Two weeks ago, 28 high-profile chefs from across the world gathered in New York City to celebrate the career of one of their peers: Wylie Dufresne. It was yet another performance art project from Gelinaz!, an international group of chefs/pranksters that describes itself as dedicated to "transgressing the borders of the already existing territories in cooking." But for Dufresne — who was also celebrating the 11-year anniversary of his iconic wd~50 and one-year anniversary of Alder — it was "a highlight if not the highlight" of his professional career.
Dufresne chatted with Eater by telephone earlier this week about the Gelinaz! tribute dinner, what it has meant to him to be part of an international community of chefs, and how he sees this as "sort of a modern extension of what was going on in France" when chefs like Alain Chapel, Alain Ducasse, and Joel Robuchon gathered for chef summits. He also talks a little bit about his decision to join Twitter, and the steep learning curve of opening his second restaurant.
So what was that moment of surprise like for you?
They got me down to the restaurant under a ruse of electrical issues, which didn't seem hard to believe, unfortunately. After owning a restaurant for 11 years, you sort of make peace with those possibilities. So I got out of a taxi and was walking toward the restaurant and my father was waiting for me out front, which never happens. And then I saw that the windows were papered over and I thought, well, that also is not typically what happens when you have a power outage. So at the moment I knew something was up, but I really had no idea what was up.
[My dad] walked me inside and I could see the lights were out, and I began to see silhouettes of people, but I had no idea who they were. And I also didn't know how many people were there. As soon as I walked in, the video started playing, and I don't remember exactly who said, "Sit down," but I sat down and suddenly I realized I was sitting next to Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] and Phil Suarez and Padma [Lakshmi] and I thought, what is going on? I had no idea. I mean, it turns out to be coincidental that the next day was our 11-year anniversary. But in my mind I was thinking, "Is this somehow tied into it?" But none of these people had been part of any previous celebration, so I didn't really know what was going on.
It wasn't tied into the anniversary?
I'm not clear on that still to this day. I think it was a coincidence that it happened to be our 11-year anniversary celebration as well as a Gelinaz! thing. Many, many, many months prior, more like a year prior, there had been talk about doing a Gelinaz! event. Andrea Petrini had said, "We want to do 'Gelinaz! plays Wylie Dufresne' in New York," and I said great. It was originally supposed to be the previous October and, as it approached, he called me and said, "Look, we're going to have to move it to April." And then he called me and said, "It's not going to happen."
I don't know where the truth ends and the ruse begins.
I don't know where the truth ends and the ruse begins. Maybe this was their intention all along. Obviously, I'm the last to know. Everybody left the next day, so I didn't get a chance to catch up with everybody. I mean, they [originally] hired an event planner to help Gelinaz! find a space to do its event, and I went to a bunch of event spaces in Brooklyn. Again, I don't know if part of that was a ruse or if at one point the theme changed. I can't imagine that this party planner was in on the ruse. But maybe. I don't trust anybody anymore.
Gelinaz! tribute to Wylie Dufresne. [Photos: Hillary Dixler/Eater.com]
I bet. Well, was the event that you and Andrea had talked about supposed to be just like this one?
That's what Gelinaz! does. Gelinaz! takes a dish, an iconic, a classic, a famous dish of a particular chef and has a group of other chefs "remix" it, as Andrea likes to say. I was part of a Gelinaz! event at Noma in 2007, I think. We were replaying a classic dish of René [Redzepi]'s. When Andrea and I were talking about it, he said, "Pick three dishes, and we'll narrow it down and pick one of them." That became the first course of the meal and one of three things that any of these chefs could riff off of.
Again, it's hard for me to know where the truth ends and the prank begins. But, to my knowledge, there was actually an event planned. This is the first time they've done it where it's been a surprise. They've done it many times before where chefs have played a version or riffed on a version of another chef's classic dish.
Like you mentioned, I was thinking it was great those guys all came out for you, but also kind of too bad you didn't get to spend more time with them.
No, I was blown away, and I'm still blown away, and I'm still trying to process how to thank them en masse. I wrote each of them a thank-you note by hand, but I'm trying to think of something I could do for each of them because they all paid their own way to get here, which is incredible.
In terms of my professional career, this is certainly a highlight if not the highlight.
But I wish I could have hung out with them. They were all in the city for a couple of days, and many of them are friends of mine, and I would have loved to have seen them. It's like when you get married. You can remember the night, but some of the specifics get fuzzy because you're just kind of overwhelmed and floating, and a little bit out of body. It was like that. I mean, obviously my wedding was a bigger day in my life, but in terms of my professional career, this is certainly a highlight if not the highlight. All I ever wanted was to have the respect of my peers. That's all I ever hoped for. And to have those people come from so far and do this, I guess, means that I'm at least heading in that direction. Honestly, that's all that I had ever hoped to achieve as a chef. I'm blown away by the efforts of these people.
At the end, I was in the kitchen and they were like, "Give a speech." I think back and I'm like, "Jeez, I wish I could do that over again." It wasn't my best. It was a lot like the toast my wife and I gave at our wedding. We are not speech people and we wanted to thank everybody, but it wasn't smooth like it could have been. It wasn't like when you're at someone else's wedding, you've thought it through and made it crisp. It's off-the-cuff and you've had a few drinks and you're in this euphoria and you're just not in your best public speaking moment. It's not to say you're not overwhelmed with appreciation and joy and enthusiasm, but you're just kind of like, "Whoa, this is just so heavy." And because it was a surprise, you're even more unprepared. What do I say?
wd~50, New York City. [Photo: Official]
What has being part of this international community meant for you over the years?
I think it's great. People always joke about, oh, when you become a chef you're in a fraternity — and I don't mean fraternity in a masculine way, just that you're in a club — you've joined this club that is sort of universal. You can go anywhere in the world and there's somewhat of a common language and you're part of this group. It's not just lip-service, it's true. It's amazing. You see these people at events and certainly you see them at their restaurants if you have the opportunity to dine in their restaurants. But it's just cool that I've been able to get to know some of these people.
I get the feeling that it's sort of a modern extension of what was going on in France.
I get the feeling that it's sort of a modern extension of what was going on in France. I remember working for Jean-Georges and seeing pictures of big brigades of people getting together at these events and hearing stories of Alain Chapel and [Alain] Ducasse and [Joel] Robuchon getting together at these amazing events and someday hoping that opportunity would come my way. To just stand there and talk to Alex Atala — part of the ruse was my partner took me skeet shooting that morning — so talking to Alex Atala about that was so cool. Or René and I reminiscing about the fact that we had done this in 2007.
Suddenly you realize you have this camaraderie with these people, not people you necessarily knew when you were younger. You've grown up at the same time as they have and you've heard about them, but then you got to meet them. And it's cool you get to have, in a way, almost like a new group of friends. I feel very lucky to know a lot of these people. Because, you know, chefs are incredibly generous people as a species. They understand hospitality, they understand the notion of giving: giving of themselves, giving of their restaurants, presenting people with their food. That's chefs at their best, when they're giving. Here are these people giving of their time.
It seems like the roster is growing with each event. Is that club trying to bring in more people?
I think so. Again, it's fun, you're getting together, you're taking the piss out of each other, but you're having some drinks and you're celebrating each other. It's a very, very positive environment. And there were some people at that event that I didn't know that well at all, that I knew from reading about them. It's cool that, like you said, the group is ever-expanding. Yes, I get to see Magnus [Nilsson] and René and Claude Bosi and Daniel Patterson, and even Dave Chang, who is a dear friend and sometimes it seems like I see him more at events than I see him in Manhattan.
These are cherished moments for me. Everybody's pitching in. You're never just standing in a corner like, "Oh, I've finished my course, good luck to the rest of you." It's like, "Hey, what can I do?" That's been the case for as long as I can remember. When I was a cook and Jean-Georges would take me to events and you'd see him or Daniel [Boulud] or [Eric] Ripert or somebody just jump in and go, "Okay, what can we do now?" or "Wylie, get over there and help them." It's just really, there's a good vibe, a good energy.
And now you have joined Twitter, too. Was that prompted at all by seeing these guys?
Riding in Ferran Adria's wake never hurts.
Well, there has long been a poking and a prodding and a cajoling by many people for me to modernize. So I saw that as a perfect moment to sort of say, "Hey look, this is kind of neat and let me begin the thank-you process by using this form of communication." There's a lot of people who said I'm extremely late to the curve. Obviously I didn't plan this, but it was quite convenient that Ferran [Adria] joined that same day. Riding in his wake never hurts. I think that was a happy accident that I was a beneficiary of. But that's a whole 'nother conversation. I keep forgetting. I think I've only got four tweets so far, so I certainly haven't mastered it yet.
Alder, New York City. [Photo: Official]
Do you think Twitter and Instagram and these social media things, are they a necessity now?
I'm not the person to ask because I'm pretty late to the party and as green as you can get at it. I'm not maximizing my potential or my restaurants' potential with it. But, like I said, a lot of people have been telling me that it was time to get with it. I don't feel prepared yet to speak to the value of it because I'm still learning to actually navigate my phone. I'm still making sure that I hit the right buttons, forget about content. I suffer from a bit of Ludditism with regard to computers.
And finally, now that you have celebrated 11 years at wd~50 and you've got one under your belt with Alder, how are you feeling with the way they're both going right now?
Great. Within 10 days of wd's 11 years, Alder celebrated its one year. I'm incredibly proud of what we've accomplished here at Alder. The team here is amazing, the crew is great. [Executive chef] Jon [Bignelli] and [bar director] Kevin [Denton], Siobhan [Lowe] our GM and everybody else. It's a great group and I'm really proud of what we've done and hopefully this isn't the end of our story.
I mean, it took me 10 years to open a second restaurant. I'm not going to wait another 10. I'm getting too old. I can't open one every 10 years.
Do you already have thoughts for another one?
I certainly have some ideas that I think would be fun to explore, so we'll see where that takes us.
And what have you learned over the past year in terms of balancing the two restaurants?
There's been a tremendous learning curve there. I'm not an expert at more than one and I don't even know that I'm an expert at one, but I certainly feel like I was getting the hang of it. But two is something I'm still learning [about] how to split myself in half and how to cede control to certain people because you have to in order to grow and expand. You have to let the people below you spread their wings a little bit and do their thing. You still have to try to figure out ways to inspire them and lead them and encourage them. I don't want to lose the people I have.
The learning curve has been very steep with opening a second restaurant.
The learning curve has been very steep with opening a second restaurant. And obviously when you wait 10 years between restaurants, a lot changes. All the things that I thought I knew about opening a restaurant was old information. People that open restaurants with more regularity are a little bit more current.
Oh like computer systems, processes, everything. Ten years is a long time in restaurant years. It's like dog years. Things have changed. Rules and regulations, the nature of the game, the climate, the dining community, what people want. Again, I'm very proud of what we've done here at Alder and I think we've really achieved a lot of our goals. I'm very pleased with where we are right now.
Like I said, the team here is great and they've done an amazing job. I feel lucky that I have good people at both places. wd is 11 years on and we have an amazing chef over there, [Sam Henderson]. She's kind of a quiet chef, but she's doing amazing things. I'd like to hear more people talk about her, too. But that's another story for another time maybe.