs that would be doing this thing in New York. I think they saw what happened to wd-50 and decided it would be too much of a challenge. There were chefs that I thought would go a more modern route.
I don't want to name names, since I think that should come from their mouths, but I think that they saw the licks that we got. The city didn't give us a big hug at the beginning, and by your admission, it's not fully embraced. You can comb the blogs and things like that, and there isn't overwhelming enthusiasm for this. But again, for the reasons I've outlined, I feel like it's a success. Finances are not the only barometer.
Well, at least you're still in business.
Exactly. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that I have really good partners that understand and appreciate what we're doing here. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] and Phil Suarez are very successful restaurateurs, and I'm like some offshoot of Harvey Weinstein's empire that adds some color.
You just used the word "aspirations." What are yours now compared to the beginning of wd-50?
My aspirations remain kind of simple and the same: to continue to make this restaurant a world-class restaurant and to continue to do the best we can. I think it's unrealistic to say I want this to be the best restaurant in the world, because I'll never be the best sushi restaurant in the world or the best Indian restaurant in the world or the best Italian restaurant in the world. And I don't want to be the best molecular gastronomy restaurant in the world, because that just sounds awful.
I just want it to be the case that if someone says to you, "Hey, Gabe, what were some of the best meals you had last year," you'll say that your meal at wd-50 was really delicious, awesome, and super cool. That it was casual, unlike some of the temples of gastronomy around the world. I could come in wearing my beanie, sit in a dining room where there's a girl in her prom dress, a guy in his tuxedo, and another in a Hawaiian shirt all having a blast. It was unexpected, it made you smile, and above all, it was fucking delicious. That's my goal.
Maybe that's part of my problem, this everyman approach to dining, cooking. It causes certain people to struggle with the identity of the place, perhaps. What is it? Fancy food in a casual environment? But I really don't want it to be hushed, I don't want people to be intimidated by the servers, I want it to be fun and delicious. Maybe that's confusing.
You've never written a cookbook. Why?
For a long time, I didn't think we had enough to say. I have strong feelings about cookbooks, because I am a lover of them and student of them and devourer of them and collect them. I find them to be a great source of inspiration. When I was a cook and not making much money, I always used to spend most of what I had on cookbooks.
I didn't feel like we had amassed enough of a body of work, but now, I feel like we have. I would like to at some point do a cookbook. I feel like we've made a difference — I see enough of our ideas being used elsewhere and I feel good about everything looking back.
I've seen cookbooks from lots of great chefs that have been disappointing. A book, to me, it has to have a story. Some of these people, they open a restaurant and one year later there's a cookbook. There's not much of a story yet. I've been on this block since 1998, and there is a story to tell. Maybe that's not fair for me to say, but that's the way I see it.
You haven't tried to expand, either, which would probably have eased things up here. Why?
That would probably be a good way to subsidize or sustain this, and I have a couple of ideas in my head.
Are you opposed to the idea, though?
At this point, no. For a long time I just wanted to focus my energy on this. The restaurant is on a good path and we have a good groove. We have a chef de cuisine, which we didn't have in the past. We have an infrastructure that would allow me some time to dedicate to something else, which is something I'd like to pursue at some point. I don't have a space to go to or breaking news for you, but I am open to it.
Also, I've become a parent in the last couple of years, and you know, there's another mouth to feed and all that corny stuff. It's not just for that reason, obviously, but because I have a couple of good ideas in my head that I'd like to develop. You know, this restaurant was always a great outlet for creativity and it still is. If I have an idea, I can always get it out here, but there are some things that don't exactly fit the format, and I hope to be able to pursue them at some point.