A Wylie ap­pren­tice

Div­ing in at the deep end at a New York in­sti­tu­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - LAU­REN SHOCKEY

DE­SPITE its cut­ting-edge rep­u­ta­tion in New York City and be­yond, wd~50 restau­rant is marked only by a blink-andyou’ll-miss-it sign in red and blue neon lights in its win­dow.

For­merly the lo­ca­tion of a di­lap­i­dated deli, the restau­rant helped pi­o­neer the trans­for­ma­tion of the once gritty Lower East Side into a play­ground for hip­sters (and op­por­tunis­tic real-es­tate agents).

Wylie Dufresne, its chef and owner, grad­u­ated from Colby Col­lege in 1992 with a de­gree in phi­los­o­phy and the dream of, but not the physique for, a ca­reer in base­ball. Like me, he en­rolled in the French Culi­nary In­sti­tute soon af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Af­ter­wards he worked at JoJo, celebrity chef Jean-Ge­orges Von­gerichten’s place-to-be-seen in the 1990s, and still a safe bet to take a vis­it­ing great-aunt afraid to leave the safe and ster­ile con­fines of the Up­per East Side.

Dufresne struck gold when he ven­tured out on his own (with the fi­nan­cial back­ing of both Von­gerichten and Dewey Dufresne, his dad) at 71 Clin­ton Fresh Food. My mouth still waters when I think about the seared scal­lops over lentils that I ate there on my 18th birth­day. Even then, I could tell that Dufresne was spe­cial.

In 2003, with the help of his busi­ness part­ners, he opened wd~50, a small restau­rant whose name is an amal­gam of his ini­tials and the ad­dress, 50 Clin­ton St.

As I walked the short dis­tance from my apart­ment on Es­sex Street to wd~50, I reread the con­fir­ma­tion letter I had re­ceived: ‘‘You will be ex­pected to ar­rive at work promptly at 1pm on each day of your stage, and to work un­til the end of ser­vice, which may be as late as 2am. You are ex­pected to bring a baker’s hat, a set of knives . . . and a pair of shoes suit­able for kitchen work.’’ Al­though the letter stated the restau­rant would pro­vide me with uni­forms, I packed my own just in case.

‘‘Hi, I’m here for a stage,’’ I said to the re­cep­tion­ist once I ar­rived. ‘ ‘ OK, go back to the kitchen. Some­one there will help you,’’ she said, mo­tion­ing be­hind her.

I looked around, think­ing this was not the sort of place that looked like it sold $ 30 entrees. There were no table­cloths or chan­de­liers or fancy art­work, ex­cept for a large mar­ble slab span­ning nearly the en­tire length of one wall. A com­mu­nal red leather ban­quette di­vided the room in two, sep­a­rat­ing the three pri­vate booths used for larger par­ties from the main part of the din­ing room.

Each wall was painted in a dif­fer­ent shade of red, blue and green, il­lu­mi­nated by whim­si­cal, mul­ti­coloured hang­ing glass light fix­tures. The fire­place in the cor­ner and the ex­posed ceil­ing beams added a touch of faux rus­tic.

I walked into the mod­estly sized rec­tan­gu­lar kitchen, which was par­tially open to the din­ing room and stood next to a large, cus­tombuilt stove.

A tall, broad-shoul­dered chef with a full mop of curly hair and an elab­o­rate tat­too creep­ing out from un­der his jacket sleeve in­tro­duced him­self as Drew.

As he showed me around, he ex­plained that Dufresne and Claire, the only fe­male cook who didn’t work in the pas­try kitchen, ran the fish sta­tion on the left side of the stove, while he and Brian worked the meat sta­tion on the right. Each side had a ded­i­cated space on top of the stove for cook­ing. To the left of the fish sta­tion was an aisle where the servers de­posited dirty dishes for wash­ing in the back cor­ner with­out get­ting in the way of the cooks.

And along this aisle was the piece de re­sis­tance: the ‘ ‘ spice shelves’’. Rows of white plas­tic con­tain­ers with screw-off lids were stacked on top of one an­other, dis­play­ing la­bels de­mar­cat­ing chem­i­cal for­mu­las and names like hex­ophos­phate, N-Zor­bit, sodium al­gi­nate, gel­lan low and methyl­cel­lu­lose.

Though I spot­ted reg­u­lar kitchen sta­ples such as steel-cut oat­meal, dried pasta, corn­starch and kosher salt, this part of the kitchen re­sem­bled a col­lege chem­istry lab more than a restau­rant.

Of course, this was what made wd~50 unique and why I’d wanted so much to be here. These bizarre in­gre­di­ents al­lowed the cooks to transform may­on­naise into a fried food and yuzu juice into a thick gel, and to glue skirt steaks to­gether into a sin­gle fil­let. But I was ap­pre­hen­sive. Science was never my strong suit; how on earth was I ever go­ing to re­mem­ber the dif­fer­ence be­tween Ul­tra-Sperse 3 and Ul­tra-Tex 3?

Drew led medowna stair­case to an­other kitchen, this one en­clos­ing a small pas­try kitchen in the mid­dle. ‘ ‘ This is Lau­ren. She’s go­ing to be stag­ing with us,’’ Drew said as we ap­proached an­other chef, tall, tanned and lanky like a Cal­i­for­nia surfer.

‘‘Hi. I’m Brian, the sous-chef,’’ he said, be­fore lead­ing me into a nar­row walk-in re­frig­er­a­tor hous­ing the restau­rant’s pro­duce, meats, and per­ish­able foods.

‘‘Mise en place for meat, garde manger. Fruits and veg­eta­bles in these bins. In the Lex­ans here, we have fish, and in the bus tubs, meat,’’ he said.

Ev­ery plas­tic con­tainer in the walk-in was la­belled with green pain­ter’s tape, de­not­ing its con­tents and the date it was packed.

Next, Brian walked me to the dry stor­age closet, which held the real spices. Plas­tic con­tain­ers bulging with co­rian­der and yel­low mus­tard seeds stood be­side smaller con­tain­ers of curry powders, cin­na­mon and poppy seeds, and rarer flavour­ings like house-made lime powder and shichimi tog­a­rashi, a Ja­panese spice blend the restau­rant used to sea­son oc­to­pus be­fore it was made into a ter­rine ap­pe­tiser.

The air in the closet smelled earthy and com­plex, like the pages of an old and well-worn recipe book. Nuts and grains were grouped in smaller clear plas­tic con­tain­ers called Cam­bros, along with in­gre­di­ents like tomato powder, dev­illed egg powder, ama­ranth, pale green bam­boo rice, dried white figs and chicory.

But I noted with a smile that along­side the ar­gan oil and dried but­ter­milk powder sat Heinz ketchup, Tabasco sauce, and Lea & Per­rins Worces­ter­shire sauce. And, as I learned early on, the re­frig­er­a­tor al­ways held Wylie’s favourite food: blocks of sliced pro­cessed Amer­i­can cheese.

Af­ter the tour, Brian steered me back into the prep kitchen and in­tro­duced me to a pubescent­look­ing cook whose wiry brown curls peeped out from un­der­neath his white cap. ‘‘This is Jared, the man who runs the show down here. You’ll be spend­ing a lot of time to­gether,’’ he said. I nod­ded.

‘‘Let’s get started, then,’’ Jared said. ‘‘Take out your chef’s knife and a par­ing knife, but leave the rest of the stuff in your knife roll. You can put it on the shelf above the meat slicer.’’

I did as he said and took a deep breath. I was ready to cook. This is an edited ex­tract from Four Kitchens by Lau­ren Shockey (Ha­chette Aus­tralia, $32.99).

GETTY IM­AGES

The cut­ting-edge wd~50 has helped transform New York’s gritty Lower East Side into a play­ground for hip­sters

TRAVIS HUGGETT

Wylie Dufresne, chef and owner of wd~50

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